By Bishop Joe Morris Doss
What if this Pope fulfills all of the hopes he is building with his concern for the poor, and his down to earth charm, and it makes no difference?
Imagine the most radical actions. What if the Pope were to take off all his medieval vestments (which are no longer appreciated as first century Roman attire), move out of the Vatican palace and into the city of his episcopacy, give the wealth of the church to the poor, wash the feet of street people every day, and issue powerful declarations calling for justice and peace in all their regards? What would that mean if what remains in place is a massive, monolithic, utterly centralized, juridical, clerically dominated Church subject to the dictates of scholastic medieval doctrine that has become abstract from actualities, absolutist in the face of valued relativities, and arrogant?
We all wish Pope Francis the very best, and he has made us hopeful. Nevertheless, that very glimpse of hope makes me, personally, realize how far the church has to go; this glimmer of light makes me see the surrounding darkness more clearly.
Before I go any further let me say that I am confident of the future of the Christian Church, and I cannot believe that it will not be reformed and regenerated. God is in charge of the church and God’s will is not to be thwarted. I love the sign that historian and Lutheran pastor Martin Marty has in his study: “Don’t Whine!”
But we have to see how far we have to go with open eyes, and we have to admit how much of that distance is due to certain theological grounding. Theology that is no longer plausible has to be open to challenge. Respect has to be accorded sincere believers — in overwhelming numbers — who cannot accept or obey rules that are issued out of the logic of a theological view that is out of touch with today’s world.
Who really sees reality through the eyes of the medieval worldview that produced scholastic theology? Well, clergy that have been trained to do so, and a few lay theologians. No one can any longer accept Aristotle’s scientific theories, however much we admire his abilities. Yet, much of the church relies on his philosophical theories for theological interpretation, as though they are scientifically verifiable explanations not to be questioned. (This, of course, is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church.)
How long, and how much isolation from other realities, does it take for seminarians and theology students to move into the medieval mindset that allows them to believe that marriages are made in heaven and any divorce from such a union is “unreal,” even though subsequent marriages produce several children?
How long does it take to sort out the difference between an understanding of the “soul” that is compatible with the Christian claim of bodily resurrection and the Greek conception of it as the eternal “spirit” of the human selfhood that begins in the higher realms, is embodied, and escapes from physical limitations at death (as though through a keyhole)?
One of the things that happens in selecting, training, and forming a class of persons to run the church who think so differently from the membership — about reality itself — is that the clergy become radically separated from the laity, who are deemed theologically ignorant, stuck with modern thinking. This modern thinking is disrespected because it seems to get in the way of blindly accepting truth that is considered eternal and absolute — captured once and for all time during the peak of the church’s power and prestige, about a thousand years ago.
Here is where the rubber is most likely to hit the road and most quickly (for I find it difficult to anticipate any limitations on the triumphalism, power, and wealth of the papacy except at a very personal level by an individual leader).What if this Pope makes grand and global demands on behalf of the church for economic, social, and judicial justice but then, in democracies, the church continues to join with the more fundamentalist evangelical Christians to oppose the election of political candidates who would actually vote those demands into reality in order to protect doctrinal positions on contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and so forth?
We shall see. One can hope for small steps and one can pray for giant steps. We will all be praying for Pope Francis.
Joe Morris Doss, founder and president of “At the Threshold”, has served parishes in Louisiana and California as an Episcopal priest, and the Diocese of New Jersey as Bishop. Bishop Doss has been involved in civil rights activism since his days as LSU student body president, when he helped integrate the school. He was the founding president of Death Penalty Focus, the founding chair of the National Center for AIDS in San Francisco, and together with Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida, the organizer of a famous rescue mission that freed thousands of pardoned political prisoners from Cuba. Bishop Doss is the author of several books including “Songs of the Mothers” and “Let the Bastards Go”. With his son Andrew Doss, he co-wrote the drama “Earnest”, about the transformation of a death row inmate.