A Progressive Church that Connects?

E.J. Dionne has a suggestion about how to move the Catholic Church forward in the 21st Century:

The Vatican conclave should elect a nun as the next Bishop of Rome.   Even though Las Vegas odds makers have this probability at 0.00001%, Dionne weighed in with some interesting angles on the idea just for the sake of discussion, and I agree it’s a worthy discussion.

The Church has a numbers problem.  The number of men entering the Priesthood has been on the decline to the point where there are now over 1300 Catholics per Priest in the United States.  And the US is in better position than other parts of the world by an order of magnitude.

I haven’t been a weekly attendee since 1986, so my personal experiences are somewhat dated, but the fundamental reason I applaud Dionne for having the audacity to suggest improbable reform is I sensed parishioners desperately need a tangible way to connect with their leaders, and that’s been missing for decades.  The people I talk with are fascinated by the history of Rome and all its artifacts, but they seldom listen to the messages coming from the hierarchy.

The fact is, when the Priest isn’t looking, the whispers in the coffee and donut area paint a picture of Rome as a bunch of inflexible, out of touch old geezers.  Everyone wonders when someone will do something about the role of women in the Church, and why so much hub-bub about birth control.  Connection with your leaders is important in any organization, as is a shared vision.

Personal experience tells me that most practicing Catholics take little, if any, guidance from Rome when it comes to their personal lives, struggle with the more conservative teachings of the Church, but carry on just the same as practicing the faith with their local local Parish because they can connect at a local level.  This gives their lives additional meaning and purpose in spite of what the Church hierarchy has to say.

There are countless anti-birth control, pro choice, gay marriage supporting, “could care less about celibacy” Catholics attending Mass every week.  That’s got to be a tough pill to swallow for those parishioners when the guy at the pulpit is focusing on those particular messages.  I guess it’s just ignore for now and move on.  Indeed there is even a reform movement amongst Priests to attempt to change the celibacy rules and women’s role, but alas it falls on deaf ears every time.

The fact is, most people have inherited a belief system from our families and in most cases, this decision was made at infancy.  The was no objective choice involved in it.  Along the way we have not taken the effort to fully reconcile their personal, religious, and political beliefs, and the reason there is, it’s nearly impossible to complete the exercise successfully if you’re a practicing Catholic in the modern world.  To complete the exercise might result in the realization that if I get to be honest about it, maybe I’m not really on board with some of the basic tenets of the Church.  It’s certainly not reflected in my voting record, which is sort of where the rubber meets the road.  And then there’s figuring out what to do about that discovery.

Which brings me back to the hierarchy in Rome.  There’s a certain mystique about the flow of successors from St. Peter.  Papal visits as recent as Pope John Paul II have drawn enormous crowds in the hundreds of thousands of people, come to be near or touched by the chosen one.  As humans we tend to do that though.  There aren’t many organizations that span the entire world as the Catholic Church does.

So then the question is, what’s the real connection people have with the Pope? Obviously he can’t go on a continuous world tour, be there to say Mass for us every week and we don’t get to invite him over for dinner, so apart from getting himself a new Twitter handle (@pontifex), what is it that he can do to connect with his flock?

I’ve witnessed incredibly strong connections among Parishioners of several Churches and there is also sometimes a connection with the Priest as teacher, mentor, and friend.  To the extent he can deliver messages that touch our personal lives he will be successful in his job.  To the extent that he focuses on the more controversial subjects of our time, he starts to lose that connection.  Thankfully, Catholicism is not usually considered synonymous with fire and brimstone teachings.  I would characterize it as more of an intellectual endeavor for those who see richness in the traditions, find comfort in rote phrases, but not horribly intimate on a personal level as people usually keep to themselves.  It’s more unspoken – the sharing of the common bonds we have in all of our upbringings.  The values passed down from our parents that help us choose personal sacrifice over greed when we are able.

There are two themes of messages that come from the church in my own personal experience.  Quite coincidentally, there is an Old Testament and a New Testament and one can easily get confused about which message should get the most attention or guide us in the modern world.  The confusion comes about because people can’t decide if the focus should be on the the Old Testament God who frequently imposes his wrath on those who disobey his commandments with floods, drought, and pestilence, or his son Jesus who preached about humility, forgiveness, unselfishness, and love thy neighbor.

The Old Testament has many messages in it, but the one people tend to focus on the most is The Ten Commandments.  For those who’ve been indoctrinated, this is where self-discipline comes into play.  Self-discipline is a good thing of course, but the Church over-simplifies the “rules of the game” if you will.  Using the Old Testament as documented proof, they proclaim that a broken commandment will result in eternity in hell.  They are pretty clear about that.  Any questions?  No?  Okay, time for recess.

This is over-simplifying it greatly, but The New Testament is more about Jesus’ life and his message of do unto others.   In the context of the teachings of the Church, it’s much, much easier to connect with the teachings of the New Testament vs. The Old Testament.  When I think about The New Testament and its ideas coming into practice, I think about volunteering down at the Oregon Food Bank.  I think about how I should be donating more money to charity.  About social justice and how criminal it is that we have so many poor among us, especially children live in poverty.  About making personal sacrifices so that others can have a chance.

When I observe Catholics today, I have this tendency to put them into one of these two camps.  There’s the Bill O’Reilly / Sean Hannity / Laura Ingraham “Old Testament” conservative camp who often suggest, as they were taught, that if only we could just get everyone to adhere to the Ten Commandments and exercise more self discipline in our homes and schools, the world’s problems would be solved.  Also known as the “Strict Father” approach.  They often staunchly defend the more arcane teachings of the Church including birth control and abstinence, even though they don’t practice these teachings themselves.

The other camp is those who believe the Old Testament is an interesting collection of historical documents, but do not recognize it as their behavioral compass for the the 21st century.  They recognize the hierarchy in Rome but truth be told, they think it desperately needs change in the modern world. They are more focused on things like social justice and rolling up their sleeves to help the poor and adopting some of the more traits we identify with Jesus’ teachings.  These are the folks I can connect with the most.

It’s sort of baffling to think that these two extremes exist under the same roof, but they do every Sunday.  But it’s no wonder when one week the focus is from the Book of Leviticus and the next it’s the Gospel of Luke, the power of forgiveness and turning the other cheek.

Most baffling of all, is the O’Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh’s of the world and their never ending support for winner take all ‘pure capitalism’.  They seem to have no qualms what-so-ever about billionaires amassing grotesque fortunes while 2/3 of the world’s population goes unfed.  Is that God’s will?  Meanwhile they use their media pulpit to pontificate about the benefits of torture, the latest weapons program, unrestricted access to assault weapons for all, and cry blasphemy whenever cuts to the Defense Department are suggested.  This brand of Catholic, I simply do not get and probably never will.  All I can surmise is, they must have spent 10 weeks on the Old Testament in class, and about 5 minutes on the New Testament.

Circling back to Dionne’s suggestion of a nun as Pope and my main point that the people benefit the most when connected with their leaders, the very idea of having a modern day Mother Theresa as leader of the Church would energize the faithful more than anything else I can possibly imagine.  The connection would be instantaneous and powerful.  People can instantly identify with roll up their sleeves leadership who spend their lives in service to others, focusing more on what’s important today – feeding the world’s poor, ending violence, social justice.  The message would be 100 times more powerful because it’s not coming from someone cloaked in layers of robes and funny looking hats being driven around in a Pope-mobile perceived as someone whose priorities are completely out of whack, focusing on keeping the clergy an old boys club, only celibate men allowed, to the bitter end.

And speaking of the end, here’s my prediction.  The next Pope will indeed not be a nun.  He will instead be a conservative like his predecessor.  The number of Priests will continue to decline, and Churches around the world will adjust using whatever means they figure are reasonable, Rome be damned.

They will still gather, say Mass without a Priest, recite the Creed, give the sign of peace, sing hymns, have a Gospel reading, take communion, and carry on all of the traditions they were taught and pass them on to their children.  A few men in Rome will hold on to “power”, but very few people will care what they say or do.

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