I said in a post last month that my worry about Pope Francis was that he would eventually be canonized as a saint, while the Vatican hierarchy itself proceeded in its autocratic ways unchanged.
But I’m not so sure about that. Pope John XXIII tried the top-down method of reforming the church. He called Vatican II, and all sort of suggestions for radical reform were heralded. Then the pope died and for the last half century, the Vatican has systematically dismantled, ignored, over-ridden or distorted practically every reform suggested by Vatican II. Meanwhile, the exodus from the RC Church has reached hundreds of thousands.
And so I’m wondering now if the mistake is expecting change to be mandated from the top, rather than from below. Perhaps 50 years ago too many practicing Catholics expected it to be done for them, so that all they had to do was to continue to follow in humble obedience.
But several of the things Pope Francis has said and done suggest that he does not think this kind of blind obedience to church authority is any more Christian than blind obedience to civil authority. The Nuremberg trials were based on the recognition that “I was only doing what I was told” is not an adequate justification for crimes against humanity. In the end, we must refuse to follow commands against humanity no matter where they emanate from.
So when Pope Francis asks questions like the one he asked about homosexuality “Who am I to judge?”, is he not saying that the bottom line is not obedience even to church teaching? is he not saying the bottom line is caring, love, respect for our fellow-man? When some bishops and priests are welcoming divorced Catholics who have remarried to the communion alter, are they not saying that love is more important than obedience? When theologians argue against excommunicating a nun working in an emergency ward for authorizing an abortion for a woman who had been raped in order to save the life of the mother, isn’t the fundamental principle one of love? When millions of couples use birth control so that they can engage in sex without passing on the AIDS virus or having another child which they cannot feed or care for, isn’t it getting our priorities backwards to say that this expression of love must take second place to procreation under any circumstances?
I don’t know, but maybe what Pope Francis is saying is that “the greatest of these is love.” That whatever we do, for a Christian it is love that is the bottom line. It’s not doctrine, not obedience, not approval from the religious powers that be. Of course, the hierarchical structure of the church needs fundamental change. But perhaps it is only going to come from the bottom up. That’s the way it was with the first Christians.
Hmmm. I might even consider myself an aspiring Christian again. Though I’m sure I couldn’t possibly get the Vatican’s acceptance. I don’t think they could handle the scope of my disbelief.
Well, unless maybe if I met Pope Francis. He did say recently he believed that many atheists were men and women of good will and didn’t suggest that their only future was the fire of hell.