A spokesman for Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, recently said that Pope John Paul II had taught him to be a Catholic, but that Pope Francis was teaching him to be a Christian.
For about two minutes, I had a positive feeling about this comment. Yes, I thought, being a Christian is about love and caring about the welfare of others rather than worrying about judging whether people believe the right dogmas or obeying what the church has insisted on calling “natural law.”
But I was socialized as a Catholic, and this distinction between Catholic and Christian made in this way makes me leery.
It sounds to me as if this particular Catholic who is broadening his perspective to include Christianity still sees the church as having access to truths that non-Christians don’t. I worry that this “one true religion” belief is still alive and well.
Personally, I find Pope Francis a likeable, even admirable, person, and I’m grateful for a greater emphasis on caring about the poor and those in need rather than on sex and all its ramifications. But ultimately, if he is made into a celebrity who simply makes Catholicism more appealing to the masses, deep down things really will not have changed that fundamental belief on the part of the RC hierarchy and many faithful that only they have access to “the one true faith.”
There are many groups in the world who care for the sick and poor. Not all are religious. NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam are not tied to any single religion. Even terrorists groups often make themselves popular by their acts of good will among the poor. Loving one’s neighbour is not a uniquely Christian virtue. And bribing people into church with the promise of rewards either now or in eternity offers little appeal to me.
This is not a criticism of Pope Francis, or of the many Christians who care unselfishly about others.
I just want to point out that people all over the world, in big and small ways, give their lives in unselfish care and service of members of their family, their community, or complete strangers. Loving others might be a central value of Christianity. But it is not unique to Catholicism or even Christianity. Being a Christian is one way of framing a philosophy of love of one’s neighbour. It’s just not the only one.