I remember standing up and staring at the television one day when I was about five and being astounded. There was a man dressed in these incredibly intricate robes in front of a crowd of thousands planted center stage of the screen and I turned around to ask my mom who that was. ‘El es El Papa,’ she replied back. Our earthly father, Pope John Paul II. A means of understanding the Heavenly Father’s will through a chosen servant, she explained in equal parts Spanish and improving English.
To the young Hispanic boy who still fell asleep to his mother’s bedtime tales of David besting Goliath and journeys with the archangel Raphael, her description certainly sounded impressive. The Catholicism still coursing through my veins, I couldn’t help but taken aback by the man speaking in Italian to the hushed voices of the audience. There was a fierce strength to his words, a passion I would come to recognize as faith in my later years. The translated sentences moving too fast to properly catch, I nevertheless saw the blinding truth in him. He felt infallible to me, better than the rest of us. He felt right.
In a move expected by no one, the Catholic Church’s current Pope, Pope Benedict, announced today that he would be resigning his post as the Holy See at the end of February. Citing health reasons and age, Pope Benedict XVI is the first to voluntarily step down from his position in 600 years. His departure will begin the Cardinals’ democratic selection of a heavenly chosen voice of God anew, and already I can predict the chorus of reactions from both sides of the pulpit. Most will efflulgently praise the 85-year-old German for his eight years of papal service and lifelong dedication to the Church. Other more snarky ones will lament the reign of a man who spoke out against same sex marriage, contraception and women’s equality. They’ll probably be inclined to mention the elephant that is the Catholic Church’s negligent mishandling of their sex abuse scandal, a three-word phrase that comes woefully short of emphasizing the systemic coverup of priests who molested and raped scores of young men and women; all of which emerged under Pope Benedict’s direct watch. For the matter, I’m perfectly fine being in the latter camp.
But there is something separate to be said for the overwhelming fountain of flowerly language lionizing our departing Pope that’s sure to come our way. Articles will speak to the dignity of a man whose Church, billions of followers and all, is in decline. They’ll value his resolve in traveling across the world trying to mend relations with his Muslim and Jewish counterparts as well as his weary community. Tireless, humble, wise, revered, courageous, pious, the list goes on. Pope Benedict will receive a hero’s pardon for his selfless years of faith at the head of the Church. Many will pity him for having faced changing times in the world, of being a leader who stumbled at times to reconcile faith with reality. They’ll forgive him for not being perfect. And in that forgiveness, the game is given up.
As a former Catholic, I’ve always been struck by the infallibility clause of the papal office. Layered in historic declarations and Church tradition, the unerring nature of Peter’s successors is one of the more widely known aspects of popehood. And yet it’s so easily taken apart. Forget sex abuse, the massive amounts of collateral damage inflicted by the Catholic Church on its believers even today in the service of God’s word is enough alone to disprove that. Pregnant women dying on the hospital bed of a Catholic nation opposed to abortions; women hunted down as witches in Africa; countless diseases and deaths at the hands of a religion vehemently opposed to contraception; discrimination endorsed on every level. There is nothing infallible about the Church or its leader. For those of us who can afford to ignore the teachings of faith, we do. Just ask the 90% of Catholic Americans who use birth control. We just play along for the sake of the comfort that faith can bring us.
I look back at the memory of the television screen and I recognize how much I missed seeing about my childhood’s Pope. If I could look at him now, I would have seen an elderly man who would soon succumb to Parkinson’s with hopes and fears no different than my own. A man with prejudices and hatreds that ran no shallower than any in the crowd he was preaching to that day. I’d see a man with no personal understanding of the dynamics of the average lived life trying to lead billions of people, same as the one standing in front of us now.
None of this is to say that Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict are especially bad examples of humanity, only that that’s all they are. Human, right down to the bone. And the organization they were part of for so many years isn’t anything divinely special either; there’s nothing behind the curtain of the Roman Catholic Church but people trying to make sense of a world larger than themselves and coming up short. For all the undue credit we give the power of faith, and the men who represent it, it’s no better than anything else. (It’s a great deal worse than some) That’s why it’s so easy to forgive our leaving Pope for his transgressions, because we understand he’s not infallible.
And yet there’s a pit of anger in my stomach when I realize that if there was a Pope someday who advocated safe sex, marriage equality and science education, our world would be better off. It’s not the belief in a higher power that irks me, it’s the godawful track record faith has when it comes to improving our world.
Worse yet, it’s a bit saddening to know that most of us don’t take the step in questioning the whole idea of all-knowing faith itself.