Monday, April 21, 2008

The Pope

Pope Benedict was in America this week - in his words one of the most important things for Catholics to do is to be obedient to the teachings of the Catholic church. This is not a novel statement or unusual thing for a Pope to say - this is how it has always been.

I was sitting at a coffee house in my little mountain community when two elderly people sat down at a table next to me. The man was reading to his wife from the newspaper. He cited the Pope's comments to his wife with contempt and a laugh, as if it was the dumbest thing they had heard in recent memory. I thought to myself: "First, what the hell do these old people know - and do they have sufficient understanding and exposure to history, theology and the like to credibly criticize the Pope? My hunch is: hardly. Second, why do they act as if they are an authority on determining whether or not the Pope's advice is ridiculous? Simply put, they are self-advised Americans, and like so many, they seem to believe that their limited perspective is not only valid but normative. Rather pathetic in my estimation. And sad, because it is so blatantly naive. Certainly Americans have the freedom to navigate their ship through life without sound, informed spiritual advice, but most would probably not do this with their retirement account. However, when you don't have solid insight, please do not feel that you are theologically informed enough to credibly deride the Pope or the Dali Lama for that matter. To do so would be the equivalent of criticizing the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke on his financial policies - having no formal financial education yourself!

A little Catholic Church understanding:
Unlike those who follow a self-directed spiritual path, the Catholic church has a tradition and interpretation of Scripture that is not ad hoc, but has been carefully understood over several centuries. This does not mean to imply that these traditional understandings, nor the people involved are flawless in conduct or interpretation, but that there is an authority of interpretation attached to the community of Catholicism. In the realm of Christian church life in America this uniformity of tradition is unique to the Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Many Chrisitian churches are led by a Pastor who is relatively autonomous, save the church board perhaps, which rarely weigh in on theological matters. Often times the Pastor is not particularly educated and in many instances shapes a theology according to his own best guesses and the whims of the congregants (read: constituents). Unaffiliated churches - often called by the misnomer "non-denominational" - function by the same self-rule that dominates the general American mentality. The thinking goes: We will do what we want to do, in the way that we understand things, and no one will tell us otherwise. If a community is poorly informed and abides by self-rule, they will in turn make poorly informed decisions. The Catholic church, like it or not, has an extremely well educated clergy from Pope, to Bishop, to Priest, and while one may not agree with Catholic theology - which is not as monolithic as many construe - at least one can know that it is informed through centuries of study, reflection, practiced tradition, and debate; and further, it is a community that interfaces with the other major religions and Christian traditions.
This is quite a contrast to the local church leader who has read and interpreted the bible with his or her own interpretation. Sometimes this leader is a relatively good one and sometimes not. However, a good case can be be made that individual reading, interpretation, and application of Scripture is not only shallow and ill informed, but also dangerous, and never intended by the Jewish faith community that wrote these Scriptures, nor the Christian faith community that grafted the New Covenant (New Testament) into the First Covenant (Old Testament).
My advice: before making criticism, be informed yourself, which usually requires, amongst other things, getting to know those who you are intending to make criticism of.

1 comment:

Bob said...

How nice to read a thoughtful and intellectual retort to the common, cynical, All American response to the Pope and what he has to say. All too often Catholics must revisit the prejudice that has shadowed them in America since the colonial days. In the early to mid 18th century, all the colonies had laws in place that forbade Catholics from holding public office, some even forbade Catholics to vote. It wasn't until the Bill Of Rights that all religions were endorsed with the freedom of worship. This was done not because it was the right thing to do, mind you. It was done because the founding fathers could not agree on a national religion! Had they all agreed that America was a bastion of Lutheranism, the Bill Of Rights would have been the Bill Of Rights And Restrictions.

The Pope remains the personification of the conscience of man. That is what his burden is. Throughout history there have been 266 Popes over the span of almost 2,000 years, from Peter to Benedict XVI. Some of these men have been great, most of them have been good-hearted and a few of them have been scoundrels. Probably about the same ratio as the human population at large. Regardless of their personal failures, all of them ascend to the papacy alone and, like Atlas, must take on the weight of the world's woes. Unlike leaders of powerful nations, he cannot wage war in the military sense to conquer an apathetic, agnostic/athiestic, materially oriented world of wayward souls. The Pope represents hope. And hope is the reward of faith. He himself is not infallible for he is human. But the Pope does represent in no uncertain terms that we can be made worthy of God's love by receiving and sharing that love unconditionally and without prejudice or judgement. Every Pope in my lifetime has publicly pronounced the same desire for all men: freedom and emancipation from poverty, starvation, ignorance and illiteracy. I fail to see how anyone can, in good conscience, oppose those ideals.

Personally, I am delighted that Benedict XVI is the current Pope. I know of none others preceding him who have possessed the encyclopedic intellect of man's eternal struggle with who he is, where he came from and why. Benedict fully understands the contemporary crisis of man as well: the struggle to accept responsibility for his shameless exploitation of earth's resources and the subsequent contamination of what began as Paradise. Again, the Pope is, and must be, the conscience of the world.