Tomorrow we start the month of December. It’s our “spiritual month,” isn’t it? But what does this really mean?
Radical Islamists believe there’s a certain spirituality in killing non-Muslims. They think it makes them holy. And when they die performing these acts, they believe they’re going straight to a sexual heaven. So we have members of ISIS cutting off heads and murdering women and children, and racing into gun-fire with no fear. They have promised to bring this spirituality to America and pour out their hatred on us like molten lava. You and I think their version of spirituality is senseless.
My grandmother had a Tipperary-Irish brogue, and included in all of her Irish Catholic beliefs was the conviction that her backyard was filled with “the little people.” When she leaned over her back porch to dump out a bowl of dirty dish water, she would always yell out: “Beware the Water!” so they could scatter out of the way. She believed this as firmly as she believed in the holy mother of God; it was just part and parcel of her spirituality. You and I smile at her naiveté and think her version of spirituality was not very sensible.
When I lived in Italy I met a monk who had the “stigmata.” That meant his hands and feet had marks that looked like nail holes. Everyone believed (and he did too) that God had put these marks there to remind us all of the crucifixion. Padre Pio (that was his name) is now a Saint in the Catholic Church, and all the accusations that he had used acid to cause the wounds have been discredited. But who knows? Many think his spirituality was from God; many others wonder why God would do such a senseless thing. What do you think?
There is a difference between religion and spirituality. The word religion refers to certain organized systems of belief, while spirituality is a feature of the individual—not the group. Religion is about following the teachings of others, who may be considered religious leaders, but spirituality is about finding one's own path, which may in fact require the assistance of religious practices or religious leaders, but which can also be achieved alone or through unconventional means.
In either case, our spirituality should be reasonable and sensible if we are going to be reasonable and sensible people. Our spirituality—unlike ISIS or my Grandmother or maybe Padre Pio—should make sense. That means we should be able and willing to discuss it with others and listen to their objections and answer their questions. We should be open and transparent and eager to hear about the spirituality of others.
But are we? I don’t think so. I find this kind of discussion extremely rare. We discuss politics and religion all the time; however, to discuss our inmost feelings about ourselves and our world, together with our doubts and concerns—takes a lot of courage. Spirituality is a journey, not a destination. It’s a search for truth, not the truth itself. But our conclusions, even though they may be temporary, should make sense, and it is this “sensibleness” that becomes the criterion by which we gauge our spirituality.
Spiritual people are fun to be around; religious people are often boring. Spiritual people are confident but not positive; religious people are often positively right but negative to all other ideas. Spiritual people are full of joy and laughter; religious people are often too busy to talk; they’ve got so many rituals to perform. Spiritual people make sense; religious people follow rules—that are sometimes senseless.
One of the finest religious persons I’ve ever met was Pope John XXIII. But he was deeply spiritual—and lots of fun!
Two weeks ago, I said that the Pope and I felt the same way about Church Laws. We continually ask the question: “What good are they?”
Two days ago, Mr. Douglas Harden wrote a letter to the Editors at the Macon Telegraph with grave and coherent objections to my article. His first correction was absolutely on target: I did not distinguish between the violation of a dogma (heresy) and the violation of a Church law (mortal sin). Most Catholics inadvertently merge the two just as I did, but Mr. Harden—to his credit—doesn’t.
The second point of his well-researched and extremely well-written letter was this, and I quote: “The infallibility of the Magisterium does not and has not changed in the 2000 year history of the faith.”
This is the first place where we differ. Just one example: the Magisterium (the teaching arm of the Church) sanctioned slavery for more than a thousand years, and then changed its position. It could change its position again for Gay marriage and remarried Catholics. Even though these Church laws were labeled “irreformable and definitive” when they oozed out of Rome, Pope Francis is free to ask: “what good are they now?”
Thirdly, Mr. Harden said I misquoted the Pope on Gays. I didn’t. The Pope said “Who am I to judge?” I think Mr. Harden wishes the Pope had said: “Well, Gay marriage is sinful but we must love these sinners.” But he didn’t say that. He said: “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?” You can spin and twist “accepting the Lord” and “goodwill” into “give up Gay marriage,” but that’s not what he said.
Now I am not saying that the Pope is sanctioning Gay marriage and remarried Catholics but he has questioned the necessity of both laws that punish these people. He is admitting that these laws exist, but he is encouraging all of us to ask if they are still relevant. Americans have been questioning President Obama’s policies for several years; last week they went to the polls and made a change. Catholics, who incidentally, are part of the Magisterium, can do the same thing, and certainly, the Pope, who is the Head of this teaching body, can issue his own “executive orders.”
Next, Mr. Harden mentioned that valid Catholic marriages can only be broken by the canonical process of annulment—as if this were some sign from heaven that the marriage really wasn’t valid from the beginning. The Pope said last week that this was up for questioning, too. I’m glad. Ask any priest who has worked in the Bishop’s Chancery office (where annulments are issued) what percentage of the annulment is theology and what percentage is money and politics. This hypocritical system must be eliminated.
Finally, Mr. Harden talked about Canon Law as if it were static. It isn’t. The Church has been writing laws since the year 325 AD when the newly converted emperor herded the Bishops into the town of Nicaea and forced them to write the “laws” of the Church, and Bishops and Popes have been rewriting and changing them ever since.
But I understand Catholics like Mr. Harden. They would love to have a Church that is stable and solid and unchanging. As they look back in history, they disguise the changes the Church has already made, and try to hold onto this myth as if it were history. It’s more comfortable that way. I hear there’s a movement underway to depose Pope Francis and reinstall his conservative predecessor, Benedict XVI, who never questioned Church laws. Some people just can’t stand change.
Pope Francis sees the Church as ever-changing and is continuously trying to meet the changing minds and hearts of people everywhere. He finds no problem with making the Church relevant even if this means making changes.
Otherwise, as the two of us have always said: “What good is it?”
Pope Francis and I have similar backgrounds. Both of us spent College, and 8 years of Graduate School in a highly structured monastic-like atmosphere, studying the same text books, reading the same manuscripts, listening to the same religious instructions, chanting the Psalms in Latin, and finally being ordained to the same Catholic Priesthood.
We think alike, the two of us. But we don’t think like every other Catholic priest, believe me. There are several priests, bishops, and even Cardinals who have already pegged Pope Francis as a “potential heretic.” And me? Well, I’ve been a heretic for years. What does that mean?
A heretic is someone who believes or teaches something that goes against the accepted or official Catholic beliefs or laws. For example, in the Catholic Church, it is simply heretical to teach that divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion; they are people in sin and they must repent completely of their life styles before they can approach the altar. It’s the Law!
However, just last week, Pope Francis said: “This status quo is unacceptable. For the spiritual well-being of the divorced and remarried members of our Catholic family, for the salvation of their souls, we’ve got to do something!.” Okay. What are we going to do? Well, we’re not going to keep the law, that’s for sure!
This is where the Pope and I are very close. We are not afraid to ask: “What good is this law?” We had a Latin phrase we used a lot when the two of us were studying Canon Law: Cui Bono? “What good is it?” We need to ask if this law is still as beneficial as it was when it was written. I’m sure not many of us today would want to enforce many of the laws that are still contained in the Jewish Tanakh (the Old Testament.)
If a man commits adultery with a married woman, both must be killed. (Lv.20:10)
If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son …the men of the city will stone him to death. (Dt.21:21)
We can overturn political laws like Slavery and Women Voting Rights and Health Care, but it’s more difficult when the law is preceded by the words: “God Says.” Religious groups of all kinds use these words constantly.
I shudder when I hear a TV evangelist telling his audience exactly what God wants them to do. But the Catholic Church has done this for centuries. Until now.
Now a smiling Jesuit priest, called Pope Francis, raises his hand and calls a halt to this insanity. No longer do we hear condemnations and infallible proclamations spewing from the Vatican; instead the whole world is overjoyed to hear words like:
“Who am I to Judge?” (When asked about Gays)
“There is no Catholic God” (When asked that question)
“The Church has locked itself up in small-minded rules” (in an interview Sept.30, 2013)
I think we have entered into a new era that will benefit not only millions of Catholics, but also every intelligent, well-meaning man and woman of whatever belief, (including former American Catholics, who, if they formed their own Church would be the country’s second largest denomination, after the Catholic Church itself.)
I am delighted to shout out that we finally have a Church Leader who is willing to look at all the ancient religious laws and traditions and proclamations and ask with a big smile:
Cui Bono? What good is it?