Sunday, August 5, 2018

Farewell to Rome?

As a consistent-life Catholic, I was thrilled with the news that Pope Francis has declared the death penalty inadmissible.

The church has been moving toward this stance ever since Pope John Paul II declared capital punishment unacceptable except in rare circumstances where it would be necessary to ensure public safety.

Now Francis has made part of the official catechism what his predecessor had already stated -- that the death penalty is "an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." That's sensible, and in line with Christian ethics. Even the worst criminal is still made in the image of God.

Sadly, and predictably, right-wing U.S. Catholics are losing their minds over this, as they do every time Francis demonstrates a spirit of Christ-like mercy. From more-Catholic-than-the-pope Raymond Arroyo, to the reliably anti-Francis extremists at OnePeterFive, the calls of heresy are running rampant. The Catholic governor of Nebraska says outright that he doesn't care what the pope declares and will continue to defend execution in his state. And he's not alone, considering a majority of American Catholics still support the death penalty, apparently proud that the United States keeps company with Islamic theocracies and Communist dictatorships in continuing the barbaric practice of killing people to show that killing is wrong.

People are actually calling Pope Francis a heretic over this announcement. That's right: Not wanting to kill people is being called heresy. Let that sink in good and deep.

And this is the crux of the heresy-hunters' argument: How dare the pope say we can't kill people?

If that's your argument, frankly, you don't get it.

You don't get "Thou shalt not kill."

You don't get that Jesus spared the life of the woman caught in adultery, who, under the law, was eligible to be stoned to death.

You don't get that he told us to love our enemies.

You don't get that he told Peter to put his sword away, for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.

You don't get that the early church, for the first few hundred years after Christ, was staunchly opposed to the taking of life in all forms.

You don't get that Jesus himself was an innocent victim of state-sanctioned capital punishment.

I hear lots of appeals to Romans 13 to explain away how it's OK for the state to kill people. Yet when it comes to abortion, which is the law of the land, these same people endlessly rail against Roe v. Wade and call for its repeal. Well, Jesus had a thing or two to say about hypocrites. Either you believe in submitting to the law or you don't. Either you support the preservation of human life or you don't.

And frankly, a lot of people who claim to be pro-life showed their hand all too clearly when they ran to the defense of the Trump administration's policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border, using the most dehumanizing terms imaginable for those fleeing to safety -- often as a result of our own foreign policy.

It's been said that maybe, instead of a wall, we should install a giant mirror at the border, so we can reflect on what kind of nation we've become.

But maybe the church could use a mirror, too -- not just for some of the laypeople in the pews, but for many of its leaders as well, considering the news this week of yet another sexual-abuse scandal and cover-up.

I came back to the church after the original scandal came to light, and it gave me pause about returning. Yet after assurances from higher-ups in the church that positive steps were being taken to address the scandal, rather than shuffling around priests from church to church following allegations against them, we now have the bombshell report that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has resigned, amid allegations that he sexually abused minors and adult seminarians for decades. The New York Times reports that the church reached financial settlements with some of his abuse victims in New Jersey, which is a nice way of saying the church purchased their silence while allowing McCarrick to continue in his leadership role.

In the meantime, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is about to release a grand jury report detailing sexual abuse charges against more than 300 priests. And that's just from six dioceses in one state. It would be naive to think the problem isn't as widespread in other dioceses around the nation and world.

Indeed, the church in Chile is dealing with its own scandal, with 70 clergy and laypeople under investigation, facing allegations of abuse from 104 potential victims.

The rot, it seems, runs deep.

And here's the thing. I don't want to hear about about how abuse in the church isn't any worse than in any other professional organization. That's not the point. The point is the church holds itself out to the world as a bastion of morality. The point is that if you represent yourself as a man of God, you have a responsibility to be a mirror of Christ to those in your flock. "Let the children come to me," Jesus said. We'd all like to think we could trust our clergy as much as we might trust our kids in the lap of the savior himself.

Of course, being human and broken, we will all stumble from time to time. But this is not just stumbling. This is the systematic, predatory abuse and violation of innocent children, by men who are trusted to be upright guardians of the faith, given cover by an institution that, until its hand was forced by public outrage, appeared more concerned about its reputation than about saving children from abuse.

I can't remember where I read it, but I'll never forget the heartbreaking story of a man who recounted looking up at a picture of Jesus on the wall of the priest's office when he was a boy, while the priest was violating him, and wondering why Jesus wasn't coming to save him.

And this is what the church was covering up for decades, to protect its own interests.

I have tried and tried to come to peace with the church and the issues I hold in tension with it. And I dearly love Pope Francis. I think he's a beautiful man of God who tries his best to reflect the love and mercy of Christ. But I'm no longer convinced he can save the church. From mean-spirited people in the pews who only care about life when it's unborn, to the unending stories of predatory clergy, I'm hanging on by a thread to the church at this point.

I was already frustrated with the church's policy on fencing off the Eucharist, and with its insistence that it will never ordain women. Now I'm having an extraordinarily hard time defending the church at all in good conscience.

If the church focused on the sage words of beautiful Catholic voices like Dorothy Day, John Dear, Henri Nouwen, Helen Prejean, Thomas Merton, and the Berrigan brothers, and on the actions of groups like Pax Christi and the Catholic Worker Movement, maybe I'd feel as if there was still something worth hanging on to. Those are the voices and groups that echo the mercy of Christ and embody the best of Catholic social teaching.

But their voices are not central to the church. To the contrary, they're pushed to the margins, while people like Arroyo, and Michael Voris at Church Militant, broadcast their fear-filled and divisive rhetoric to the masses. And far too many parishioners appear to gobble it up.

No, I am not perfect. Far from it. But how can I fellowship with people whose values run so deeply contrary to the Gospel? How can I tolerate a church whose hierarchy is infested with sexual predators, that buys silence to protect the guilty, and that tries to cover up its crimes?

Perhaps it was always too much to hope that a church that came to power by making a deal with the devil 1,700 years ago would ever truly redeem itself. Following its unholy alliance with Constantine and empire, the church went almost overnight from persecuted to persecutor, unleashing a millennium of terror in which millions were jailed, tortured, and executed for the mere "crime" of heresy, while the cross was twisted from a symbol of sacrificial love into one of imperial domination.

The church has apologized for many of its past sins, but one wonders if it truly is repentant, and if it will ever change. After all, it still holds firm to its own "just-war" policy, which, unsurprisingly, has never been used to oppose a war, but has been used many times to rationalize why this or that war was just fine to carry out. So even though the church is solidly pro-life and has taken a positive step on capital punishment, it still has a tremendous blind spot when it comes to enemy-love and the defense of life. And the corruption in its ranks, from abuse to cover-up, is nearly too much to stomach.

This is a difficult struggle for me, as I'm sure it must be for many. I was raised Catholic. Catholicism is in my blood. I love the beautiful church buildings, the rhythm of the liturgical seasons, the bells and smells, the devotions to Mary and the saints, all the deep and rich traditions. Walking into a cathedral, for me, is like walking into heaven. And I truly do love Pope Francis. I also acknowledge that the church has done a great deal of good in the world, from the establishment of schools and hospitals to its social teachings that continue to inspire many to help "the least of these" around the world.   

But I'm tired of seeing Christ buried under dogma.

I'm tired of those who are more worried about heresy-hunting, about holding the right beliefs, than they are about showing mercy and compassion to their fellow humans.

I'm tired of the legalisms.

I'm tired of seeing the hurt inflicted on people who are denied the Eucharist, and on women with a gift for ministry who are denied the opportunity to lead a flock.

I'm tired of those who are so passionate about abortion but don't seem to care about any other suffering human being.

I'm tired of those who filter Jesus through the lens of Paul and the Old Testament, rather than the other way around.

I'm tired of those who would wrap the cross in a flag, embracing imperial militarism and the worst aspects of nationalist tribalism, and fail to see their own idolatry.

I'm tired of those who, like the Nicene Creed, skip over Jesus' life and ministry and reduce him to a free ticket to heaven.

I'm tired of people who act like Paul is God and ignore the Gospels.

I just want a peace-loving, Christ-centric, truly pro-life church that does its best to live out the Sermon on the Mount. Because if Jesus' radical message of sacrificial love means nothing, then there's no reason for the church to exist. It doesn't exist so we can judge heretics or elect Republicans to enforce religion on the populace. It doesn't exist in the hopes that some kind of super-violent Rambo Jesus will come back one day, toting a machine gun to mow down the unrighteous. It exists to bring us into the Kingdom of God, where we find the Prince of Peace, a savior who is gentle and humble in heart. We can find that kingdom right here and now, in our very own hearts, if we can only drop our fear and anger and let love and mercy reign. We don't need priests or dogma for that. We only need an open heart.

I don't know what my way forward is going to look like, but I do wish Pope Francis luck. He's going to need it.

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