Sunday, October 02, 2005

If you’ve ever been to Rome, and visited the Vatican, you can’t have missed Saint Peter’s Basilica. The first thing you’ll notice, and arguably the most impressive thing about it, is its sheer size. No one I’ve ever spoken to who’s been there has described it as cozy or welcoming. It’s not that sort of place. It’s designed to dwarf the visitor, presumably to humble the worshiper. There’s no escaping that it’s a testament to power. If you’re looking for some of that much-touted mercy Christ went on about, you might want to look elsewhere.

That’s the paradox of religion in modern times, though, isn’t it? The notion that mercy should play a central role (much less THE central role) in religious or civic life is a fairly new one. Judaism, out of which Christianity emerged, was not a universal religion, but a tribal—and necessarily a martial—one. It still is. Most religions, particularly monotheistic ones, maintain this us-against-them mentality. My God is bigger than your God. That kind of thing. Early Christianity’s innovation, which Peter resisted and Paul pushed for, was, in fact, its universalizing message. The word “catholic” (with a little c) actually means “universal”. Without Saint Paul, and his insistence on expanding the scope of the early church, allowing gentiles to join, there would be no Saint Peter’s.

Paul was also what some might call misogynistic, and modern people can certainly read something like homophobia in some of his epistles. But then Paul was struggling to found an institution, and institutions cannot survive without hierarchies and rules, without a power structure. That’s another paradox of Christianity: Christ was certainly not its founder.

Now we find the Church in the midst of another in a long line of infamous purges. No one does inquisitions better, that’s for sure. Even Boston’s Archbishop O’Malley, when he arrived in his lowly cassock, showed the ruthlessness of a medieval monk, and shrewdly shifting attention away from the misdeeds of the Church, entered the political fray over gay marriage. Rather than make the institutional hierarchy more accountable for its crimes, and aiming for more transparency in the leadership of the Church and all along the chain of command, the Church under Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to answer the victimization of one group with the victimization of another.

Why does this matter to non-Catholics? First of all, because churches have increasing power and influence in politics today. Second, because any institution with the scope and resources of the Church, particularly in the social realm, that advocates scapegoating and argues for essentially second-class status for any class of citizens, is a danger to an open society. The Catholic Church is not simply a private club, and this is not merely about restricting its membership. This is about right versus wrong, about power versus mercy. The Church has once again forgotten its basic truth: that, in fact, mercy IS power. That’s the very catholic message of an increasingly un-catholic Catholic Church.

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