Every few days, it seems, Pope Francis says something so head-spinningly sane I feel like saying a Hail Mary, and not even for penance. It was shocking enough when he not only pointedly rejected the material excesses of the Imperial Papacy, but even indirectly shamed his predecessors for their inattention to scandalous and growing global inequality.
That alone wouldn’t be sufficient to re-plant my ass in a pew at this late stage, but today he added that the Church’s antediluvian and increasingly strident obsession with everybody’s sex lives was unseemly, perhaps even a tad malodorous, and I’ve suddenly become a highly improbable fan of the guy.
Not that even such an improbably heartening turn of events would ever return me to the church of my youth, since I had discarded anything but feigned belief in its teachings by the time I was eight. My mother, bless her heart, had plied me with thick books of fairy tales and Greek mythology to encourage me to read, and it worked a little too well; mainly I learned that make believe and observable reality are two different things, and should be treated as such.
But as I sat in church, continually astonished that educated, professional adults like the ones around me appeared to believe in things a child could see are false, in those days, priests were inclined to respectfully avoid hectoring people about their private lives. Homilies were far more likely, if they delved into politics at all, to decry violence, poverty, and political oppression than they were to, well, toe the Republican party line as they so often do today. What a difference a few decades makes.
Beginning in the 1980’s, the church hierarchy evidently looked at the the world the way Walmart greedily eyes a too-prosperous community, and made a lot of the same types of decisions. The First World, as we used to call it, was seemingly inexorably secularizing, and the markets for souls were moving to the global South. And in the US, mainline, liberal denominations were declining as the Religious Right was in ascendance, with its overtly political messages and tactics. What, pray tell, was an ancient religion to do in such a pickle?
Unfortunately, the church chose to join the new breed of Bible-bangers rather than try to beat them. It might have just been a coincidence that Republicans, in addition to their Family Values, also favored something called “Tort Reform,” which couldn’t help but be alluring to a deep-pocketed outfit trying to weasel out of an enormous liability for decades of all but institutional sexual abuse, but there it is.
And outside the US, growth was to be found in Latin America and Africa, both known for their sexually repressive cultures. Therefore, based on the same short-term thinking that any corporation could have come up with, why not run headlong in the opposite direction the world was clearly moving?
Thirty years on, it seems that we have a Pope who belatedly realizes that the path the church has chosen leads nowhere, if only from a business standpoint; the authoritarian message is selling less and less, leaving aside its intrinsic antipathy to the teachings of Jesus. Whether or not a return to a more humane, less punishing approach to doctrine heralds deeper thinking about the proper role of religion in public life, or is just a cynical rebranding for a shopworn product, I’ll raise a mimosa to the new Pope this Sunday.
Photo by Jason under Creative Commons license