Monday, June 3, 2013

Atheist Popes and Closet Believers

Have you heard of the dyslexic
pope who believes in Dog?

Bill Maher says that he thinks Pope Francis is an atheist but from his description of atheist, I suspect that Bill Maher is no more an atheist than the pope.  This raises an intriguing question—not whether either the Pope or the comedian is an atheist, but what do people mean by “atheist.”   I have always held to a pretty strict definition of the term.  An atheist is one who denies the existence of a deity—God or any god.  But Mr. Maher points to the Holy Father’s recent statement about salvation for those outside the Church—and even for those who profess to be non-believers.  Maher’s quote, as best as I can retrieve it, is “‘Pope Frank’ said the Lord has redeemed all of us, not just Catholics, even the atheists. And I was like, I’m going to book my flight to heaven right now. “  The question is does Mr. Maher not believe in a Supreme Being or does he not believe in organized religion?  Not believing in organized religion is not sufficient grounds for declaring oneself an atheist.   Many of us are Christians, even Catholics, in spite of the organizational dimension of “the Church,” not because of it.  Note, I say the organizational dimension of the Church, not “the Church.”  I love belonging to a community of people centered around the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That energizes me and give me some vision for life.  That community to which I belong—and which I find has the most energizing power—happens  to be Catholic.  On the other hand, I am not particularly enamored of belonging to this overly pompous institution fascinated far more by human traditions than by the Evangelical Tradition which draws me and which has been handed down from Christ through his apostles.  Speaking as a historian and not in a theological context, there is a world of difference between “the Church of Jesus Christ” and the institutional bureaucracy that is today’s “face” of Catholicism.  Such things as the College of Cardinals, the Code of Canon Law, the Tridentine Rite, communion on the tongue, galeros and miters, the Knights of Columbus, monsignors, communion rails, canon 915, Bishop Frank Dwayne, male-only altar servers, religious habits,  and birettas are not part of the Jesus-patrimony.  That is not to say that some of them aren’t good things, or even that I don’t like some of those things—but it is not what our faith is about.  Reconciliation, forgiveness of sins, inclusiveness, dignity of each individual, the Kingdom of God, justice, community, service, mercy, almsgiving, change of heart, and prayer are “what we have received from the Lord and handed on to you….”  Many of these things in the patrimony from Christ are somewhat ambiguous and call for our response without giving us concrete norms and that is difficult for people who find great comfort in rules, regulations, and canon laws but the Gospel is the Gospel. 
Frankly, and again as a historian not a theologian, I find that I am called not to believe in the Church (whether as an institution or as a community) but to believe in the Gospel and I see the Church as the community with the mission of spreading that Gospel.  The Church is not worthy my faith.  As a human institution (even if it has foundations in a “divine origin”—i.e. it was founded by Jesus) the Church has proved itself over and over again as unworthy of our faith.  But we as Church have a glorious mission of animating our human family with the message of God’s Kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Now that is something I can believe in.  Apparently so does ‘Pope Frank.’  And seemingly so also may Mr. Maher, though he certainly doesn’t see the Catholic Church as an agent in transforming the world and he probably doesn’t see  how these dreams of a “better world” find their greatest potential in the teachings of Jesus.  And without putting words into the papal mouth, I think that what the Holy Father was trying to say is that all who embrace God’s Kingdom will find a place welcome for them in it.  No, Pope Francis is no more an atheist than Mr. Maher is a Christian, but I am not sure he is the atheist he wants to be either. 

No comments:

Post a Comment