Dear Future Pope,
Welcome to the job! I’m sure you are overwhelmed, excited and anxious about the massive responsibility with which you have just been endowed. Or maybe you’re feeling peaceful, basking in the glow of God’s will, and your confidence in it. Either way, you’ve stepped into a mess – no other way to put it.
The abdication of Pope Benedict XVI means that you now head a Church in crisis. In a complex and suffering world, the Church has been struggling for some time in their quest to connect with those of us in the pew. The disconnect is inversely related to age; younger demographics are finding it harder and harder to relate to the Church and its teachings. Discerning a way to overcome this challenge is now your job.
I am your challenge.
I was raised in the Catholic Church. My mother came from a large Irish Catholic family. With her 12 brothers and sisters, and well over 20 cousins running around, my life was a parade of sacraments and celebrations. I participated in catechism classes. I made my First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation. My confirmation name was Bridget. I was, at the time, a vapid, shallow thing, and in many ways, the opposite of Saint Bridget. Her story was one of rejecting earthly beauty and romantic pursuits in favor of her love of God. She was a woman of compassion and generosity- beautiful inside and out. Perhaps I wanted to remind myself that I was capable of more depth. Maybe the idea of faith not being incompatible with beauty in the end was reassuring. I don’t know. I was a dumb kid. We mostly went to Church on Christmas and Easter as we got older and schedules got busier, but I identified as a Catholic when asked… and on Ash Wednesday, when no one needed to ask.
But if we’re being honest, my reservations with the Church began to emerge in fifth grade.
See, my mom was Catholic, but my dad was Protestant. They respected each others’ beliefs; in their minds, all that mattered was that they were both Christian. They wanted their children to be Christian as well, but in a parental expression of their mutual respect, made sure we were exposed to both of their churches. That meant some Sundays we were at Mass, and other times we went to my dad’s very, very Evangelical Church. That meant that on top of my catechism classes, I went to youth groups that gave out awards for Bible verse memorization.
In fifth grade, one week started what would become a life of feeling unwelcome in any church. My catechism teacher that week was discussing the difference between mortal and venial sins. She explained that mortal sins endangered your soul. When a student asked if that meant you could go to hell, she said yes. She indicated that missing Mass was a mortal sin. I piped up that I sometimes missed Mass because we went to my dad’s church. Her response?
“That counts as missing Mass, so yes- that’s a mortal sin.”
Wondering why I should go to hell because I prayed in a different location, I went to youth group a few days later. As we bowed our heads to pray, and as Catholics often do, I automatically began with the Sign of the Cross. A collective gasp came from the youth group leaders- kids themselves at only ten years my senior. They pulled me to the side to inquire about my pre-prayer hand signals, and when I told them that I also attended the Catholic church in town, they expressed concern for my soul over my worship of the Mother Mary.
To say I was confused would be putting it lightly.
But like I said, that was only the beginning. It would be silly if I were to hold you and the Catholic Church accountable to one bad experience. And to be fair, it wasn’t just the Catholics. As I grew up, the seeming competition between congregations in my small, conservative town caused me to become more and more disenchanted with organized religion in general. I had my own beliefs, but found myself a member of a community with which I could not commune. This was particularly true of the Catholic Church.
As a woman who has never considered gender to be an obstacle to achieving my goals, the Church’s treatment of women was hard to swallow. It didn’t make sense that women were not allowed to be priests; what about being female negates our ability to effectively communicate on issues of faith? It didn’t make sense that the Church would continue to stand against birth control; procreation does not make me more or less of a Christian, and it doesn’t seem awfully Christ-like to doom the faithful in poverty and their children into a life of hunger and desolation in pursuit of such an argument. I cringed as I listened to descriptions of marriage in terms of female submission and male provision from Church leadership. It’s hard to feel at home praying in a Church that seems to see your role as one of reproductive submission.
I mean no disrespect- I know the Church preaches that women should be cherished and protected. I know there are many women of strength in the Bible. I also know that these messages sound a little hollow and tinny in light of Church practices.
The sex scandal and pursuant cover-up turned my stomach. It spoke to a system set up to protect its participants- not lead those they serve in faith. It spoke to a pervasive sense of privilege. I have defended the Church to critics in the wake of these revelations, but that had far less to do with my allegiance to a hierarchy than it did the good, hard-working priests I had met in the past.
And then there’s the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage. I’m not really concerned with the justifications. The thing is, nothing taught by the Church about homosexuality has ever lined up with real life for me. Some of my best friends are gay. They are beautiful people, inside and out. I cannot fathom a God that would condemn someone for loving someone else. It is impossible for me to support an organization that actively encourages policies that discriminate against them. That’s a deal breaker.
I will never be able to completely cut ties with the Church; my sprawling family guarantees this. I will always do the Sign of the Cross when I pray. I still think about what I’m going to give up for Lent. I whisper a rushed Our Father when I get nervous. But in many ways, this is a merely matter of habit and comfort.
So perhaps it’s not fair to say you face a challenge. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say you face nearly impossible odds. Realistically, unless the Church were to rather rapidly modernize, I doubt you will be able to overcome these obstacles. Given the typical rate of Catholic dogma evolution, such a modernization is unlikely. Like I said in the beginning, you’ve stepped into a mess.
I suppose that means all that’s left to do is pray that you have the courage to be Christ-like. After all, if the stories are to be believed, he was pretty damn revolutionary himself.