Thursday, March 13, 2014

What a Difference a Pope Makes

I'm an atheist.  I'd say I was an agnostic because there is always room for doubt, but that term implies being more on the fence than is accurate in my case, and it seems disingenuous to use it.

Since I don't believe there is any plan or cosmic justice, I think the responsibility of caring for one another and providing our existence with any meaning falls squarely on us.  My philosophy is we should try to leave the world better than we found it, and to err on the side of compassion whenever possible.  The Golden Rule is a good idea, regardless of where you think it originated.  I honestly believe we are happiest when we are being our best selves, and when we help others instead of behaving selfishly.  Ethics are important to me, and I believe love is at the core of what matters.

The problem with a label like atheist, however, is that I'm lumped in with people based on what we don't believe, not what we do, so we aren't really a group.  We're a vague category at best, and not organized or unified by anything in particular.  There are atheists out there with whom I do not agree on much.  Many people of faith jump to conclusions about what being an atheist may or may not be based on what they assume we lack.  Most of the time the assumptions are negative, so I have found myself in situations where I'm careful not to offer that information about myself.  I don't like being prejudged. 

In turn I try my best not to prejudge others.  I've known people of varying faiths who I thought were admirable, and others who were horrible.  There are people I love dearly who find comfort and inspiration in their religions and I would never begrudge them that.  There are those who cling to their faith out of lazy habit, or to prop up their egos with a sense of superiority, and for that I have little patience.  I don't care what you call your belief system.  I just care that you come to it with intellectual honesty, good intent, and that you don't use it to inflict harm.

My biggest frustration with organized religion is when people allow themselves to become distracted by dogma and details to the detriment of the big picture and kindness.  There are contradictions in religious teachings because there are contradictions in life, and people can get bogged down in such details with disastrous results.  There are very few (if any) absolutes that cover everything.  We have to be willing to use compassion and good judgement to know when a greater good is more important than a common rule, regardless of how holy you believe that rule to be.  There are too many examples of custom and belief being taken to perverse extremes throughout history all over the world.  People of all belief systems need to be better than that.

The ways in which I think organized religion succeeds is in the comfort it can provide to individuals who need direction, and in using strength in numbers to collectively help others.  On an individual level most people of faith I know are decent at heart and strive to do good, and involvement in a religious community is a way to maximize those efforts.  I've met a few believers who have admitted that the threat of divine punishment is all that keeps them from intentionally hurting others for their own selfish pleasure, and to them I say, yes, by all means, you keep on believing, for all our sakes.

My father was raised Jewish and my mother Christian Science.  My brothers and I briefly attended Sunday school as small children, but for the most part were taught about different religions, not taught to follow any of them.  Having spent my life observing other people living with such traditions I'm glad not to have been raised in one myself because it allows me some perspective that I think people with particular emotional attachment to such ideas lack.  I believe all religions are worth study because of the insight they give us about humanity; what about ourselves we think we need to control or encourage or condemn is always interesting.

We share this world with one another.  As much as one group's philosophy shouldn't have to impact mine or yours, that's not how the world functions.  The majority of the members of the Supreme Court of the United States are Catholic.  I can't escape that influence if this is where I want to live, so what Catholics believe matters to me whether I like it or not. 

I have mixed feelings about the Catholic church.  Getting past the supernatural elements in the stories and ceremonies, the Catholic focus on helping the poor and the needy reflects admirably the most important concerns and teachings of Jesus.  When they put their energy into serving the weak and the vulnerable without judgement they are at their finest.  When they let preserving the mechanics of the hierarchy come before compassionate goals, they are disgraceful.  This is true of all institutions, religious or otherwise, but in recent years the dichotomy between what the Catholic church supposedly is and what it actually does is something I have found particularly troubling.

So much so that as I researched places to volunteer my time to help the needy in my neighborhood I found myself struggling with the fact that the organizations that seemed to be most accessible and doing the best work were part of the Catholic church, and I didn't know what to do.  I was reluctant to assist with the good works of the church for fear of inadvertently representing that organization.  The last pope, with his expensive habits and focus on adherence to rules over more important priorities, offended my ideas of what a pope or any good Catholic should be, and did not present an image of something I could support.  The last pope, frankly, made me angry.

I didn't want to be associated with him.  This created a lot of cognitive dissonance for me, because the charity work is still needed, regardless of who gets the credit.  I continued to seek out secular outlets for feeding the hungry and helping the poor but to no avail.  I worried that vanity was preventing me from doing what was right, but it's not a small thing to assist a group that you think is in some way causing pain to others through potentially harmful teachings.

Enter Pope Francis.  How does this man matter to an atheist?  More than many Catholics might realize.

Pope Francis strikes me as compassionate, humble, and kind.  I like him.

I have followed his story with interest since he assumed the papacy one year ago, and I am impressed.  He's not living in the most lavish surroundings available.  He's not dressing extravagantly.  He still finds ways to go out and help the poor directly.  He seems to be approachable and have a sense of humor.  He does not project an air of superiority, but of fellowship.  He wants to make helping the poor and the vulnerable a priority and seems to want his followers to not get mired in the minutia of ancient doctrine when there is more important work to be done.  This is a pope who seems to me to be walking the walk, and it's inspiring.  His actions so far appear to follow the admonition of Francis of Assisi to "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."

There will be points on which I will never agree with this pope and his teachings because I am not Catholic and I have drawn different conclusions about what's best or possible based on my own experience in the world.  However, I don't feel threatened or excluded.  I feel accepted.  That's new, that's remarkable, and that strikes me as the way a decent church should make everyone feel.

I still await a conclusive statement from Pope Francis about the horrific history of child sexual abuse in the church and how he plans to deal with such issues going forward.  If I want to get angry to the point of distraction I only have to think about the priests here in Milwaukee who raped boys in their school for the deaf and specifically targeted those who could not communicate with their parents.  That those men weren't punished....  This story always makes me cry or want to hit things if I dwell on it for very long so I have to move on, but something must be done.  The pope's few official statements on this topic so far are not encouraging, but I have hope for the first time in a long time that maybe the head of the Catholic church will at some point publicly condemn such crimes in a manner befitting their severity.  He could make a difference in how such things are viewed and handled.  I hope and believe this is a man who would put the well-being of children before an institution. We'll see.

In the meantime, when a friend down the street said we could go with them to serve food once a month at St Benedict's downtown I finally decided to go.  And we've been back.  And we plan to go as often as they'll have us.  It means a great deal to me and my children to do something.  It's not much, but it's a start.  It's the one event each month that my kids look forward to over any other.  They are good people who want very much to do good in the world which makes me prouder than I can say.  I'm glad we've found a place to go where we feel we are helping.

I don't think we would be if the last pope were still heading the church.  I did not want to project some kind of tacit approval of that man and his public statements.  But Pope Francis?  I may not be Catholic, but if someone wants to conflate my efforts to help my community with what he has had to say so far, well, that wouldn't bother me.  Pope Francis essentially got an atheist to start bringing her kids regularly into a church to help feed the hungry.

That's the kind of difference a pope can make.  That's the kind of difference I like to believe we all can make if we lead from a place of compassion.


  1. Thoughtful post (coming from a Catholic :) ) I've struggled with my faith for more personal reasons over the past years which really have nothing to do with the big church as a whole. The church is over 2000 years old and there are scores of examples of priests and lay people who have done incredible amounts of both good and bad in the name of the church. It's a human institution made of human failings. The pope is at the end of the day just human with the same sins as the rest of us. I try to focus more on our parish and our family and helping our kids understand what their religion is all about and educate them to be able to make their own choice when they are adults. My in-laws are great examples for our kids (and me frankly) on focusing on the social justice and service aspect of our religion. My father-in-law is actually the vatican representative to the UN for development and runs two charities (one is peru and one in afghanistan) without fanfare. It's just what he does. But he has also been very good about inviting people of other religions into our family life (Jewish and Muslim in particular). Being Catholic is part of our tradition and family life and I am glad we pass this on to our kids. I really believe it helps in their moral development and ability to think in the abstract. I think our presentation of Catholicism is more important than who is pope or bishop.

    I love me some Pope Francis. He is all the things you mentioned above. I especially love his recent comments on homosexuality given my sister and many friends. I love that our kids think he's awesome, but also that they give high fives to our parish priests and think they are cool.

    Living life by dogma without faith, understanding and kindness ends up being polarizing and judgemental. Being a Pharisee which is not what Jesus' message was all about (in my humble opinion--and what I talk about with our kids). Spewting your religious beliefs at someone else whithout understanding your own or their pespective is also wrong on so many levels.

    Glad to hear you guys are doing something positive as a family. Sorry, if they fact that it was a Catholic parish providing the service made you pause.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I think any organization is really its members, but there is a real role for those that include a figurehead or any sort. Part of what seems special about Pope Francis is the way he appears to be trying to reflect what his modern congregation looks like on the ground, rather than dictate purely from a theoretical place from on high. It's like he knows that stating basic doctrine such as "homosexuality is a sin" can have harmful consequences to real people, and that it's better to stand among people and start from a place of respect while worrying about more basic and important things. His "Who am I to judge?" comment on the topic is mind-blowing from a pope. That should humble everyone. Anyway, just like not being embarrassed by your political representatives or other people in your profession, it's encouraging when the people you share an association with are admirable.

  2. I was raised in a protestant family and am a member of an Episcopal Church. My husband was raised in a traditional Catholic church. I, too, have found Pope Francis to be a breath of fresh air for the Catholic Church and I am optimistic he will make his powerful, global church a better place and, in so doing, make the world a better place too.

    1. It's reassuring to feel like you can trust and admire leaders of countries and religions that you don't even belong to! Makes the whole world seem a bit more sane.

  3. You could have written this post about me. This is what I've been trying to explain for so long, and failing at trying to find right way to express what I believe in, seeing there's a "lack" of belief with religion. I am quite glad to have found someone else who share similar view as I do. I agree wholly about the pope, and he is someone I do admire.

    1. It is hard to try to define yourself by what you don't believe or do. I've often wished there was a secular version of church for people to gather and collectively do some good, but the ones I've heard of seem weird. Probably because when you lack a framework that is considered too holy to tamper with it becomes hard to know what to build off of. Anyway, glad to know you are out there and I'm not alone!

  4. Great post, Kory! Someone smarter than me pointed out that one can be an atheist and an agnostic, insofar as atheism refers to what one's beliefs are (they don't include a god), and agnosticism refers to what what one really knows about it (without knowledge). So maybe you can have both. The set of things I know are true is certainly a subset of things I believe!

    1. Technically I think you're right, but if people use labels as a kind of shorthand it's safer to go with how most people interpret them. I had an interesting conversation with a Catholic woman recently who was all upset because her teenage daughter declared she was now agnostic, and she said to me, "At least she's not an atheist." And I told her I was actually and atheist and that it wasn't the end of the world. We discussed it a little bit, and I told her I was mostly impressed her daughter was comfortable enough to tell her about her doubts and questions and evolving beliefs. Seemed like a parenting win in my book, not a failure.

      And speaking of definitions, it was hard for me during this post not to want to use the word catholic in its meaning of being broad or diverse, but I think anyone hearing the phrase "catholic education" anymore hears it as "Catholic education," and then things can get confused. (Words can be strange and fussy things.)

  5. Okay, that was weird. The first word I had to type to prove I'm not a robot was "mark." Almost like someone was watching.

    1. The Google-webs are always watching. (Hi Google-webs!)

  6. Credo in unum Google.

  7. The biggest reason I converted to Catholicism was its focus on social justice. That, to me, is the most important thing in this world--to care for one another.

    I really like what Peg had to say and agree with her.

    I did NOT like the previous Pope. At all. Ever. Neither did the religious sisters with whom I worked at my private school.

    Pope Francis practices what he preaches and has been a welcome breath of fresh air to our Church. The fact we have a Pope from Latin America is HUGE. That he has said so many incredible things in the past year is astounding to me. Since the Church is so old, change has a tendency to move at a snail's pace, making everything Pope Francis has done and said seem even more remarkable.

    There are many parts of the Catholic faith I continue to struggle with (and, most likely always will do so), but I can now say "I'm Catholic" without feeling a twinge of discomfort for fear of being judged. I truly believe Pope Francis is living the most Christ-like existence he can and is modeling for others how it is to be done. I really do love the man (even if I do have some beef with some of the things he's said). But, heck, I have beef with things B says all the time and I love *him*, right? ;o)

    1. I'm glad you have a pope you're proud of, and I hope Catholics don't mind people like me sharing him a little. Your description of your feelings toward the last pope remind me of how I felt when Bush was president. I gave him every benefit of the doubt I could, but in the end I simply resented that he was the reason my husband was sent to Iraq. I remember feeling apologetic about being an American during that time and wanting to say, "We're not all like that!" It's funny to me that now there are Americans who feel they are suffering through Obama's presidency that same way, even though for me he's such a relief.

      I wonder if Pope Francis is a problem for certain groups of Protestants who may now be having trouble lumping Catholics in under the generic Christian label. There used to be such a strong division, politically, between those groups in this country, but then in recent years they were more of a block. Will those divisions arise again? I keep thinking if I like this pope so much, he must be causing angst for somebody.

  8. I like the new pope, too.

    A brief background on my beliefs to preface my comment with: I was raised Catholic but at the moment only my parents still attend a Catholic Church. My brother's beliefs sound very similar to yours. I identify most with a more general-mainstream-Christian faith, but find it challenging to find a church to attend (or a denomination to claim as mine) that will not tell me how I must vote (as I am, politically, far more liberal than most Christians) or make judgements about my lack of stay-at-home-momness or whatever thing I'm doing that isn't toeing the nice-little-christian-wife-and-mommy-line. I'd like to think of myself as an intellectual person who is accepting of others' beliefs, but the problem I have found is that many Christians (or Catholics, or whoever...) feel the same way about themselves, while voting against gay marriage (or insert religious-and-politically-charged-issue here) which in my mind is an indicator of being NOT-so-accepting-of-all. So... I guess you'll just have to take my word for it. :-)

    All that to say, I also like the new pope. I work for a Catholic Hospital system and I have found there are some interesting ways in which that set of values can impact day-to-day employee issues and patient care, and it'd be nice if his more tolerant attitude could become a catalyst for change in this system as well.

    And like you, I am so horrified by the sexual abuse history within the church. That alone was enough to turn me off from Catholicism (though not my faith in general) forever. This is not to say that any other religious group is immune from such scandals, but the way in which it was covered up for years horrifies me in particular. I hope this new pope can maybe find a way to address this issue.

    Good post. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on religion and faith and I'm glad you've found a place to serve that you are (more) comfortable with and that it's been such a good experience for your family.
    -Lisa K

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and history here, Lisa.

      It's always interesting to know what drives people to or from a particular faith. My grandfather on my mother's side was Catholic to the point of almost becoming a priest, but when he watched his favorite sister die painfully due to illness in their home he lost his faith in a loving God. He was one of the most decent people I've ever known. (And funny, and wonderful.) I think he would have liked this new pope, too.

      The child rape scandals in the church just get worse the more you learn about them. Knowing that abusers were simply shuffled around rather than punished is infuriating. If a child of mine had suffered at the hands of a person I trusted and who was also supposed to speak for God I don't know how I wouldn't be enraged forever. Any organization (from a church to Penn State Football) does not deserve to exist if it tortures children. I would like to see reform that holds abusers criminally responsible for their actions and does not tolerate keeping such people in positions of power. So far Pope Francis has not addressed this issue in any substantial way. He's been vague at best, which is deeply disappointing. But, the seismic shift he's managed in the Catholic church in only a year is stunning, so I hold out hope that maybe when he does focus on it publicly it will make an impact we can't yet imagine.

  9. Couldn't agree more! He really is a breath of fresh air. (And I'm not Catholic, either. And I'm also an atheist/agnostic type.)

    1. Doesn't it just make the world as a whole seem better when you know there are decent people in it? I think the other thing about Pope Francis is he seems happy. How nice is that to see someone out there who just looks delighted to be meeting people and trying to make a difference? It's great.

  10. Pope Francis is awesome and I love him. I'm thrilled to see that non-Catholics love him as well.

    And he HAS made statements about the sexual abuse scandal, has in fact pledged to create a Vatican commission to address it going forward. Pope Benedict himself defrocked 460 priests during the last two years of his papacy. Quoting from an article in "In 2001, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, arranged for all abuse cases to be sent to his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. At the helm of the CDF, he made reportedly included Internet offenses against children into canon law, included child abuse offenses for all minors under the age of 18, implemented a case by case waiving of the statute of limitations on individual cases, and facilitated the dismissal of offenders.

    The vast majority of cases, however, never go to court, often because the statute of limitations has expired.

    On Wednesday, Pope Francis derided sexual abuse as “the shame of the church” during his daily mass.

    "But are we ashamed? So many scandals that I do not want to mention individually, but all of us know...We know where they are! Scandals, some who charged a lot of money....The shame of the Church,” he said.

    "But are we all ashamed of those scandals, of those failings of priests, bishops, laity?” he continued. Where was the Word of God in those scandals; where was the Word of God in those men and in those women? They did not have a relationship with God! They had a position in the Church, a position of power, even of comfort. But the Word of God, no!”

    Last month, the pope announced the establishment of a commission to help the pontiff decide how best to protect children from sexual abuses by priests and provide aid to past victims."

    The United States Council of Catholic Bishops has a "zero tolerance" policy for sex abuse. All church employees undergo background checks as do parent volunteers in the schools, and everyone who works with kids in any capacity, including parents, has to take ongoing classes about recognizing and preventing sexual abuse. In my own diocese, when allegations arose a couple of years ago (allegations from the past; there have been no recent allegations) that priest was immediately removed from duty, subjected to criminal penalties, and ultimately defrocked.

    All this is to say that whatever the public perception may be, the Church has now addressed and continues to address this issue, and I have no doubt that Pope Francis will have more to say about it in the future.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment!

      I am aware of the statements Pope Francis has made so far, and I personally don't find them to be enough considering the scope of the damage the church has done. Of course I believe the church is making attempts to improve things. But I would have thought the response to the public about the recent UN report would be bigger:

      The church has been involved in systematic rape and coverup for so very long that the amount of work they will have to do to reverse perceptions is enormous, and in my opinion they are not taking enough steps to make amends. They do not have a good record of dealing with victims:

      And even if they are making advances in removing power from offending priests in some places it is not by any means universal:

      Of course there are people who commit abuse in any part of society and in any religion or profession. What makes the Catholic church's involvement in such crimes so horrific is the degree to which people at the highest levels chose to allow it to continue, and thus enable people to destroy thousands upon thousands of lives. The local story that gets me is this one:

      It's infuriating that the offending priest got to live out his days in quiet retirement on the church's dime. Similar stories from around the globe are so easy to find and just as upsetting.

      I'm glad proper steps are finally being taken. However, there is much penance left to be paid. Crimes against humanity should not be forgotten, and more and bigger gestures need to be made for any real healing to begin and new trust to be established.