SOMETIMES, when I kneel alone in a pew in the far back shadows of a church, face buried in my hands, a forbidden thought intrudes: You should have left all this behind a long time ago. The joyful new pope has quickened the affection even of the disaffected, including me, but, oddly, I sense the coming of a strange reversal in the Francis effect. The more universal the appeal of his spacious witness, the more cramped and afraid most of his colleagues in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church have come to seem.
It is easy to love Pope Francis for his resounding defense of the poor, his simplicity, his evident large heart. But the moral grandeur of his personal triumph throws into stark relief the continuing pettiness of the institution over which he presides, a pettiness that inevitably seeks to impose itself on him. What magic, actually, can Francis’s singular magnanimity work on the church’s iron triangle of bureaucracy, dogma and male power?
The intruding voice in my head keeps asking, for example, why has Francis, too, joined in the denigration of American nuns?
Why is the culture of clerical immunity that unleashed a legion of priest-rapists being protected instead of dismantled?
Why in the world beatify, or advance toward sainthood, Pope Paul VI? With his solemn reiteration, in 1968, of the ban on contraception, that pontiff, whatever counterbalancing virtues he displayed, single-handedly made Roman Catholicism a church of bad conscience.
Is an awful truth about dogged church backlash on display here?
No one cares whether one bent man in a back pew, like me, throws in the altar cloth at last, but the religious disenchantment of the secular age puts the question even more broadly: Why the church at all? Yet as soon as the voice in my head forces the question, I know the answer, although it’s hard to explain. Unlike many Protestants, Catholics have long put their practical faith more in the community of belief than in the person around whom that community gathers.
We are on intimate terms with saints, the mother of God, the parish priest, the good sisters, fellow Knights of Columbus or Legionnaires of Mary; we make our home in the seasons of the year, from Lent and Easter to Advent and Christmas; the trusty liturgical cycle; a beloved sacrament for each stage of life; the silence before and after Mass; holy water. But what’s left when, owing to intrusions of power or sex or new ideas, the ancient solidarity cracks?
Compared, say, with Evangelicals, we Catholics do not speak easily of Jesus Christ: no “closer walks” for us.
Yet Jesus Christ is the point of all the smells, bells, rules and dogma; the point, finally, of being Catholic. Ironically, the failures of the church make that point with power, for it is when one dares imagine the deliberate act of lapsing that the image of Jesus Christ snaps into foreground focus. Here, perhaps, is the key to Pope Francis’s astounding arrival, for beyond all matters of style, doctrine and behavior, he is offering a sure glimpse of a fleeting truth about the faith: The man on his knees washing the feet of the tired poor is the Son of God.
Francis is pointing more to that figure than to himself, or even to the church, which is why institution-protecting conservatives are right to view him with alarm. For this pope, the church exists for one reason only — to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real. Everything else is rubrics.
So what can a modern person believe about Jesus? There are intellectual obstacles to faith. The church has always shaped what it believes in terms drawn from the prevailing worldview, but history is the record of one worldview yielding to the next — from Ptolemy and Aquinas to Copernicus and Darwin to Einstein and Hubble.
More than a century ago, the church was thrown for a loop by the mind of modernity, and even now struggles to assimilate the established ideas that change is essential to the human condition; that truth is always seen from a particular point of view; that all language about God falls short of God.
And, speaking of God, in what way, actually, can Jesus be said to be divine? A scientifically minded believer wants to discard that notion, but before he does, he should remember that if Jesus were not regarded as somehow divine almost from the start of his movement, we would never have heard of him. And if faith in the divinity of Jesus is left behind because it fails the test of contemporary thought, Jesus will ultimately be forgotten. Is it possible that contemporary thought can learn from this old article of faith? What if the so-called divinity of Jesus lays bare not so much the mystery of God as the majesty of what it is to be human?
But, in addition to intellectual barriers, there are moral obstacles to faith in Jesus, too — not just the blatant sins of the church like sex abuse or misogyny, but also sacrosanct core traditions of Christianity that turn out to be grotesque distortions of who Jesus was.
Chief among these is the way in which the full and permanent Jewishness of Jesus was forgotten, so much so that his story is told in the Gospels themselves as a story of Jesus against the Jews, as if he were not one of them. Against the way Christians often remember it, Jesus did not proclaim a New Testament God of love against an Old Testament God of judgment (which girds the anti-Jewish bipolarity of grace versus law; generosity versus greed; mercy versus revenge). Rather, as a Shema-reciting son of Israel, he proclaimed the one God, whose judgment comes as love.
Imagined as a zealot who attacked the Temple, Jesus, on the contrary, surely revered the Temple, along with his fellow Jews. If, as scholars assume, he caused a disturbance there, it was almost certainly in defense of the place, not in opposition to it. The narrative denouement of this conflicted misremembering occurred in the 20th century, when the anti-Semitism of Nazism laid bare the ultimate meaning of the church’s religious anti-Judaism.
The horrified reckoning after the Holocaust was the beginning of the Christian reform that remains the church’s unfinished moral imperative to this day.
Most emphatically, that reform must be centered in a critical rereading of the Gospel texts, so that the mis-remembered anti-Jewish Jesus can give way to the man as he was, and to the God whom he makes present in the lives of all who cannot stop seeing more than is before their eyes.
Such retrieval of the centrality of Jesus can restore a long-lost simplicity of faith, which makes Catholic identity — or the faith of any other church — only a means to a larger communion not just with fellow Jesus people, but with humans everywhere. All dogmas, ordinances and accretions of tradition must be measured against the example of the man who, acting wholly as a son of Israel, eschewed power, exuded kindness, pointed to one whom he called Father, and invited those bent over in the shadowy back to come forward to his table.
It was the table, I suddenly recall, that brought me here in the first place. The lights come up, the people arrive, and I stand.