Is this the Viceroy of the carpenter of Galilee?
Shame, shame, Pope Benedict
As the story is told in the Gospel of Luke, two thousand years ago, more or less exactly this year, the twelve-year old son of a Judean carpenter astounded the learned priests in the temple in Jerusalem with his wisdom and humility. Eighteen years later he emerged in Galilee, fully fledged as a radical populist leader, and embarked on the most remarkable three-year career known to history. At his death at the end of the three years, it wasn't clear that Jesus had achieved anything. His avowed mission, to reform Jewry and lead the Jews back to the Law of Moses, had failed. His example, a life of asceticism, humility, and service, had predictably attracted few followers, and not many of these would be expected to continue the effort after his death.
Pope Benedict, the purported "Christ's Viceroy on Earth", is visiting us in the U.S. It thus seems timely to compare this viceroy with the man he's a stand-in for. Unfortunately, the vicar proves a sham. His Church, which he claims that Jesus founded, has left the humility of its founder far behind. For nearly two thousand years, this Pope and his predecessors have flaunted the gilded wealth of the Church, perversely extracted from the Church's poor. What would Jesus do with the ill-gotten treasures of the Vatican?
But unexpectedly, Jesus' teachings found an entirely different fertile ground. His disciple Simon Peter took the message of Jesus to Jews in far-flung communities around the Levant and as far as Rome. Soon the gentile convert Paul adjusted the message, removing the Jewish cultural elements and the association with a chronically angry and jealous Yahweh-god, and pitched Jesus' philosophy as one of mutual love, humility, and service, and worship of the now universal – no longer tribal – Jehovah as a reinvented God of love.
During 300 years of persecution, the early Christians in Rome lived lives of enforced humility and privation, emulating Jesus' life of simplicity and dedication to God. During these difficult years a class of religious politicians evolved in the Christian community, and after Christianity was elevated to the status of official church in Rome, the top theo-politician, the bishop of Rome, began amassing power, which over the centuries grew to vast proportions. The power of the bishop, now called "Papa" – Pope, eventually became absolute in Europe, and the papacy went on to demonstrate the old saw that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Through his armed might, through his power of taxation, by means of terror, torture, and assassination, but most of all through his control over people's souls, the Pope gathered to himself and his cronies in Rome riches beyond belief, forced from rich and poor by the threat of eternal damnation, first throughout Europe, and then from the Americas as well.
The Popes' obscene display of wealth has known no bounds. While millions in the Catholic flock have suffered and died in poverty, disease, and starvation, the Popes (for some reason God has appointed a number of excessively evil men, even by worldly standards, to this post) have spent their parishioners' tithes on fantastically decorated gilded palaces for themselves and their cardinals. While the Pope to this day proclaims himself the Vicar of Christ, Jesus' ambassador on the Earth, sole holder of God's truth, the real truth is that the total disconnect between the lavish life of the Pope and his minions and that of the humble Galilean carpenter whom the Pope purports to represent puts the lie to the pretensions of the Roman church as representatives of this humble hero of Judea.
The Pope expects Jesus to come to Earth again, and is prepared to greet him in his gilded halls. But those who know anything of the life and mind of Jesus know well that if he makes a second appearance, the Pope will never see him. Unlike the Pope in his palace, where the poor and unclean unfortunates will never gain an audience, Jesus would, as before, walk among them, owning no more himself than do those to whom he ministers. What a difference from the pride, wealth, and corruption of his gold-brocaded "vicars" in Rome. Jesus would do to the residents of the Vatican as he did to the Pharisees and money-changers in the temple: throw them out on their ear; command them to sell their goods to provide for the poor.
Each time there's a change of Pope in the Vatican, we hope that this time it will be different. (See the BRJ essay of April 2005.) This time perhaps a leader will arrive with enough compassion for his charges to overcome his and the Church's love of their own authority, power, and wealth. But it didn't happen in 2005, any more than it had happened any time before, through the centuries.
We identified, in 2005, four major evils in the Catholic Church that the new Pope needed to root out. But he has dealt with none of them:
- Benedict has not made even a gesture toward giving women equal rights in the Church; the Vatican's insistence on continuing to treat women as second-class citizens still identifies the Roman Catholic Church as the main roadblock to gender equality in the Western world.
- Benedict's insistence that Catholics not participate in sensible programs to slow the explosive and disastrous growth of the Earth's human population has nothing to do with religious belief, but is born of the simple desire to preserve and increase the number of followers, and thereby the power, of the Church. Although population growth is at the core of nearly every global environmental problem, and although this problem especially impacts some heavily Catholic countries, this Pope, like those before, has loved his power more than the welfare of his people. It's perhaps incidental, but no less evil, that his prohibition on the use of condoms for protection against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases has unquestionably resulted in the deaths of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of those who look to him for guidance.
- While Pope John XXIII's 1963 Encyclical "Pacem in Terris" echoed the UN document, "Rights of Man", in mouthing support for the ideas of democracy, neither John nor his successors in the Vatican have paid any attention to democratizing the Roman Catholic Church. And Benedict follows in the unfortunate tradition of absolute autocrats. Most Catholics know that the Pope's claim to receiving direct transmissions from God – and therefore being infallible – on matters of faith and morals is simply a lie designed to cement his and the Church's power. It's that knowledge that allows occasional low-level dissent in the Church. One may hope that a real reformation may some day shake this monolithic Church from below, a reformation that puts the Pope back in his original place as just a man with his own opinions that are no better than the average parishioner's.
- Benedict has made organized crime in and by the American Catholic Church a keystone of his U.S. visit. He has prayed with victims of sexual child abuse by priests and bishops, and has apologized for the abuses. What he has not done is either to investigate the Church around the world – where he would likely find the same pattern of ongoing abuse – or to acknowledge that sexual abuse by priests, chiefly of acolytes and other boys, is as Catholic a tradition as the sacraments. It has gone on throughout the centuries, and will continue as long as the Church maintains its celibacy requirement, which draws disproportionately into the priesthood men with a distaste for marriage, but with a decided taste for young boys.
What would Jesus say, if he should, on the odd chance, run into the Pope and see the Vatican on his hoped-for return to Earth? Unless he has taken a sudden liking to magnificence and gaudy wealth, he might remind the Pope of what he said two thousand years ago: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." We might guess (and would certainly agree with) what his follow-up advice might be to this unfaithful steward: "Sell what you have and follow me." He would mean follow me into the streets and alleyways, into the hovels of the poor and sick. And on seeing the palaces of the Vatican: "Sell the lot, divest the Church of its wealth and return it to the poor from whom you took it; take a humble room and walk among the people. Then, and not 'til then, may you be my Viceroy."
Shame, shame, Pope Benedict.
© 2008 H. Paul Lillebo