Why would anyone expect the Pope (or the Church) to be ‘in sync’ with the world?

pope background

In the days leading up to the Pope’s present trip, I’ve seen a number of things like this story from The Washington Post over the weekend:

Poll: Americans widely admire Pope Francis, but his church less so

Pope Francis is adored by American Catholics and non-Catholics, who have embraced his optimism, humility and more inclusive tone. But as the 78-year-old pontiff arrives in the United States for his first visit, the public’s view of the Catholic Church is not nearly as favorable, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

That gap will be masked by the huge throngs of Catholics greeting Francis in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Many of them see him as an agent of change, with a majority of Catholics saying that the church is in touch with them — a reversal from two years ago, when 6 in 10 said the church was out of sync….

Things like this puzzle me.

Do people really think that the church, or the pope, is supposed to be “in touch” with views that are popularly held in the wider world? Why? (And if people don’t expect that, why am I always reading stories about whether the pope and the church are in touch and in sync? Why would it matter otherwise? And the implication is that it does matter. Otherwise, why keep bringing it up?)

Oh, I can list the reasons why — ours is a democratic country, where institutions are expected to reflect the views of a majority, or they lack legitimacy. A country where it would occur to someone to do a poll on what people think of the pope is a country that will talk about whether the pope or the church is “in sync” or “in touch” with prevailing views.

But it seems to me that anyone who is familiar with Christianity, or with the Judaism out of which it grew — and I’m talking basic cultural literacy here; I’m not expecting people to have doctorates in theology — would understand that there is a basic expectation that God’s will and the ways of the world are not the same thing, and are as often as not at odds.

I’m not arguing here, to a diverse audience, that you should accept that the church is right about everything. I’m saying that, if you understand what the church is supposed to be — an expression of God’s will in the world — you would not for a moment expect its teachings to line up with the results of polls.

That’s just not in any way a reasonable expectation.

And it was never thus. This isn’t about the church or the pope being at odds with modernity. Despite what many may think, this generation is no worse than those that went before it. Nor — and this is an important point that still others fail to understand — is it any better. I could quote from Ecclesiastes here, but I’ve always found that book confusing, so never mind.

The church, and the Temple before it, were always supposed to be at odds with the wicked world out there, as I was reminded by the first reading from this past Sunday, from the book of Wisdom (which, regrettably, some of my Protestant friends don’t have in their Bible):

The wicked say:
Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us;
he sets himself against our doings,
reproaches us for transgressions of the law
and charges us with violations of our training.
Let us see whether his words be true;
let us find out what will happen to him.
For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him
and deliver him from the hand of his foes.
With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test
that we may have proof of his gentleness
and try his patience.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death;
for according to his own words, God will take care of him…

There are other passages, I’m sure (and some of my more evangelical friends out there probably know them by heart) that speak even more clearly to the divide that should exist between the church and what is popular, whether in the 1st century B.C., or in the present day.

Again, I’m not asking you, my nonCatholic friends, to believe that when the church is at odds with what is popular, the church is always right. You’re not going to believe that, so why waste my breath? I’m just saying that no sensible person should have an expectation that the church, when it is right, would be “in sync” or “in touch” with what is popular according to polls.

In fact, if the church were thus wedded to current views, that should make us suspicious.

So I guess I should be suspicious that at the moment, more people do say the pope and the church are in touch with them. But I chalk that up to the awesome job this pope is doing as a messenger. The church hasn’t changed any of its teachings under him; but he is much, much better than his predecessors at selling the more appealing things that the church is about (and supposed to be about).

A hypothetical church that was indeed completely “in sync” with God’s will would have a lot of “yes” in it, as well as a lot of “no.” Francis is way, way better than, say, Benedict, at expressing the “yes” so that people hear it.

And I honor him for that…

64 thoughts on “Why would anyone expect the Pope (or the Church) to be ‘in sync’ with the world?

  1. Bryan Caskey

    “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

    John 15:18-19

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thank you! I knew there were plenty of better verses out there. But Catholics aren’t big on reading the Bible, much less memorizing it. We just believe what our medieval masters TELL us that the Bible says. Right? Isn’t that the conventional wisdom about us? :)

      But seriously, I used that one because that was our reading Sunday, and was the thing that, combined with that poll story I had just read, inspired the blog post.

      Your quote is better. It doesn’t have the distraction of speaking of those at odds with the righteous as being the “wicked.” That’s a distraction because people might say, “That doesn’t refer to the wider world; it just refers to the wicked…”

      So yours makes my point better.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    To put it another way, and again not talking about the Catholic Church in particular — in fact, let’s make it about some hypothetical church that is definitely and completely in tune with God’s will…

    Wouldn’t the POINT of joining such a church be to make yourself into something other than what you would be, to believe something other than what you would believe, if you were NOT an adherent of that church?

    If you’re just going to believe the things that most people believe anyway, why bother becoming a part of that church?

    1. Mark Stewart

      I would be highly suspect of any religious organization that claimed it was completely in tune with God’s will. Maybe that’s just me; but that’s a construct teetering on failure.

      Religious organizations tend toward hubris. If people are fallible, then the organizations which they create are also fallible; differently than an individual is fallible, certainly, but fallible nonetheless. Maybe the disconnect that alienates people for religious entities of any stripe is this projection of infallibility – even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Perhaps, but that’s aside from my point. My point didn’t have to do with claiming infallibility. (I’ll leave that to Pope Pius IX.)

        My point is, as I stated a couple of times above, is that if a church WERE completely in sync with God, why would be expect it to be in sync with the world?

        In other words, if a church is being what it OUGHT to be, then we wouldn’t expect that. So why do we even ask the question?

        1. Mark Stewart

          If God created the world than by any definition we come up with the world is in sync with God. Maybe not all the time; but as a general principle. If that’s the case, than a religion is being disingenuous if it claims to be right while others (as in other religions) are wrong. Granted, some are wacky and have a limited shelf-life, but how does one say one religion is better if God created them all? And if he only intended for some to be repudiated and terminated to strengthen another or others; how are we, or a religion itself, to cut through out biases to see the TRUTH?

          And I see that infallible is a word which has particular religious freight to it. I didnt intend to use a loaded descriptor.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yeah, both barrels are loaded on that one. The Infallibility Doctrine is much misunderstood, and I don’t claim to fully understand it myself. To the extent that it makes sense to me, since it applies to Ex Cathedra statements, I take it to mean pretty much the same concept we’re trying to communicate with the joke, “Is the Pope Catholic?” In other words, on those rare occasions when the Pope is laying down the law, he is right in terms of Catholic teaching because he is the ultimate authority (in his time) of what Catholic teaching IS. It’s a sort of self-affirming, tail-swallowing argument. It’s like, if the pope can’t say what Catholic teaching is, who can?

            But I might be completely misunderstanding it. It’s a mystery, to use the copout favored by cradle Catholics…

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            I also have a bit of a tail-chasing response to this comment: “a religion is being disingenuous if it claims to be right while others (as in other religions) are wrong.”

            Well… if you’re looking at it from the outside, it can certainly look that way.

            But allow me to submit two thoughts for consideration…

            First, if you believe there is such a thing as Ultimate Truth — not that you believe you know what it is, but that you believe such an ideal exists, which you might describe as the will of God — and different religions disagree about it, then one or the other is wrong, isn’t it?

            Second, why would you be an adherent of a religion if you don’t believe it’s the one that’s right? If you didn’t believe that, you sort of by definition would not be one of the faithful, right?

            Beyond that, though, I agree with you to a great extent. People make way too much of doctrinal differences. And that is ONE way in which I think the world is better than it was. Something I kept thinking while reading “Wolf Hall” and the sequel is that people were pretty insane when it came to doctrinal differences that are meaningless to me, things that were sort of in the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” range. On the one side you had people willing to burn people for being heretics, and on the other you had “heretics” WILLING TO BE BURNED rather than renounce notions that to me seem really picayune and pointless.

            Which is crazy.

            My own notions are pretty relaxed on the things that people used to kill and be killed over. The Virgin Birth? OK, sure, if that’s important to you — I honestly can’t see why it would be important to God, although He could make it happen if he wanted to. The Immaculate Conception — Really? I don’t see why that’s important, either. I believe Mary was one of the finest people who ever lived, but I don’t see why we have to assert that she was conceived without sin. I rather think it’s more impressive when people are virtuous despite being born into a world tainted by Original Sin.

            I also have this funky notion that Judaism and the Church are pretty much the same religion, or branches of the same religion. Jesus was a rabbi with his own interpretation of the Law, and I am his follower the way Peter was. And I think the Church kinda took the wrong course when it went more in Paul’s direction than Peter’s. And of course the centuries of antisemitism that followed were a cancer on the Body of Christ, and a deep and profound insult to our Founder, the carpenter rabbi. And to his mother, for that matter.

            I just don’t understand Catholics who obsess over minutiae. When our church was remodeled a decade or so ago, there were some arch-conservatives who left the parish because with the new (very traditional) layout of the pews, it was no longer possible to see the sepulcher containing the Host from every seat in the house, and this was a HUGE thing to them. I can’t imagine why.

            As a Eucharistic Minister and lector, I carefully observe all the prescribed rituals, because I believe ritual is inherently a good thing in terms of showing respect to one’s beliefs. But I don’t fool myself into thinking God would be offended if we didn’t do it exactly like that. Aside from sharing the body and blood in some manner that is respectful of Christ’s wishes as expressed to his apostles, the particulars matter little to me — they were devised by mortal men.

            But I digress…

            1. Kathryn Fenner

              You can be an adherent of a religion because it fits you, it suits you. I like Mark’s (Mark Stewart, not the Gospel According to Mark) approach that if God created everything, then He created the different faiths. No faith is necessarily the RIGHT one, the best! Some people are suited to being Catholics, Baptists, Buddhists, Quakers….

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                I see value in most major religions. I say “most” rather than “all” because I don’t know enough to say “all.” I’m in Fair Witness mode.

                When we stayed on the farm of my daughter’s Thai grandparents, our room had a Buddhist shrine in the corner. On the morning we were leaving, the grandmother bid us to kneel with her before the shrine while she prayed for us and our journey.

                We happily joined her, not just out of politeness, but out of reverence as well. That which inspires awe and respect for the numinous in our fellow humans is deserving of that.

                Of course, we had no way of knowing what she was saying, but her good will was communicated far beyond language.

                It’s not the words, and it’s not even how one defines the divine, on a certain level. It’s about the good will…

            2. Mark Stewart

              I’ll consider your two thoughts. First, what if every religion was wrong on some level? It seems to me that there is most likely some ultimate truth; something beyond science that has lit this spark of human consciousness. On the other hand, unlike every other species on earth humans have the capacity to be truly evil. We’ve created religious structures and doctrines to counter this compulsion to sow chaos upon each other and the world as a whole. So if religion is our attempt at being better, of being with grace, then why does one sort of goodness try to bash other kinds of goodness? It makes no sense. And that sort of also answers your second point – people don’t have to be die hard believers to add to the momentum toward grace. We are all imperfect anyway, and bound to fail at times. But we don’t give in to that and we, mostly, keep striving. Evil rot exists in all of our social structures, religion included, and we should be opposed to that; not to each other.

              If God gave us consciousness, then we were given the most powerful force; and with that power comes responsibility. Therefore, religions fail us when they fight one another, they miss the mark.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Every one of us, whether religious or not, is bound to be “wrong on some level,” most likely on a number of levels. We cannot understand the divine; although we may intuit flashes of recognition here and there. And we cling to those flashes, those brief glimpses of ultimate Truth as we are able to so imperfectly perceive it…

          3. Barry

            “If that’s the case, than a religion is being disingenuous if it claims to be right while others (as in other religions) are wrong”

            That’s pretty silly. I realize some folks that aren’t very sincere in their faith believe such non-sense.

            But it’s still silly nonetheless.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        And even if you grant that a given church, being run by fallible humans, fails to be in sync with God in any number of ways, wouldn’t an individual believer’s INTENT in joining said church be to become more godly, and less worldly?

        1. Doug Ross

          How could a religion that is composed of a man-made structure and hierarchy with man-made rules ever be in sync with God? Each religion is the result of men creating their version of God. No fish on Friday, no pork, cover your head, etc. Try cutting out the middleman – He’s still there.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            So, are you saying there exists a religion that is not “composed of a man-made structure and hierarchy with man-made rules?” If so, I’m unaware of it…

            OK, some are less hierarchical. But at some point, somebody decides how it’s going to be, and the church goes along…

              1. Doug Ross

                And just to clarify, I attend a great church (Village Church in Blythewood).. but I go for the uplifting modern music, the message of the pastor which helps me focus on some spiritual idea (or not sometimes when my mind drifts to football) , and to just be in prayer. But I don’t need the church to be in “Thanks,Help,Wow” mode with God any time or anywhere.

              2. Brad Warthen Post author

                I disagree completely with your statement that “You don’t need a church.” (As an old friend of mine from rural West Tennessee called it, you’re referring to “stump-sitting religion,” the notion that a man can go out in the woods and sit on a stump and have all the religion he needs.) That’s a libertarian notion, and there is nothing more communitarian than religion.

                My greatest objection to recent changes in the liturgy is that we have changed from “We believe” (which the Episcopalians, bless them, still say) to “I believe.”

                There are things that I personally believe, and I write about them hear all the time. But the things we say in the creed are things WE believe as a church.

                As I’ve explained before, it’s like the difference between a column and an editorial. As with an editorial (a “we” document reflecting a consensus), the creed doesn’t contain the same things that I would say if reciting my core beliefs; I would have other priorities. But just as I would bow to the consensus in an editorial that doesn’t say exactly what I would say personally, I go along with my brothers and sisters in saying that WE believe these things as a church.

                This is very important to someone like me. I have more to learn about humility than most people. Not everything is about me and what I think — yet still, I have to force myself to type such a statement, because the old Raskolnikov still lurks within me…

              3. Doug Ross

                Are you suggesting that the God I pray to is different from the one you pray to or that my prayers are not heard because they don’t follow the same rituals and hierarchy you follow?

                You like riding the bus to visit Jesus. I prefer walking there myself. Hopefully we each reach the same destination.

              4. Brad Warthen Post author

                “Are you suggesting that the God I pray to is different from the one you pray to or that my prayers are not heard because they don’t follow the same rituals and hierarchy you follow?”

                No. But I think a person who ONLY tries to relate to God alone, without gaining periodic spiritual nourishment of worshiping with others, is in danger of slipping away from God. Other people help keep us straight, keep us from going down unproductive paths by talking only to ourselves, like Raskolnikov.

                You don’t do that. You have a church.

                As for riding the bus to Jesus, I prefer the subway. :)

                “Subway to Jesus.” Excuse me, I feel a country song coming on…

              5. Barry


                I agree with that you don’t need a church to communicate with God.

                But Jesus is -pretty clear on what the church body meant to him. Paul is as well.

                the church needs people- and on various levels, people need the church.

        2. Kathryn Fenner

          No, not at all. One can believe that one is smart enough, good enough and doggone-it, people like one, but still seek out a faith community.

        3. Norm Ivey

          Because every church/faith is promoted/managed by fallible humans, it seems to follow that all churches/faiths are flawed. We’re all wrong about God to some extent. Which, for me, is a reassuring thought. It means I don’t have to be right in all I believe. Doctrine is mostly unimportant for my faith. Thou shalt not be mistaken is not a commandment.

          As for Pope Francis, it seems that he’s more in sync with what people internally–perhaps subconsciously–expect from any church, which makes him more in sync with the people.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        That’s a motive I have trouble grokking. God didn’t make me that way. I lack the tribe-joining gene, and don’t understand people who possess it and are possessed by it…

  3. Karen Pearson

    Uh, because the Christ calls us into a community of mutual trust; a place to celebrate the joyful and share the tragic?

    I think people like Pope Francis because he actively tries to live out the Christ life–to help the poor, the sick, the lame and the lost. The church, on the other hand (and I see this in my branch of the church too), talks about the virtues such as humility, charity, and trust, but gives those virtues only lip service while practicing
    pride, selfishness, and distrust of any other than its own inner circle.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yep, he’s a great ambassador for the Faith. As was Jesus, the perfect ambassador.

      But it’s still the same faith he’s representing. He’s just way better at representing it so that people LISTEN than Benedict ever was, or ever tried to be…

  4. Pat

    Bryan, thank you for that quote.
    Brad, as a Protestant, I believe His people (the Bride) are the church. They are different from the world. So if the the Church and the Pope are out of sync, there is definitely a problem just like if a husband and wife are out of sync with each other. This is assuming that the Pope is a representative of Jesus, the Bridegroom.
    It has been interesting to me as a non-Catholic to observe the difference in this Pope and his predesessors. His humility, concern for the oppressed, and compassion for the sinner as well as moving toward righting wrongs committed the local church’s leadership is what one would expect as Christlike behavior. In addition, he uses his platform to shine a light on the sins of this world for which he is drawing fire from those who have no shame. Not to say that he is not fallible, but the thought that he could be measuring against the plumb line and setting things right gives one hope.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      He’s a VERY cool guy. His predecessors were head of the same church, one founded in concern for the oppressed and compassion for the sinner. Francis just communicates it better.

      I don’t doubt for a moment that John Paul II was filled with the spirit of love as well. And in many ways he communicated it well — but not as well, or as across-the-board, as Francis.

      I’m sure Benedict loved the flock as well, but it was way harder to see because of his focus on doctrine.

      I hope popes in the future take Francis as their model — show the love, and let the bureaucrats in the Vatican fuss over doctrine. Or not…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Francis reminds me of an assistant pastor we had at St. Peter’s a couple of decades back. He was just this jolly, loving fellow who showed the love and didn’t sweat the doctrine.

        He was an older guy, and very Irish, sort of leprechaun-like.

        Once, he was talking during his homily about how he enjoys parishioners showing him pictures of their kids and grandkids… and he started musing about how he looked forward to a day when a priest could show parishioners pictures of HIS kids… and then added, with this sort of Santa Claus twinkle he generally had in his eye, “or HER kids.”

        I’m not saying that to argue against the church on celibacy or the male-only priesthood, whatever you think about those. That’s not what was so cool about him. What was cool is that he didn’t much care whether what he said was proper doctrine or not. But he was definitely about showing the love. Like Francis…

      2. Pat

        The ability to communicate is important. I do think the simplicity of the Pope’s lifestyle supports his words and actions. He seems transparent and authentic. Yes, he is cool! His predecessors may have had their heart in the right place; I just wish some issues had been handled differently.
        That was an interesting comment about the associate pastor you had. It would be nice to see priests married and maybe even a woman priest!

  5. bud

    I can empathize with Brad’s distaste of the constant coverage of college football now that the Pope is the US. I’ve never been a fan of the Catholic Church with all the pedophilia and execrable opposition to birth control but they have been fairly benign since the new Pope has shown a bit of common sense. But really, this non-stop coverage is so off-putting.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        But allow me to add that coverage of the Pope is not one thousandth, not one ten-thousandth, as extensive as is the saturation of South Carolina’s one true religion, football. Not even during these few days of his visit will you see anything like a typical week of football coverage.

        When half of the front page consists of Pope pictures most days of the year, out of season almost as much as in, get back to me and we’ll talk…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            My old friend Dave Moniz always called Williams-Brice “the Grid Temple.”

            Just the other day, I saw that ridiculous, 50-foot-high portrait of Spurrier on the west side of the stadium for the first time. Maybe it’s been there awhile, but I had not seen it before.

            To which I could only respond, Really?

  6. Peggy

    This pope, to me, speaks about GREED…. 1Timothy 6-10 “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

  7. Harry Harris

    Pope Francis is interested in apologetics – interpreting the faith to the doubter and defending it against the opposer. He does both in a Christ-like tone and with close attention to themes deeply embedded in Jesus’s teaching, actions, and manner. He has the grounding to boldly oppose militarism, greed-based inequality, and exploitation of persons and the rest of creation. I agree that he communicates the faith better than most predecessors, but I view it less as a result of talent but as the product of genuine humility, servanthood, and the courage that comes from sound priorities.
    Does this set him against or in sync with the world? Both, as it should. Likely against many of the powerful and identifying with many of the confused, the downtrodden, and those alienated by the more oppressive tendencies of religion. “The world” has a great deal of diversity. I suppose the church at its best is in opposition to the sinful tendencies in all of us, at its worst, it is cozy with the sins of the powerful, but condemns the sins and conditions of the lowly.

  8. Karen Pearson

    I think that anyone who truly loves Jesus and seeks to emulate him is going to be opposing, or at least ignoring, much of current culture. They are going to be seen as obstacles to “good sense” and “getting things done” to some. Most of his followers do not have a large, public stage on which to display their attempts to care for the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised and dysfunctional, so they are usually ignored by most of society, aside from an occasional condescending pat on the head, or an outright sneer. When you’re the pope, you have that large stage; you’d best have have a good act. Francis does.

  9. David Carlton

    Brad, this liberal protestant has a somewhat different problem with your post; there’s a disconnect between the WaPo quote and what you say about it.

    WaPo: “Many of them see him as an agent of change, with a majority of Catholics saying that the church is in touch with them — a reversal from two years ago, when 6 in 10 said the church was out of sync….”

    You: “Do people really think that the church, or the pope, is supposed to be “in touch” with views that are popularly held in the wider world? ”

    See the problem? The WaPo says nothing about “views that are popularly held in the wider world”; it refers to problems between “the Church” (which I guess means the hierarchy) and *your fellow Roman Catholics.* Are you in fact attributing these problems to the failure of your fellow Catholics to stand with “the Church” against “the world”? That may well have something to do with it, at least on certain issues mainly having to do with sex and gender; but it could just as well have to do with problems with the Church itself. Corruption? A hierarchy that has obsessively enforced certain doctrines (and neglected others) while failing to give heed to, and even attempting to suppress, diverse voices within the body of the church? A hierarchy that, especially in this country, has allowed itself to get entangled in partisan politics and shaped its doctrinal priorities to match those of the outside forces with which it has become allied? Just *who* has been standing with the world?

    OK, I’m a liberal Presbyterian, and that’s shaping my views. Within my faith tradition, calls for the church to stand against the world have of late come from people who would force my wonderful lesbian pastor and her spouse from the fold. Moreover, given the importance of lay governance to us Presbies, I’m firmly of the belief that the corporate body of Christ should be in constant internal conversation. Perhaps that’s the real problem? That there’s too much top-down in the RCC, and too little space for genuine communication between hierarchy and laity? Maybe the laity could be a source of actual renewal if it were treated as a partner, not an object, in shaping the life of the church? St. Francis wasn’t a hierarch, right?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I see your distinction, but it’s one without a difference to me. I see those Catholics who see the church as “out of sync” as people who are being affected more by the gravitational pull of the larger society than by that of the Church.

      In other words, if they are at odds with the church, they are placing themselves outside of it in terms of their position.

      I hope I expressed that clearly.

      Also… I saw this story within the context of others that speak of the church as being “out of touch” with the modern world. I wish I’d saved one of them to use as my example, as my point would have been less confusing. But I haven’t saved any of those stories.

      Another point I could have made, with regard to what you’re saying, is that if I felt there was a lack of synchronization, I’d be concerned that I was out of sync with the church, rather than the church being out of sync with me.

      But then for me, being part of a church is a much-needed lesson in humility, and I’d be failing the test if I complained that the Church was failing to line up behind ME.

      1. Harry Harris

        I’m glad Martin Luther didn’t take your council – he might have straightened-up and flown right, and the Church would have consolidated its power and continued along its holy way. I’m glad the early Church after Jesus stayed out of sync with the politically-connected religious hierarchy of the faith of their culture. They would have likely remained a sect of Judaism grubbing among the Sadducees, Pharisees, and other groups for power to survive and perhaps proselytize without facing too much opposition from the governing Romans, the Sanhedrin, or the revolutionaries among the underclass.

        1. Brad Warthen

          Well, I’m sorry that I’ve given the impression that I’m a “straighten up and fly right” kind of guy.

          I think I’ve demonstrated over the years that I use the brain God gave me and do not surrender my thought processes to a group. That is, in fact, my main objection to political parties is that they encourage people to accept a wide variety of off-the-shelf positions and march in lockstep, rather than thinking through each issue on its own merits.

          But allow me to make a couple of points.

          First, I’m a Catholic on purpose. I wasn’t born into this. I was drawn to it, because I saw the church as having the right approach on many questions (most of which have nothing to do with the controversial political issues of the day). It was the best fit for me. And because I buy into the overall approach, when I find myself at odds with the church on something, I think, “I really appreciate the way the church approaches issues, so maybe it’s me. Maybe the collective discernment of the church over 2,000 years has reach a more sound conclusion than I have in the few years I’ve been thinking about it.” So I take a harder look at my own position, out of respect for those two millennia of discernment.

          To give another example of this kind of process… When I was the front-page editor of the paper out in Wichita in the 80s, I would habitually look at the advisories from major papers across the country that told me what they were putting on THEIR fronts the next day. Over time, I found that paper that made the judgments closest to my own was The New York Times. Those guys were extremely thoughtful about their front.

          So eventually, I got to where if I had set my page for the next day, and then read the NYT advisory and found they had made a very different call regarding this or that national or international story, I took a step back, and questioned myself. I took another look at the story. And sometimes I decided they were right and I was wrong.

          So it is with the church, for me.

          Second… If a person finds himself or herself at odds with the church on something, I think that person should consider a couple of things. First, “I’m just one person and the church is millions of people considering this over the course of centuries; maybe I should take a harder look.” Second, if on issue after issue you end up disagreeing with the church’s position, maybe it’s time to think, “Am I actually Catholic, or should I follow the Martin Luther route?” The personal costs of taking the latter course are far less today than they were in Luther’s day.

      2. David Carlton

        I certainly feel the same way as you express in your final sentence; I need communion with my fellow Christians as a check on my vanity and as a continuing course in how to live in the world with difference. I think that the difference between us is that I don’t see my faith community as something I need to be in sync with; rather, we need constantly to work at being in sync with each other, and, through our common struggles, with God. You see “the Church” as something separate from you and from the laity in general, to which you’re supposed to conform, and laic disaffection as evidence of its corruption–which I find odd, since you’re obviously active laity of the sort that in my tradition has roughly equal status to clergy (under recently restored nomenclature, my pastor is a “teaching elder” and I am a “ruling elder”). I see the Church as an organism constantly struggling to live in community and speak to the world without succumbing to it, a body constantly in need of consuming its dross (not simply worldly accretions but doctrinal clutter mistaken for essentials) and refining its gold–an *ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.* Further, as one who conservatives in my denomination would call an “apostate” for including GLBTs in that communion, I have my own resentments at the “church v. world” trope; I don’t consider myself to have surrendered *anything* to the world by doing so, but to have reached the conclusion, after years of study, deliberation, and prayer, that the faith *rightly understood* requires it. Conformity to outside authority wouldn’t have helped my faith, but would have been a stumbling block. I suspect that at least some of the disaffected Catholic laity toward which you’re so dismissive may have reached the same conclusion–only with a less accommodating institution.

      3. Brad Warthen Post author

        To address the problem that Prof. Carlton raised — that the story I cite has to do with U.S. Catholics’ views, rather than the world at large — I Googled to get some of the examples out there of articles that presume that the Church’s job is to be “in touch,” which is to say fashionable in its teachings, and that it is failing in that dubious mission.

        Here’s one.

        Here’s another.

        Here’s another.

        It’s a frequent meme, and my post was inspired more by that trend than by the particular poll story that I cited.

        It is to me an odd idea — that the Church should for whatever reason mold itself to the times. I expect the Church to hold the same positions on essential questions bearing on human existence now that it had 2,000 years ago, and would hold 2,000 years from now (if the planet lasts that long).

        Sure, the church evolves in its understanding of truth. As Thomas Cahill wrote, one of the great Gifts of the Jews was the notion that history proceeds forward linearly, rather than in endless cycles as most of the ancients assumed. One day Abraham did not know God, and then he did. Things changed.

        But I see that as a growth — a far too gradual growth for the folks who expect the church to “sync” itself to the moment — in understanding things that were always essentially true, not that the essential truth has changed.

        I don’t know if I’m being clear enough…

        1. Mark Stewart

          You contradict your own argument. Do things change with time; or should they remain fixed as they were 2,000 years ago, and should that static worldview stay fixed for the next 2,000 years? Those are at fundamental odds with one another.

          One can make the statement that the church should not reflect the whims of today; but I don’t see why that shouldn’t preclude, or would preclude, evolutionary change in the church’s views.

          After all, I am pretty sure God created an evolutionary timeline for both mankind and our world – our universe, actually. So there is that precedent that change is good.

          1. Mark Stewart

            The rub is what are the essential questions of human life?

            Clearly, it’s the Ten Commandments and such. I think we all agree those organize human civilization. They have lasting values to convey, no matter how we evolve.

            However, I fail to see that correlation to the essential in most of the church’s (as in any religious sect’s) postures. It’s like one percent gems and 99% the accumulation of centuries of justifications. I think we would all do well to think from the core before we believe from the fringes.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            Actually, there was no contradiction. I was saying that essential truths don’t change, but our perception of those truths can change over time.

            And yes, the essentials are such things as the 10 Commandments, and particularly the two greatest commandments. (I almost used a commandment as an example of my point: Murder has always been wrong, even before the Commandments were handed down, is wrong now, and will always be wrong, por los siglos de los siglos.)

            And guess what — those are the kinds of things that we actually talk about in the church. The things that are always in the headlines are very, very seldom touched upon.

            There’s a Catholic Church that people perceive through news media — all about gay marriage, abortion, the all-male priesthood and pedophilia — and the actual Catholic Church that we experience from week to week. And they are light years apart…

      1. David Carlton

        Nashville is endlessly fascinating. Never in my life have I resided in a city engulfed in such a spectacular boom, and with such vibrancy. Lower Broad is amazing; I don’t go down that often, and when I do I’m an odd bird, crossing the street in my tux and carrying my choral score to our magnificent concert hall to sing with our terrific symphony. Nonetheless, when I’m there it’s teeming with life–loud and raucous, but a joy. At this moment there are few places in the world I would rather live. Stresses are starting to show–housing costs are going up, and an increasingly diverse population increasingly rubs up against each other. But we just elected a new mayor by a decisive margin, one committed (I hope) not simply to keeping the city on its current impressive track but tackling problems ranging from affordable housing to a much–needed development of good mass transit (The NYT had a good profile of her in the 9/13 issue, complete with a shoutout to my neighborhood coffee house). You should come some time; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at most of the changes (though don’t get me going on the *Tennessean*).

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Thanks for the report!

          I used to pass through Nashville all the time going to Memphis, but in recent years, we’ve taken the southern route through Birmingham; it’s a bit shorter.

          An old colleague of mine from The Jackson Sun is now editorial page editor at The Tennessean…


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