You know things are bad in the West when many people, of many faiths, turn to the head of the patriarchal, corrupt, antediluvian Roman Catholic Church (RCC) for moral guidance. Pope Francis may be a wonderful guy, but it’s still the Church, and he’s still a pope.
I was raised Catholic back in the days when the Mass was in Latin. Though it seems unfathomable now, we were compelled to attend Mass six days a week—five days before school, and on Sunday, which was a mortal sin (hellfire forever) to miss.
I was an altar boy for five years and favorite of the priests (not in that way). But I left the Church as a senior in high school after two years of careful consideration.
I came down one Sunday and announced to my shocked parents that I wasn’t going to church that day or ever again. They threatened me with everything they could think of, including going to Vietnam, but my mind was made up. I never looked back, and or felt any desire to try another flavor of organized religion.
Being religious without a religion in the decades since, I have no ax to grind against Catholicism. (When I asked a long-time friend if that was true, she said yes, pithily adding, “You’ve been in it, you’re outside it, and now you’re looking at it.”)
I recall most of the priests and nuns fondly, and value the education that parochial schools gave me, especially the years of Latin, which I hated at the time but which instilled a love of the English language and its roots.
All in all, through many years of intense ‘religious experiences’ (they aren’t experiences, but that’s another issue), the RCC has been irrelevant to my mind, having nothing to do with the religious mind, as does organized religion generally.
Not so for many pundits these days. Falling and fawning all over Pope Francis, displaying an incredible lack of present-day perspicacity, historical awareness and spiritual understanding, one mainstream commentator produced this gag- line: “Long after we’ve forgotten what his position is on Catholic doctrine, we will remember the serenity of Pope Francis — his self-deprecating lightness of being.”
Yes, though “his smile is just shy of goofy…that of an average man who’s in on the joke.” The question is, what is the joke?
The writer goes on to say, “It’s a paradox, but as much of the world has become less identified with organized religion, the leader of the most organized of religions is more popular than ever.”
That’s not a pleasant paradox, but a disturbing contradiction. Despite the knee-jerk reverence, Pope Francis’s media-savvy dance with an infatuated corporate media is still a conundrum. Why, when much of the world has become less identified with organized religion, is the leader of the most organized of religions more popular than ever?
The Western patina of inclusiveness and plurality is fraying from within, while being terrifyingly challenged from without. What better way to answer decapitating marauders marching out of the Middle Ages than with a pre-Crusader figurehead who symbolically cleans the feet of the homeless as he superficially cleans the filth from his religious-political institution?
Of course, the trick is to make the figurehead appear to be a leader of substantive reform for the Church and significant moral suasion for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Only a Jesuit could pull off such a sleight of hand in an institution as fraught and freighted with tradition and bureaucracy as the Curia-encrusted Catholic Church.
The larger question pertains not just to the collapse of institutions, religious and governmental (the Catholic Church being a remnant of the old rule by Church And State), but the collapse of meaning worldwide.
In the Middle East, “the best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity” has taken the form of a virulent jihadism, a steroidal fundamentalism that literally takes no prisoners.
In the West, the cult of the personal and the worship of the separate individual have produced a deep enervation in the people of North America and Europe. The vast majority want nothing more than to be psychologically comfortable, requiring only injections of extreme sports for a few, and action-thrillers and BBQ’s for the many.
Into this global meltdown, Pope Francis waddles along and offers the illusion of continuity, stability and spirituality. He actually represents the last gasp of celebrity. After all, the utter superficiality of American culture has gone global. At the apogee of meaninglessness, it makes perverse sense to turn back to the comforting verities of tradition and morality and turn a pope into rock star.
Shock and awe has run its course, and done its job. Even the execution of 500 people, including children, in a city of Roman ruins (one of the world’s most ancient archeological sites) barely makes the news and receives only a blink of the eyes in those who hear of it.
What can the leader of the Roman Catholic Church do about that? Nothing, because the RCC helped in heaps to give rise to the present situation.
At a moment when so-called thinkers in the West are looking backward, buying into the image of the leader of an archaic religio-political organization, the world desperately needs new thinking.
History has been turned upside-down, so let’s invert it. The world needs a political body without power but with great spiritual insight to step into the vacuum.