Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why I think the time wasn't right for an American Pope

What you are about to read is my opinion. I am not speaking on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church (as if I have the right to do that anyway) or anyone else for that matter other than myself.

I was laying under a blanket this last Wednesday afternoon with a case of stomach flu. However, I did have EWTN on the TV expecting to await the disappointment of black smoke. As I lay there, the commentators covered several of the rumors that were out there as to who would be the next Pope. I was relieved to find a station that didn't analyze things in terms of "liberal" and "conservative" so I kept listening. Shortly before the unexpectedly white smoke emerged, the announcers took up their own skepticism that it would be an American Pope. I listened intently as they said that, historically, the biggest concern has been the ideology of Americanism that was an ideology of some American bishops whereby certain they seemed to be pushing towards greater democratization in the church. I found it fascinating when they said that in the past there were some who were concerned that, by electing an American, the president could have undue influence on the Pope. Sort of the inverse of what President Kennedy felt when people worried that, by electing a Catholic President, he would be beholden to the Pope. Nonetheless, the commentators felt that this had largely been overcome by the USCCB opposition to the Obama HHS contraception mandate led, primarily, by Cardinal Dolan but supported by all the American bishops.

In any case, the second point EWTN commentators made was just as fascinating. They said that if they elected an American Pope, we would send a deeply detrimental message to the Islamic world. It was thought by the commentators that Islam would see this as the Catholic Church siding with America in its foreign policy decisions. I thought this was an interesting insight but, in my opinion, probably not the nail in the coffin of an American Papacy.

The more I think about it, the more I think it has to do with the state of the Catholic Church in America. Let's face it, folks. We're in a mess. Not even 24 hours after the election of Pope Francis, several liberal websites posted a story that alleged that Pope Francis deliberately removed Jesuit protection from two priests who were abducted and held captive by the Argentinian government in 1976. Shortly thereafter, it moved from left-wing websites like and to more moderate sites like and The transition also meant that it moved from internet to television. Now, you may say that this is really a world-wide story that the Pope had to explain and move past and you may be right. Plus, some of you will say that they are all liberal websites and you can't trust them for news about the church. And that's precisely my point. I don't believe it's going too far to say right now that, in general, the Democratic Party is openly hostile to the Catholic Church. I frequently listen to MSNBC on my way from parish to parish and I cannot tell you the last time I heard anything positive about the Catholic Church on it. Well, let me take that back. When the news of Pope Francis first hit, the Catholic commentators seemed ecstatic to have a real "Dorothy Day style Pope". However, when it became clear that this Pope is not for gay rights or abortion, even Chris Matthews seemed to be losing his excitement for the social justice pope in favor of "the best that we can get." Now today they're all about how the Pope abducted and tortured two priests in 1976...I mean how he encouraged the government to abduct and torture two priests...I mean how he removed magic albino Jesuit protection from two priests who were abducted and interrogated by the government.

Sarcasm aside, you may be asking: So what? The problem is that many of our Catholic lay people agree more with everything that the media preaches than what any Pope preaches. This is the party of John F. Kennedy after all. Many lay people feel completely conflicted when Father preaches on Sunday what is labeled as hate-speech on Monday. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that American Catholics have stopped coming to mass, moreso than distrust of the church because of sexual abuse. At least, when I talk to my college friends who no longer go to church they acknowledge that this is one of the reasons why.

And so, what do many younger clergy say is the solution: If the liberals hate us then we should become conservative! After all, we agree on abortion and abortion is really the only thing that's important, right? Let's all listen to Fox News and read! Let's demonize media by calling it all "liberal media" and tell our people that they can only watch Fox News or EWTN. That's great until you remember the strong objections that Pope John Paul II had with the Bush administration with regard to the two middle-eastern wars and, in particular, the war in Iraq. Remember Pope John Paul pleading with the Bush Administration to not invade Iraq and further weaken the area? If your answer to that is no, it may be because you only listened to Fox News, which was (arguably) one of the best propaganda devices for the war the Bush Administration had at its disposal. I'm pretty sure Fox News is the only network that still to this day believes weapons of mass destruction were hauled out of Iraq at the beginning of the war and that President Bush was perfectly justified in invading. Everyone else knows that the war was an inevitable oedipal war that has done nothing but anger the Islamic world...and made an American Papacy seem inconceivable to some commentators.

So, where do we go from here? One side is openly hostile toward us and the other uses us when we agree with them and ignores us when we don't. The animosity and hatred is just too deep on the one hand and the roots of anti-intellectual, anti-catholic Know-Nothing evangelicalism too present in the other. How do we become a moral voice again in a culture that seems increasingly only to accept the moral voice of the dominant political party in their life? What if we took seriously the model of an Argentinian Cardinal who seeks to remove the "pomp" of the job in favor of humble service? What if, instead of looking at Pope Francis as the exception to the rule, if we, clergy, tried to model our life after his? What if we clergy first and foremost wanted to be people of prayer and study and left nice rectories and cars to the concerns of the CEO. What if we became THE place that people went to in order to feel closer to God? Let me pause there for a day or two and come back to what that might mean. Your comments are welcome.

Go and sin no more

My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Grace and peace to you in God, our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ whose life and death have set us free. One rather effective way of praying is to read a passage of sacred scripture and then ask God to send the Holy Spirit down upon you to help, through your imagination, to enter into what’s happening in the story. So, you could imagine from last week that you’re the younger son being embraced by a loving Father who forgives you after you squandered your inheritance on a life of dissipation. Or, from the week before, you can imagine yourself standing on a mountain when you notice a bush on fire. When you investigate a little closer, you hear the voice of God revealing a part of himself to you, speaking his name with love. If you’ve never tried this type of prayer before, I’d encourage you to do so especially if you have a good imagination. However, let me provide one caution from today’s gospel before you begin.

Today’s Gospel passage carries with it much baggage. It is used by many self-styled theologians, secular humanists, and politicians to attempt to suppress the moral voice of the church. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” people generally say at the end of this story, though that’s actually from a completely different part of a completely different book of the Bible. In this story, we know that Jesus was afraid to come to Jerusalem because the Jewish leadership was trying to kill him. He comes in secret with his disciples and immediately goes to the Temple. You’d think he’d want to avoid this place so filled with the very people who want to kill him but, as we heard a few weeks ago when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple, he wants to be in his Father’s house. While he’s in the Temple, he has several interactions with the Jewish leaders who were responsible for it, the scribes and Pharisees. This is just one of them.

Imagine, for a second, being the woman caught in the act of adultery. You’re probably not completely dressed and certainly not dressed well enough to be standing on the Temple. You’ve been caught in an incredibly embarrassing act cheating or your husband, helping someone else cheat on his wife, or both. In the back of your mind you knew this could happen but you decided that the chances of anyone caring were pretty slim. I mean, everyone does this, right? It’s not like your murdering someone, after all. Suddenly the doors are ripped open and you are hauled to the Temple Mount while your co-conspirator gets off scot-free. Maybe he ran away. More likely the men know that it would be less controversial to simply kill a woman because of her status in society. You crouch on the ground covering your head only allowing one eye to be open as you anticipate the pain from the first rock. The only man who can save you from this torture is an unknown Rabbi who seems totally disconnected, almost as though he doesn’t care about the world. But, then you hear the words this man says. He doesn’t say, as Moses did, “Let the one who witnessed the crime be the one to cast the first stone.” No. Instead, he says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, in your crouched position from the one eye you have opened, you watch as the last set of feet drops the stones they had brought with them and walks away. Lastly, it is just you and Jesus. You look up at him as he remains drawing in the dust and hear the incredible words of freedom that you never imagined you’d ever hear, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

There is nothing wrong with entering into prayer like that. However, if I may, I’d like to suggest that most of us are putting ourselves in the wrong character if we do that. The woman is a sinner caught in the act of sinning. She sits completely quiet awaiting her sentence until she is freed and then is given a fresh start, a choice as to whether she will sin from now on or not. I don’t believe this applies to most of us. I think most of us, if we are honest, are the scribes and Pharisees. Now, before you walk out, give me a chance to explain.

These people are perfectly justified in doing what they’re doing. We may be tempted to think that they’re just over-judgmental busybodies who are condemning people in what is essentially a private act. But, adultery is never a private act. At minimum, this affected three people: the two people involved and the spouse. It probably affected children, parents, friends, and a whole host of other people and it violated the sacred quality of marriage. The penalty was clear, stoning. The scribes and Pharisees want to force Jesus to have to make an unpopular decision: Either sit by and watch a woman be stoned to death by your declaration or change the law and diminish the importance of marriage. Jesus, instead, offers a third route. And, in my opinion, this is where I find myself especially entering in as one of the chief Pharisees.

Jesus sits on the ground and starts to scribble. At first, it doesn’t seem like he’s writing anything but then you can see that he is slowly writing the word “adultery” on the ground. Right when he is finished, he takes the palm of his hand and wipes it out. Then, he writes the word “hatred” on the ground and wipes it out. Then he writes the word “gossip” on the ground and wipes it out. What’s he saying? What does this mean? I don’t understand. So, he stands up and looks at us with those eyes that knew this woman was adulterous even before she set foot on the Temple and says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And we finally understand that when he was writing those sins on the ground, he knew not only her sin but the sins of each one of us. He wants to forgive us for what we’ve done. What stops us from forgiving each other? What stops us from putting down our rocks, going, and sinning no more?