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.