Why is it so difficult to question Faith? We question everything else. Is it because Faith is so personal and private and particular to our own very deep convictions? We all think that our Faith is right, don’t we? At least, it’s right for us; otherwise we’d change it. But many people also think that everybody who belongs to “their Faith” must think exactly like they do, and they bristle when they read or hear a “believer” with an opposing view. Are you like this?
I’m sure you remember when the President of our Southern Baptist University (Mercer) wrote a book about “his Faith” that seemed to be at odds with “their Faith.” Instead of entering into an exciting dialogue with a man far more theologically brilliant than any of them, they chose to exclude Dr. Kirby Godsey from their communion.
Many American Catholics are tip-toeing around the reports coming out of Rome. As you’ve noticed, Pope Francis doesn’t always conduct himself “correctly.” For example, his off-the-cuff remarks about Gays get explained over and over again by traditional American Catholics--to make sure the Pope is still “Catholic.” The idea that we might explore the concept of homosexuality once again is unthinkable!
Last month, I wrote an article called The Catholic Church. A critic commented that I should have entitled it: “The Catholic Church in my own Image.” He was right. It is my image of what I want my Church to be.
I want the Church to welcome people who are divorced and remarried (50% of Americans), and couples who live in gay marriages (in opposition to Erick Erickson’s opinion), and couples who practice birth control (98% of Catholics).
I want it to allow priests to marry and women to be priests. That’s just my opinion.
But all these things are currently against the “law of the Church,” and many people feel I’m not “Catholic” if I challenge these laws. A local priest wrote in his blog that I’m either “Pelagian, Gnostic, or Post-Christian” but certainly not Catholic. Another critic wrote that I was “afflicted with a sort of spasmodic, anti-Catholic Tourette's Syndrome.”Wow!
But how about the “law of the Land?” Nobody says I’m “un-American” if I want to change our laws on immigration and taxation and even seat belts. I can have all sorts of different opinions about the size and power of our government agencies and I’m not asked to leave my Country. If I think the Tea Party should go back to Boston, I’m not accused of treason; if I think the IRS should be abolished or that every Congressman should be voted out of office, I’m still an American. If I think our President is a weak puppy and his policies are hurting our international reputation, I’m not told to move to Canada. Even our wrangling Congressmen and women who claim that “the other side of the isle” is the cause of all our economic problems, and hurtle all sorts of vicious and hurtful word-bombs at each other, never call the other party: “traitors.”
However, whenever I question Church laws, I feel like Paul opposing the Church's law of circumcision (Gal. 2/4)--Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, fought him on it. Why is that? What is there about Faith that makes some people become religious isolationists? Why don’t different “Faith-views” encourage honest and open debate, albeit wild and raucous—but without exclusion and excommunication? Why do I have to leave my centuries-old Irish Catholic heritage just because I have different theological interpretations?
Aren’t the days of Joan of Arc over?
I lived in Rome for two years with Pope John XXIII during the preparation of a worldwide meeting to change the Catholic Church. We called it Vatican II. The Pope’s constant theme was: Aggiornamento (Upgrade the Faith). How do you “upgrade” an institution that is already perfect and unchangeable?
Last week, I wrote an article entitled: The Catholic Church. Although many Catholics wrote to thank me, several were unhappy; and one, an Air Force Officer, was downright outraged. I think he wanted to have me burned at the stake, but he satisfied himself by denouncing me as “afflicted with a sort of spasmodic, anti-Catholic Tourette's Syndrome.”
Although I’m sure he did not intend to embarrass or demean the many wonderful people with Tourette’s, he obviously believes that Catholics like me should not have thoughts and beliefs contrary to the “official” Catholic line. If he were a Southern Baptist he might condemn Dr. Kirby Godsey for Is God a Christian?
My Air Force critic finds my “jejune musings” on gay marriage, women priests, priestly celibacy, papal infallibility and birth control--drab and colorless, tiring and uninteresting. I’m okay with that, but he also finds them “anti-Catholic.” I’m not okay with that; not anymore. Sure, there was a day, centuries in fact, when Catholics were not allowed to print any opinion that was not stamped with an “imprimatur” from the Roman Curia. Those days are over.
Pope John XXIII had an Italian phrase he used all the time I was with him; “Aggiornamento,” he said. It means: “Up-grade.” He wanted to up-grade the Church. You can’t up-grade something that is perfect. If the Pope believed that all these traditions and myths, and yes, even dogmas, were perfect, he would never have used that word, and he would never have called the 2nd Vatican Council. He would never have asked theologians and Scripture Scholars like me to examine the interpretations of the Bible and the Church’s theology, and “up-grade” them.
Hey, I don’t claim I’m right. Never did. But I do claim the freedom to examine and explore and discuss and argue everything about the Catholic Church. I earned advanced degrees in Theology from Catholic University in Washington, D.C, as well as my SSL in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical University in Rome. I don’t have to have the same “faith” as the Pastor of our local church, just as he might not have the same “faith” as Pope Francis. That doesn’t mean we all can’t love and cherish this richly endowed heritage we call Catholic, but continue to up-grade it.
But I understand. Many Catholics—like many Jews and Protestants and Muslims—want their church to remain the same. My sainted grandmother was like that. When she saw her Irish Catholic Church begin to allow Catholics to marry Protestants (in the Church mind you!) she prayed the good Lord would take her while she was still a Catholic! I get the feeling that some Catholics still feel that way even today.
My Air Force critic urged our editor to have me dump my un-orthodox opinions on the “Evangelicals” in our community, and watch them scream. He must feel that they are incapable of thinking. Quite the contrary; Evangelicals picked up their warm-hearted spirituality from Pietism; their doctrinal precision from the Presbyterians, and their individualistic introspection from the Puritans. I’d say they are quite capable of thinking through just about anything spiritual.
It’s just my opinion, mind you, but I think “Faith is an individual’s Sanctified Imagination.” Put that in your plane and fly it.
The Catholic Church is changing. It used to be rigid. Back in the 30’s when I grew up on the south side of Chicago, Catholics stayed in their own neighborhoods, dated and married “their own kind” and never – ever – went inside a Protestant Church, let alone (God help us) a Jewish Synagogue!
But the Church is changing. Some Catholics say: “not enough.” Others say: “too much.” But the fact is obvious to anybody who watches TV and reads the paper that something’s going on here. For example, when the Pope is asked about Gays, instead of condemning this “horrible, un-natural” sexual orientation and all the actions that flow from it, Pope Francis laughs and says: “Who am I to judge?”
Let me tell you something: old Pope Pius IX (after whom our Macon street, Pio Nono, was named,) would never- ever – have laughed.
Yes, the Church is changing. For example, who would have thought that a Pope would resign? It hasn’t happened since the 15th century; they die in office. But Father Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) whom I knew in Rome back in the 60’s saw the changing handwriting on the wall of St. Peter’s and he knew he could no longer read it. Other Popes would have erased it; he resigned.
Sure, the Church has always been changing, but never as quickly. Changes used to take centuries; look at the issue of slavery. The Church approved of slavery all through the middle ages. They finally condemned “unjust” slavery in 1839, but some American Bishops supported “just” slavery until the Abolition. In fact our own Pio Nono stated that “it is not against divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, or exchanged.” Today, you can’t find a Catholic bishop or priest who approves of slavery. That change has finally taken hold.
One of the biggest changes, however, was the stripping of Divinity; the Catholic Church is no longer a “divine institution” incapable of error or mistakes. Now we know that it was created and is run by humans just like all the other churches and institutions of the world. Imagine that! This stripping began with Pope John XXIII and it continues on with Pope Francis. It’s like pulling the sheet from the Wizard of Oz and revealing a little old man with a microphone.
I remember hearing that my old Scripture professor, Cardinal Bea, explained to Pope John XXIII that the Scripture text in Mt. 16/18: ‘You are Peter (Rocky) and upon this Rock I will build my Church” is a much disputed text. It was written 50 years after Jesus died, and cannot be used to prove that Jesus founded the Catholic Church. Cardinal Bea said that Pope John’s reaction to this rather startling piece of news was… laughter! Makes you think of our current Pope Francis, doesn’t it?
Will there be more changes? Of course, there will. If the Catholic Church is to survive as an instrument of “grace and peace” it must change. Old restrictions like the ban on birth control (how many Catholics practice birth control today?) and the rules on priestly celibacy, women priests, gay marriage, divorce and re-marriage–and many more incrustations that hang around like cobwebs in cathedral ceilings; they must all be wiped away. Dr. Kirby Godsey said:
“Grace will ultimately prevail. Only courage will determine whether its prevailing will occur in the stewardship of our time or a time yet to come.”
It takes courage to stand up to people who still believe the Catholic Church is infallible. It takes courage and patience and compassion. For two years, I was fortunate to see these three virtues in action in Pope John XXIII, and I hope I will see them again in the “stewardship of the time” that I have left to me.