ack in the day, when I was going through my instruction prior to converting to Catholicism, a priest asked this question: "If you stood accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" It's an excellent question, thought-provoking but also chilling, when one is forced to admit (as I do, freely) that most of the time I'd get off scot-free.
Pertinent to this, here's a corollary to that question, which I don't mind posing today: "If you weren't already Catholic today, would you be convinced to convert?"
I'm not entirely sure what my answer would be—it's always hard to answer a hypothetical, especially in a situation that depends on ignorance of what you already know. Given that, my temptation is to answer that question: No.
(If this were a radio program, you'd now hear me say, "The reason why, in a moment," followed by a commercial. But since I don't have commercials, you'll just have to imagine it, as a way of building a dramatic cliffhanger. OK, we're back.)
Catholicism had held a great deal of interest for me over the years prior to my conversion. At the beginning, there was an aesthetic component to it, what with the ritual and the symbolism and the ceremonial nature of the Mass.* I'd been drawn to the news coverage of the deaths of Paul VI and John Paul, I in 1978 and the conclaves that had ensued, and I'd been impressed by the dignity and bearing of the new pope, John Paul II. I'd begun reading more about the Church some time after that, and found not only an intellectual component that had been missing from my spiritual life, but a core set of beliefs that convinced me the Catholic Church stood for something. There wasn't anything particularly political or ideological about it—it was more of the idea that the Church, in her teachings, was something worth living—and dying—for.
*Much of which had, in the post-Vatican II world, disappeared by that time. Nonetheless, there were memories of earlier days, seen on television; in addition, mass media has always had a hard time shaking the myth of the old days in the Church; whenever you want to suggest religion on television or in the movies, the shorthand is always an ornamental Catholic church.
I've not made many comments about the current pope; it's a fray that for the most part is not worth getting into, since the voices that speak the loudest often have the least influence. Wading into the Catholic blogosphere is also an invitation to act in an uncharitable manner, and God knows I don't need any provocation in that area; I do well enough on my own.
However, based on the few things I've written, it probably would come as no surprise to you that I'm not a big fan of this Bishop of Rome. One must be careful here in parsing words; to say that I do not like him does not mean that I dislike him. It's more of a studied indifference, I suppose; nonetheless, I say in honesty that I do not like him. I worry about the fast and loose way in which he appears to use words, his apparent indifference to liturgical beauty, his identification with social justice to the (perhaps) detriment of theology. I don't like the way the MSM fawns over him. I don't like the way liberal Catholics use his words to justify their own reactionary beliefs (assuming, that is, that those beliefs are different from his own—with him, who can tell?), and I don't like the way "conservative" Catholics ridicule those who express such concerns.
This last group can be the most infuriating. When I was in politics, I used to say (coming from a conservative Republican perspective) that at least when the Democrats stabbed you, they did in in the chest, which meant you could see the blade coming. If you were stabbed by a Republican, on the other hand, you wouldn't know about it until you saw the tip of the blade protruding through your chest—in other words, after they had stuck it in your back. I feel much the same way about these supporters of the pope. They seem to go out of their way to antagonize people like me, using phrases like "those of us who get him" (meaning the rest of us are just too damn stupid to understand), and "I love this guy" (and the rest of us, apparently, don't). I'm not sure if these words are meant to infuriate, like poking a stick in the tiger's cage, or if they're just thoughtless. However, as is the case when a hammer falls on your foot, it doesn't matter whether it was accidentally dropped or if someone hit you with it: it still hurts.
I've resolved over the past months to watch this fight from the sidelines. When I was hospitalized a few years ago, I made a vow that I would try to avoid any discussions which tended to inflame the situation*. (I've been pretty good about that, but not perfect.) So I've had some time to think and observe what's going on, and try to keep from getting sucked into a whirlpool of depression.
*I also knew, instinctively, that were he at my bedside the pope would be as gentle and gracious as anyone could ask for. Which, again, is why I caution that I do not dislike him, something that would require active participation. Plus, just because someone is kind and loving, that doesn't necessarily mean they're competent.
And to get back to the question from the beginning of this piece (before the commercial break), my feeling is that there's very little coming out of the Church right now that can be considered a flag to which the wise can repair. There's precious little intellectual stimulation emanating from Rome; people who try to assure us of the orthodoxy of papal pronouncements often seem to be required to twist themselves into shapes that even the best chiropractor would be challenged to untie. For the first time since before my conversion, I didn't watch any of the papal ceremonies at Christmastime; I just didn't have the interest in it. There's no heft, no gravitas.
Frankly, were I approaching this as an outsider, I'm not at all sure I'd see anything that would convince me of what the Catholic Church stood for, if anything. That whole, "Who am I to judge?" fiasco was, I think, incredibly damaging to the Church, because it not only implied (rightly or wrongly) a lack of importance in taking the measure of a situation, it also encouraged people to parse all of the pope's other words on that basis. When words can be twisted as easily as this, then everything becomes relative. I'm only glad that the workers who build airplanes work from more specific instructions than those that come to us from Rome.
At worst, this pope is a dangerous man, prepared to set the Church back to the dark ages following Vatican II, a time of confusion, disappointment and alienation, a time when "everything goes" seemed to apply to everyone except those who thought they were following what the Church had always taught. This would be an invitation to the second pontificate of Paul VI, and we all know how successful that one was. At best, this pope is a man who means well, has a good heart, and lives by orthodox beliefs, but has an amazing lack of awareness, an almost naive misunderstanding of the media, and a stunning inability to express himself with clarity and authority, leaving demoralized and dispirited believers in his wake. At any rate, a man who lacks the ability to be "as cunning as a serpent." Either of these alternatives, it seems to me, suggest an uncertain future - uncertain, and just as disastrous as the one above.
Much has been written about the "cult of personality" surrounding the modern papacy. I think there's more than a little merit to this, although in an era of 24/7 news that seeks to turn all leaders into media "newsmakers," it's probably impossible to completely avoid such a situation. But there's an old saying that I think applies in this case—you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And anyone who's part of an organization, large or small, knows that they may be the ones responsible for the first impression someone else gets. In other words, we're all role models.
Perhaps, with the oversized papacies of John Paul II and (to a lesser extent) Benedict XVI, we became used to seeing the pope as synonymous with the Church, and that's obviously false; over two centuries, the Church has survived many a bad pope. Still, for an outsider, someone who looks at the Catholic Church with an eye to conversion, that first impression may well come from the world's most visible Catholic. What impression is he giving? That of a man ready to lead a Church during uncertain times in a hostile world? A man of strong beliefs, representing solid ground upon which the faithful can stand? A man who understands the problems the Church faces? Or is it a man reassuring us that we're all OK, someone who places earthly needs above spiritual ones, someone who in his celebrity is all style, no substance? A man content to be all things to all people, with nobody quite sure of what he really believes in? A man hostile to the traditions of the Church, and indifferent to those who have fought hard to preserve them?
So here's the answer to my question: if I were looking at the Church from outside, I would see few of the things which drew me to Catholicism in the first place. I'd see people campaigning for social justice rather than trying to bring salvation to men's souls. I'd see that Church being led by a man who is soft, who doesn't have the stomach for the fight that lies ahead. I'd see dissension and discouragement in the ranks. I'd see very little that would convince me it was worth dying for.
I might still convert. I'd like to think that, thanks to the Grace of God, I would do so in spite of any doubts I might have, because I would then be joining the One True Church. But in doing so, I'd keep in mind the words of Whittaker Chambers, who remarked that in leaving Communism, "I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under Communism."
The Catholic Church cannot be the losing side. Christ Himself promised that "the gates of Hell" would not prevail against His Church. And that is the reassurance that keeps us from slipping into despair. If the pope can't infuse us with that confidence in Christ's words—if he cannot share with us that hope amidst a world of despair—then, quite frankly, what can he do?
Originally published January 8, 2014