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Of Popes And People

This week, I found myself breaking one of my own rules: no Facebook fights. I also broke another rule and spoke about an issue I rarely bring up in any kind of public forum – religion. It all stemmed from a status update. It was in reference to the summit of Church leaders in Rome concerning the current abuse scandal. I suggested changing the term ‘lapsed Catholic’ to ‘thinking Catholic’. One individual took umbrage. Not with my comment, but with Catholics and the idea of being Catholic.

I’m not about to stand and defend the institution of the Church. I can’t. Decades of sex abuse, cover-ups and denials renders the Church’s current position indefensible. Add to this centuries of bigoted doctrine against LGBTQ+ communities, antiquated and dangerous ecclesiastical pronouncements on sex and sex education, and literally more than a millennia subjugating the role of women in the Church, and who would defend such an organization?

The individual who launched the no-holds-bar thread attack pointed to all of this, and suggested that anyone who calls themselves a Catholic is by default tainted by the evils of the institutional church. Their argument did cause me to pause. I remembered an insight by the late great historian Tony Judt. Speaking about the insidious nature of communist rule in Europe Judt states, ‘It is not for any real or imagined crimes that people feel a sort of shame at having lived in and under communism, it is for their daily lies and infinite tiny compromises’. Judt had a point, and whether I liked it or not, so did this individual on my Facebook feed.

Someone once said, all that is required for evil to exist is for good people to do nothing. For centuries, the Church has been an imposing institution. To disagree could mean a charge of heresy, excommunication and death. Rules were written that reinforced this authority. Catholics were taught to obey priests, bishops and cardinals. To speak ill of a priest raised more suspicion of the accuser than examination of the accused. Something the revelations of thousands of sex abuse victims are now making abundantly clear. It is why my Facebook antagonist wasn’t just against the Church, but against Catholics for the role he sees them as playing in quietly acquiescing to an institution that, much like communism, practiced tyranny and called it liberty. So, why defend the individual Catholic or the Catholic faith?

It is important to understand that for many, their faith isn’t just something practiced on a Sunday in nice clothes – it’s a pillar of their identity. This is true across all religions. However, I think Catholicism holds within it a certain paradox. The religion, the rules and doctrine which have been written and rewritten over centuries, tells Catholics to obey. However, the Catholic faith is based on the story of an individual whose entire existences was rooted in rebellion. In this writers opinion, the institution of the Church has been at odds with this fundamental truth since the beginning. Which is where we start getting into the authority of the Church that has been abused and used to cover-up, deny and perpetrate evil down the centuries.

The idea of the papacy, and it’s authority, was founded on a conversation Jesus had with his disciple, Simon Peter. In a quiet moment, Jesus told Peter that ‘he would be the rock’ upon which Christ would build his church. This line has been the justification for the succession of every pope in the history of the Catholic Church – but is it what Jesus actually meant?

Think about who Simon Peter was. For those unfamiliar, he was Jesus’ right-hand man (personally, I think Jesus’ right-hand ‘man’ was actually Mary Magdalene, but that’s another hornet’s nest). Peter was also hot-tempered. He sliced off the ear of a Roman soldier when they came to arrest Jesus in the garden – something that could have risked the lives of everyone present. He also denied Jesus – three times! Aside from Judas, Simon Peter’s track record isn’t looking the best, but maybe that’s the point. Jesus wasn’t saying that he was building his Church on Peter cause he was ‘the best’, but because he was the most human. Going further, maybe Christ wasn’t talking about Peter at all – but about humanity. If this is so, what does that make the Pope?

If you hadn’t notice yet, I’ve been separating the parallel ideas of religion and faith. To me, religion is a set of practices meant to reinforce faith. Faith itself stands alone, and is deeply personal. Faith, as an experience, is like a spiritual fingerprint – no two are identical. The idea that faith is something that can exist separate of the Roman Catholic Church is an idea that no doubt would make many bishops nervous. It should. It’s also a reality many Catholics are coming to understand, and one my Facebook pal seemed not to be able to grasp. You could knock down all the churches, get rid of all the bishops, but you’d still have a Catholic faith.

More and more Catholics are stepping away from weekly mass. The abuse scandal, and the continued denials have taken their toll. It is here that my comment, and the perceived authority of the church come together. With regards to my original comment about ‘lapsed’ and ‘thinking’ catholics, the term ‘lapsed’ is applied to those the Church would consider, ‘bad catholics’ or to use the official phrase – those, ‘not in good standing’. Maybe they’re individuals who engage in extramarital sex. Maybe they skip mass on a Sunday. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the application of the term ‘lapsed’ is intended to rob the individual of their legitimacy. It’s a bit like how the Church used to label those speaking against it ‘heretics’ back in the day. In suggesting the term ‘thinking’ instead of ‘lapsed’, what I was doing was actually attempting to restore the legitimacy of Catholics who are appalled by the actions of the clergy, and find themselves facing a Church rich in rhetoric and poor in action.

It is tempting to look to individual Catholics as playing a passive role in the decades old abuse. Like those who lived under communism, perhaps many chose to trust the ruling church and hope that all would be well. For that, many Catholics do feel a sense of shame. However, the Church has spent a great deal of energy throughout the centuries to create an environment where to question is to be damned. Unfortunately for the cardinals, unlike in the days of ol’, many Catholics have learned to read and are no longer willing to accept the word of the clergy as gospel. Going further, many are calling for change. They are calling for it by sacrificing their weekly sacrament of eucharist. They are calling for it by writing their bishops to protest and demand answers. Not putting in to the collection plates. Importantly, they are doing it by supporting the victims of clergy. There is nothing ‘lapse’ about these individuals. Perhaps Jesus was talking about humanity in that conversation with Peter. It seems the salvation of the faith will not be found in Popes – but in people. Amen.

Written by Patrick Crummey

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