Part Three: Shepherds
Faith is religion when believers maintain enough resources, financial and human, to perpetuate it. Religions depend on great leaders more than other organizations for their success, given they’re primarily in the business of hierarchy and obedience. More simply put: it’s so much easier to get people to do what you want them to if they like you.
Pope John Paul II was great at being likable. Handsome, intelligent, and personable, he improved the Church’s relationships with other faiths and traveled the world to preach to the global flock. (Often in their own language, which was a pretty cool trick.) He had a knack for helping take down bad governments: dictatorships in Chile, Paraguay and Haiti, and communism in Central and Eastern Europe. He survived two assassination attempts and publicly forgave his would-be killers. He even issued overdue public apologies for some serious Church wrongdoings, like that time it forgot to do something when Jews were being slaughtered during the Holocaust. JP2 was the embodiment of so much of what the Church wanted others to see it as: humble, global, dynamic, relevant, a team player. People loved him for it, and still do.
When JP2 died I thought the Church was screwed, not that the Church’s well-being was particularly important to a teenager five months away from starting college, but I still wanted good things for the faith. Worst case scenario was that it was going to be like when the Bond franchise went from Sean Connery to George Lazenby. Likely the best we could hope for was a Roger Moore, someone who would at at least keep the Church moving forward and modernizing.
If not the George Lazenby of popes, JP2‘s successor Pope Benedict XVI was certainly the Timothy Dalton of them. His view of the Catholic franchise was that it should hold as true to the written word as possible, with lackluster results. Prior to becoming pope, Benedict served as the “Defender of the Faith,” the individual responsible for ensuring Catholic dogma was clearly articulated and enacted. He had a great nickname to boot: “God’s Rottweiler,” which just screams willing to compromise and engage in meaningful dialogue.
The day Benedict made his official debut as il papa my Catholic high school gathered in the auditorium for the big reveal. Local tv stations were on hand to document the reaction of Catholic teens; awkward preppy kids in polos struggling to put sentences together and appear extremely religious made for compelling tv, apparently. Among the reactions to the new pope I heard from my peers were: “Aw, look at him! He’s so adorable!”, “Can we call him Benny?” and, my personal favorite, “Emperor Palpatine is our new pope?”
The physical resemblance to the dark lord of Star Wars was unfortunate, but Benedict’s ascension to the papacy also heralded a particularly dark and polarizing era in the Church. To his credit, Benedict spearheaded several significant initiatives to better address sexual abuse by clergy, including modification of canon law to allow both for a case-by-case waiving of the statute of limitations as well as a mechanism to quickly remove offenders from the clergy. But, of seemingly more importance to the Church during Benedict’s years as pope was doubling down on social issues. Quote Benedict, shortly after he became pope:
“The various forms of the dissolution of matrimony today, like free unions, trial marriages and going up to pseudo-matrimonies by people of the same sex, are rather expressions of an anarchic freedom that wrongly passes for true freedom of man…from here it becomes all the more clear how contrary it is to human love, to the profound vocation of man and woman, to systematically close their union to the gift of life, and even worse to suppress or tamper with the life that is born.”
Benedict thought women loving Jesus and God the same way men did was a pretty awful thing, too, on par with male priests’ sexual abuse of minors. As a statement issued by the Women’s Ordination Conference upon Benedict’s resignation of the papacy earlier this year succinctly summarizes:
“…during Pope Benedict’s tenure he declared women’s ordination the gravest crime against the Church, excommunicated all Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and personally had Fr. Roy Bourgeois dismissed from his Maryknoll community for supporting women priests.”
Benedict and John Paul II’s views on the social issues weren’t different, it’s just that JP2 was better at holding onto people who didn’t agree with the Church’s social positions through finding common ground. As long as people felt like the Church could be what they wanted and needed it to be, to a certain degree, they’d stick around. Benedict’s approach was less “find common ground” than it was “be a better Catholic.” A priest once told my class that the Church would prefer a smaller flock of true believers over a larger flock that wasn’t as dogmatically pure. Benedict confirmed this.
His successor, Pope Francis, would seem to disagree. Francis has crafted a wild card image for himself: he makes personal phone calls to troubled members of his flock, average Janes and Joses who write to him with their worries and hopes. Unless you’ve been completely off the radar this past month or so, you’ve almost certainly heard he said the church needs to tone down its attacks on contraception, gay marriage and abortion, and focus on being more inclusive.
Backing away from the flagship social issues is quite a statement for the head of most any Christian church, let alone the Catholic church, to make, unfortunately. More to the point, it’s a shrewd strategic move for the leader of a faith watching its ranks decrease to make, one designed in part to get people like me, who left the faith, to take a second look at coming back. For me, a second look is the farthest it’s gotten, because a second look shows that the church hasn’t actually changed in the areas in which I find it severely lacking: women’s autonomy over themselves, people’s right to love who they want regardless of their gender, and women being afforded the same opportunities as men. Last month Francis excommunicated a male priest who advocated for the inclusion of female priests, the first member of that archdiocese to be excommunicated for a reason other than pedophilia. Charming.
Really, though, Francis does seem very charming in many regards and I’m sure he’ll be well-loved. He may even be able to persuade a number of lapsed Catholics to come back to what seems like a nicer, friendlier Church that is more respectful of others’ views. Even if it isn’t. He’s a likable guy.