WHAT JUST HAPPENED IN ROME?
I like Pope Francis I. He seems like the kind of guy who’d have a coffee with you at Starbucks. I’d be comfortable inviting him to dinner. Seeing him up-close in Saint Peters Square last fall, I was struck by his friendliness around people, his humanity, and his self-deprecating manner.
Like many practicing and lapsed Catholics I followed with great interest the 2014 Synod which ended last Sunday in Rome, hoping he’d lead the assembled cardinals and bishops toward a softening of hardline positions on issues that trouble me.
When it comes to Catholic doctrine, I disagree profoundly with key aspects of its rules and teachings. For example, the Church’s ban on contraception, its position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, not allowing women to be ordained to the priesthood, and not allowing priests to marry. Just as importantly, I don’t, and never have, accepted Church doctrine regarding sin. I refuse to accept that I must feel guilty most of the time, and that the only way to relieve myself of guilt is through confession to a priest. I’m far from perfect, but I choose to deal with my failings in my own way, and to strive to better myself through my own efforts. I don’t believe a priest can absolve me of wrongdoing.Despite these misgivings, I still consider myself a member of the broader Catholic community. Genetically, I carry many hundreds of years’ worth of traditional values, passed down to me by my ancestors. They lived by the Golden Rule, and so do I. I don’t need more rules to distinguish between right and wrong. And I believe I can live a good and moral life outside the Church’s silly rules.
What rules, you ask? Well, the Catholic Church defines mortal sin as a "grave violation of God's law" that "turns man away from God". If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, mortal sin can cause exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell. The list of mortal sins includes abortion, contraception, deliberate failure to go to mass on holy days of obligation, divorce, sex outside of marriage, masturbation, and pornography. There are many others.
Sometimes, when crossing the threshold of a church, I wonder whether I’ll be struck by a heaven-sent lightning bolt. Why? Because I’ve been living in a state of mortal sin all of my adult life. Why bother going to church at all when Catholic doctrine tells me I’m condemned to the eternal death of hell? Church leaders tell me not to worry: we’re all sinners. But there’ll be no death-bed confession from this rascal!
Last weekend in Cape Breton, Elva and I drove past church after church, either closed or in a very bad state of repair. Most of them were Catholic. The church where Elva and I were married, shown below, was torn down because parishioners could not afford the upkeep. Rumour has it that its neighbour, Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Carmel, is in financial trouble.
Still, Church leaders continue to resist meaningful change. The English newspaper, The Guardian, had this to say about the October 2014 Rome Synod in its editorial of 21 October:
“The doctrine has an abstract and formal perfection that clearly works for lifelong celibates. It has less appeal, and much less applicability, to the rest of us in the messy world where people love each other with bodies as well as hearts.
Three things in particular need to change. They are all connected by a particular interpretation of natural law, a phrase in Catholic moral theology that means “Nature doesn’t work like that”. The first is the theory that sexual intercourse is only really an expression of love when efficient contraception is not involved. This, codified in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, has been entirely rejected by the Catholic couples at whom it was aimed. Then there is the claim that homosexuality is an “objective moral disorder” – since gay desire does not aim at making babies, or rely on the rhythm method to avoid them. Finally, there is the belief that marriage can only be once and for life, so that all subsequent arrangements are more or less sinful.”
So, by the current definition, what were once mortal sins are now mere moral disorders. That’s supposed to bring people back to the Church?
I do give credit to Francis. He had the courage to raise and invite debate on touchy questions. He remarked that the Church must find a middle path between showing mercy toward people on the margins and holding tight to Church teachings.
Conservative elements in the Church claim to know the TRUTH and believe it’s their duty to protect it against all attempts at change. They claim the Pope is not free to change the Church's teachings with regard to the immorality of homosexual acts or the insolubility of marriage, or any other doctrine of the faith.
Catholic doctrine is a house of cards built and maintained by celibate men who claim to know what’s best for all of us. How it compares to Jesus’ vision is impossible for anyone to know. The house of cards is falling apart because people can’t stand the hypocrisy any longer.
Despite encouraging signs from Rome during the Synod, its final report offered little to encourage those of us looking for signs of enlightenment. In fact, the conservatives carried the day once again. And so, because I’m an unrepentant mortal sinner, I continue to live on the margin, church-wise.
When I do go to church it’s for social reasons, to provide moral support to people I know in times of joy and sadness, or simply to be in a place that feels spiritual to me. I asked my brother-in-law, a priest, what he does when a gay person or someone who has divorced and remarried stands before him for Communion. His answer: “I ask myself: What would Jesus do?”
For 35 years, the Catholic Church was led by conservatives, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. As a reformer, Francis faces terrible odds. But I’m not prepared to give up on him or on my Church.
For the time being, I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints!