A New Pope and the Unholy Sea

NEW SLAUGHTERIt’s an interesting coincidence that a new Pope arrives simultaneous with a survey that shows the United States has never had so little interest in organized religion. And that’s here in “The New World”, where despite Constitutional prohibitions against mixing church and state a politician would more likely campaign as a drooling, yellow-eyed pedophile than an atheist or an agnostic.

The study in question, concludes that 20% of Americans no longer have any religious affiliation, (and have no problem saying so), and that among self-described liberals the number spikes to 40%, with only 9% of conservatives admitting to not giving a damn what any minister says on Sundays.

That all feels about right. Although based on my personal bubble culture the no-affiliation/no attendance number probably floats up in the 70-80% range, but only because I’ve learned to trust and enjoy the company of pagans and heathens more.

I was raised Catholic. Not as in wearing horsehair underwear and barbed-wire scapulars. Mom and Dad were more of the small town, “Let’s get dressed up, show our faces and get down to hot pancakes and bacon before the Lutherans break camp” sect of mackerel snappers.

I can tell you the precise moment when “the spirit” of Catholicism left me. It was 1965. I was 14 and still believing what the nuns constantly warned us about. Namely, that if I was having, (or as they phrased it … “entertaining”) “impure thoughts” which, oh yeah, damned straight I was about every sweet and dewy girl in my class, I would for absolute certain writhe in a perpetual furnace of godly retribution … unless I confessed.

But when I tried, in the dark confessional, to an aged, disembodied voice on the other side of the screen, instead of some avuncular bromide about “learning to control our passions”, I got instead a whiff of clerical pederasty. Instead of a penance of a couple “Hail Marys”, I got a wheezy inquisition into exactly what I wanted to do to those tender young things … and to myself, assuming real live girls would remain an elusive prey?

I remember stopping in mid-sentence, processing the blinding realization of what apathetic wretch the guy was, and walking out. I could hear the old guy calling after me.”My son? MY SON?” and then stepping out of his Caligari-like cabinet and scanning the church for the succulent but impudent little pervert who declined the righteous forgiveness of the Lord Almighty.

When our two sons, Uday* and Qusay*, were young and incorrigible we briefly considered “re-connecting” with a parish here in the Twin Cities. That experiment ended on about the third Sunday, when the priest handed the (invariably irrelevant, innocuous and risk-free) sermon over to a local businessman. The guy, tarted up in a $1000 suit (it was the late ’80s) and TV anchor helmet hair, introduced himself as the chair of the newly-created building campaign and, like some Power Point from God, went on for a half hour about the $2 million we rubes were going to be expected to cough up for a new foyer, signage and “community space”.

I believe my first words to my family at that point were, “We’re outta here.” If there was a loose $2 million to be sucked out of that parish, I could come with a list of 2o impoverished Latin American villages and South Dakota Indian reservations that had a more pressing need for the money.

Watching the new Pope do his ritual wave from the balcony at St.Peter’s, I can’t help but be struck (again) by the common miseries of the Catholic church and American conservatives. To reiterate: Aged, predominantly white (to an absurd degree), male (ditto), laden with medieval sexual superstitions, sclerotic responses to science, cultural evolution and the role of women. The Vatican and the Tea Party/Conservative Political Action Conference. Pretty much the same ideological fringy-ness and intellectual intractability. (Although, the cardinals get points for better costuming and pageantry.)

I can still make a case for the role of a massive theocratic infrastructure in the 21st century. But only if that “church” is an indisputable reflection of modern society, with the unimpeachable priorities of re-balancing the distribution of wealth around the world and loudly condemning ideological-inspired warfare and international financial chicanery.

Until that time, (which is a long ways off), I’ll reflect on my innumerable sins while skiing through the forest on Sunday mornings.

* Not meant to be factual statements.

60 thoughts on “A New Pope and the Unholy Sea

  1. I expected you to cheer the new Pope. Argentinian socialist dedicated to helping the poor? Do we really want a church that reflects modern society? If so, which society? The U.S.? Latin America with 500 million Catholics? European society?

    Catholic Charities helps 35,000 homeless and poor families in the Twin Cities every year. http://www.osjspm.org/Programs . I find it hard to equate the Catholic Church with the Tea Party. Social justice is far more important to most Catholics than many of the hot-button issues we all talk about.

    And yes, churches ask for money every week. So does MinnPost. So what?

    • I want a Pope, i.e. a church, that reflects a modern society where women are equals, celibacy is bizarre, infallibility is nonsense, social justice is a burning cause for the hierarchy as well as “the flock” and where a spare $2 million goes to Catholic Charities or the Dorothy Day Center instead of tonier “meeting spaces” for the upper middle class.

      And yeah, everyone begs for money. But the good question is: “What do they want it for?” And, no, paying off sex abuse law suits doesn’t count.

      • Hard to really respond to all the cheap shots, so I’ll assume you’re not really looking for a dialogue. You can have nice facilities and do good. You don’t need to pick one or the other. Just like all the money spent on the President’s inauguration could have done a lot of good– but having that gaudy party is of value too.

        There are many Protestant religions that have women priests, no infallibility. Why should Catholicism change to meet your needs? It’s a religion. Find one that suits your desires. Or don’t.

        Your assumption that the hierarchy doesn’t care about social justice is utter BS, however.

        What real Catholics care about: zero tolerance for sex abusers and cover-ups, social justice, prayer, young people returning to church. The future of the priesthood is an issue, but I think there’s more support for married priests than women priests.

        Tradition of a worldwide religion is part of the appeal of the Church.

        • OK, jason, your second paragraph is a bit at odds with with some of the other sentiments you express….what, for example, is a real catholic, and who gets to define one?

          There is not just one trend/stream/concept in the catholic church–that is, after all, the real meaning of the term “catholic”–it means universal, all inclusive. The idea of defining what is a true “catholic” should be anathema to all true catholics.

          (full disclosure–this is all easy for me to say as I am not a catholic–just an outside critic who sort of wonders what all the fuss is about for some guy who dresses in white with red slippers.)

        • JD: You’ll have to diagram the “cheap shots” for me. Or is making a play on words about “good question” over the line of civility? the topic at hand is THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, the one I’m most familiar with. I could go on about others, but for purposes here at this moment, that’s what I’m talking about. In my skewed way of thinking I see The Church’s hidebound, anachronistic attitudes towards women, science, infallibility, celibacy, etc. as contributing factors to the various scandals afflicting it today and its slumping relevance, as seen in declining attendance.

          As for why The Vatican should change to meet my needs … that’s hardly what I’m saying. I can’t imagine why it would care if I attend or not. The issue, to reiterate, is why SO MANY CATHOLICS have fallen away and no longer see relevance in the church we were raised in. I see the rhetorical appeal in framing this as Lambert v. Holy See, but as I say in the opening paragraph, the numbers of those losing respect/interest in organized religion are quite striking, and rising, and particularly among people who make issues of sexual equality and respect for science matters of constant focus.

          Also, YOU are asserting/implying that I’m saying ALL of the hierarchy doesn’t care about social justice. That my good friend, is gimmick logic. Undoubtably there exists within the hierarchy a concern for the poor, the forgotten, etc. The issue is how vital issues like that, which should be the highest priorities, get relativized amid the grinding wheels of a gargantuan enterprise that must play international politics with nations and super bankers.

          Finally, I don’t think the urge to push The Church into 21st century modernity is a strictly American notion. Last time I checked, attendance rates in Europe were pretty miserable, too.

          • You missed the social justice point. We’ll take it Derusha is right, and you were bloviating with no basis in fact.

            • Cheap shot: “no, paying off sex abuse law suits doesn’t count.”

              My assertion that you said the hierarchy doesn’t care about social justice came from: “I want a Pope, i.e. a church… where… social justice is a burning cause for the hierarchy as well as “the flock.” Seemed to me that you were implying that that is not currently the case.

              The Catholic church has many problems: I stayed away from church while the local Archdiocese wasted money fighting the war on gay marriage. I’m just saying that the concern about the hot-button social issues appears (to me) to come more from people who don’t go to Catholic church and who never will come to Catholic church.

            • I take your point, Jason. But these black-and-white polemical ping pong matches don’t really advance the debate. If I may, I think what Brian may be trying to say is that the RC Church hierarchy could be more salient and forceful in its opposition to the systemic political and economic injustices that, by design and in effect, concentrate wealth in the world, and, as a result, make it harder and harder for the poor to help themselves.

              It’s nice to “feed” the poor and “wash the feet” of AIDS patients. But it doesn’t get at the core of the social injustices that bedevil so much of this planet. And this Pope, like the establishment in Roman Catholicism, decries “liberation theology,” which pointedly does go after the established status quo in countries from the same continent from which this Pope hails.


            • Jason: Maybe the better question for you is “Why are so many people becoming completely indifferent to organized religion?” That’s the stepping off point for my post. If you agree that the sex abuse scandals and the high profile campaign against gay marriage have contributed to this decline, what would you say are the roots of The Church’s behavior in these matters?

    • The Catholics generally walk the walk on social justice and charity. You can quibble and parse, but they generally walk the walk.

      So it is hard if not impossible to equate, as you say JD. Within the douche-misanthrope epistemic loop, the deep thinkers can’t get past the idea that the Catholics are bunch of squares though. Cuz that’s the important thing ya see. They’re squares.

      • Generally, the hierarchy of most large and powerful organizations care first and foremost about protecting and preserving their hierarchy and its perquisites. So called “real Catholics,” close followers of Christ’s teachings, which I acknowledge exist, are not so much the focus of discussion here.

        Anyway, given the skepticism with which the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is viewed here and in Europe, now comes the inevitable examination of the new pontiff’s past in Argentina, which seems to call into question, at a minimum, the due diligence of the Cardinals. Perhaps they performed a thoroughgoing vetting and found facts satisfying to basic Christian and secular ethics that resolve the issues outlined in the newspaper article below. If so, they should be published:


  2. As a “fallen” Unitarian, my interest in the pope is a glancing blow. I just hope we don’t spend the next six weeks dissecting every word he once uttered and how many due luxuries he denied himself.

    But mostly I hope in his choice of name he will be more Christlike in his actions and his words and less surrounded by trappings of gold and finery. I have trouble believing that Christ, who was helping lepers and prostitutes, would spend his sermon on the mount ranting against homosexual love and birth control.

    If more priests, ministers, reverends and the like spent more time living Christ’s life rather than preaching what his so-call apostles wrote years later, the churches just could become relevant again.

  3. My dear Jeremy. How can one be a “fallen” Unitarian? They’ll take anybody..whether he be on the way up or the way down.

    • It took a bit of effort, but I managed. My mother converted from liberal Lutheranism because she was fascinated by the concept that the greatest title you bestow on a Unitarian was “free thinker.”

      Actually, Unitarians can be quiet snooty. I’ve never met, for instance, a Unitarian day laborer. Or Unitarian pipe fitter. They tend to be people with two-page resumes, whether they need them or not, play the recorder,and talk a lot about which museums have the best docents.

  4. But it’s not bad for Democrats to wear $1000 suits and lease nice facilities. How is that double standard to be explained?

    • ” A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines.”

      Ralph Waldo Emerson–Essay on self reliance

  5. While there is much excitement about his simple tastes and support for helping the poor, I’m note sure he will give American Catholics, both practicing and recovering, what so many say that they want . NYT says:

    “A doctrinal conservative, Francis has opposed liberation theology, abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women, standing with his predecessor in holding largely traditional views.”

    • As an American Catholic, I find it very easy to make personal choices at odds with the Church stances on issues without feeling like the Church needs to reflect my views. That’s all I’m saying here.

      • Well, you and almost every other catholic in the country (birth control, anyone?)

        but is it a problem when almost every catholic is a “cafeteria catholic”? I mean, it is not a problem for me (and apparently not for you and the majority of American catholics).

        To be honest, i find your attitude towards this healthy, and the attitude of those who slavishly follow every decree somewhat bizarre. But at what point are you no longer a catholic?

        (I once had a really interesting discussion with a jewish friend where she ended up saying that she approached her judaism more as a cultural practice than as a religious practice–not that it wasn’t serious, but…)

        • This is an excellent question. Just because you choose to sin, or choose to ignore what the church considers a sin, doesn’t make you a non-Catholic. Catholicism is about faith in Jesus Christ, and a trust in a tradition and a system that puts the Pope and Priests in a unique place of expertise to interpret the word of God. Other religions place more emphasis on the power of the individual to interpret. All the other stuff is window-dressing, as far as I’m concerned. Administrative policies that I can agree or disagree with.

          I think most intellectuals look at faith as something to be analyzed and religion to be chosen after an independent analysis, checking off what you believe in and what the religion believes in. Considering the fact that absolutely none of us know what the right answer is, I choose to find value in a religion that was the religion of my parents, their parents, their parents, and on and on.

          • I do think that there is significant value in tradition, not to mention comfort, etc. Personally, i am an atheist, but i love singing Christmas carols. i am also a member of a church–had a nice long talk with the minister about faith and religion and doubt, etc., before I joined. Bottom line, i like what the church does, the community it offers, the priorities it has. All of the god talk gets on my nerves from time to time, but I don’t have to go then, do I? He had no problem with me being an atheist, and appreciated the “diversity” that i could bring–as well as my support for the overall mission. And i appreciate the fact that I am accepted, and in particular that there are no attempts to evangelize me.

      • Here’s another question. Let’s say as a good Catholic you tithe 10% of your income to the church. If the point of the contribution is to support “good work” are you ever concerned about how much of that goes to “overhead” and “administrative costs” related to the church infrastructure, as opposed to directly helping whatever cause you care most about?

        • At St. Joan’s, mass is held in the gym because the church is too small. The good works being performed are too numerous to mention here. But I’d say that in general a parish’s priorities are a reflection of the parishioners’.

            • Just so we’re clear, here. I’m not interested in “smearing” the new Pope, or even The Church. The are both, without question, influential institutions with tremendous opportunity and ability to good. The discussion is about why so many no longer see the need for that kind of leadership, how The Church and its leaders have diminished rather than enhanced the church’s influence over the faithful and what it/he could do to revitalize it in a world much different than the one it was created in 2000 years ago.

              As I say, scandals and grinding bureaucracy withstanding, I think there is also a building belief among a certain segment of the worldwide population that the grand apparatus and intensely conservative dictums of The Church are a kind of vestigal appendage to an actual spiritual connection.

          • I agree completely. But St. Joan’s is a good example of a parish that has long been at odds with Archdiocese orthodoxy. My underlying point is that I think many of those who have fallen away from “the organization” see better ways to direct their charitable giving AND better ways to connect with their “spirit”. Churches’ claim to “community” is probably their most powerful attraction.

        • I give money to my church (although not much) and I give a lot more money to directly support charities. Catholics aren’t like Mormans, automatically tithing. I’m not sure I see the cost of running a church as “overhead” or “administrative costs” however, because the church is part of the “good work” being supported. Catholic Charities of St. Paul – 82% goes to programs. That’s pretty solid. http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=3438

      • For some people, religion is a guiding light for all things in their lives. These folks make a real effort to stick to their religious leaders’ teachings and edicts.

        For others, religion is less of a guiding light and more of a 1) a connection to family, ethic and/or racial heritage; 2) connection to a community and neighbors; and/or 3) convening spot for spiritual contemplation and connection, both individualized and guided.

        Given the surveys of Catholics’ opinions about papal edicts, most Catholics look to fall into these latter buckets.

        But even among these folks, I think a lot of them would like the Pope to shift policy, because those policies leave them feeling guilty, irritated and embarrassed.

        I grew up Catholic, and now go to a Lutheran Church, and that’s how I feel about my church leaders. I don’t feel like I have to obey them, but I still wish they were more consistent with Jesus’s teachings.

  6. Bertram well remembers the Diocese offering to “anull” the first of his blessed (TOTAL: TWO) unions.

    The price was $3,000 as I recall……a rather steep hillside for a rookie ad sales wizard of the time. I declined and have looked askance at the Vatican since.

    It did prevent #2 from taking place at St. Patrick’s, too.

      • Your premise isn’t serious.

        Churches have overhead costs, most of which are not ‘ironic’. They have property / casualty premiums, electric bills, secretary salaries.

        And they remodel from time to time… which is amortized / financed. When considering the source, your apparent wish for soviet / spartan bleak houses of worship might be sort of understandable. But this also is not a serious premise.

        And they pay litigation bills. Which is sad, but it happens.

        You’re working a trope here Lambo. It’s got no factual underpinnings. At least none you’d be able to articulate.

        • The comments here essentially proved my point earlier, that there Brian didn’t really have an interest in an honest discussion. Now he’s arguing that his point was about why many people have no need for that religious connection? That’s a very different discussion. I have no problem with people who don’t feel a need for a religious connection. I get that, understand it, respect it. I just think that crowd could show a little more respect and desire to understand those who choose a different path.

          • Well, excuse me. To re-reiterate the gist of the post: Attendance and association with organized religion is at its lowest ebb since anyone kept records of this stuff. I’m curious “why”? I speculate that The Church’s multiple scandals — both sex abuse, cover-up and financial — have disappointed/disgusted many and then that others, perhaps like me, no longer see the point in organized, ritualized “spiritual” guidance — hence agnosticism.

            I catch your point that you value it, that you believe it still does good work (I never said it didn’t do any), that it is a fundamental part of your family tradition and that there are many like you.

            Ok, duly noted.

            But the discussion I’m looking for is the original topic of “why” this drop off? Is it purely a kind of associative laziness on the part of cultural liberals/”secular humanists”? Is it because The Church, because of its institutional protocols (opaque hierarchy, second-class citizenship for women, on-going entanglements with international banks) is moving in one direction while the modern world, for better or worse, is moving in another? And larger, is is possible that a connection to spiritual revitalization doesn’t require a monolithic organization?

            And Jason, to your last point — “I just think that crowd could show a little more respect and desire to understand those who choose a different path.” — Is good advice, and also applicable to “the faithful”.

            The fact that honest questions about “why” are treated like attacks is, if you’ll excuse my lack of civility, a bit too much like The Church itself on matters like women in the clergy, homosexuality, cover-ups and financial chicanery.

            • That’s not it.

              In contemporary society we all understand the existence of the belligerent, obnoxious atheist. It’s a very real archetype.

              If In the course of a discussion on religion you make spurious a observation like this ‘overhead’ one, you basically reveal yourself to be that belligerent, obnoxious atheist type.

              I think Derusha heretofore only knew your writing sort of casually Lambo. He had probably been holding you in too high esteem.

            • Jimmy: I repeat … I hope The Church does (much) better.

              From this morning … .


              Some pertinent snippets …

              It’s on matters of sexual morality that the church has lost much of its authority. And it’s on matters of sexual morality that it largely wastes its breath. By insisting on mandatory celibacy for a priesthood winnowed and sometimes warped by that, by opposing the use of contraceptives for birth control, by casting judgment on homosexuals and by decrying divorce while running something of an annulment mill, the church’s leaders have enraged and alienated Catholics whose common sense and whose experience of the real world tell them that none of that is wise, kind or necessary.

              The church’s leaders have also set themselves up to be dismissed as hypocrites, unable to uphold the very virtues they promulgate.

              And …

              The child sexual abuse crisis, of course, has factored mightily into the church’s eroded credibility on sexual morality. And the media’s sustained examination of that crisis has made it difficult for church leaders to redirect attention toward the church’s concern for economic justice, its ministry to the needy and the extraordinary work that many of the church’s servants perform on those fronts.

              and …

              There’s a growing consciousness and worry about inequities of wealth in a world in which the estimated 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty, with an income of $1.25 a day or less, outnumber the roughly 1.2 billion Catholics.

              That desperation is fertile territory for the church, whose voice is most persuasive and essential on the landscapes of hunger, homelessness, sickness, war. To many Catholics, active and lapsed, the beauty of the faith and the essence of Jesus Christ reside in a big-hearted compassion that has been eclipsed and often contradicted by church leaders’ excursions into the culture wars.

              and finally …

              On the far side of all the church scandals and all its misspent energy, these Catholics still see a fundamental set of values, a compass, that they don’t want to lose touch with or give up on. The church’s stubborn attachment to certain negotiable traditions and unenlightened positions has distanced them, but they’re not entirely gone. It’ll be interesting to see how, and if, Francis tries to bring them back.

              Perhaps this advances the discussion of “why?”

            • No one leaves the Catholic church because they’re unhappy with its message or strategy on mitigating wealth inequality. Both are adequate to robust, at least by comparison to other institutions. And what I mean is, people who would leave because of ineffectiveness on wealth inequality would have the same reason to leave the Democrat party. And they don’t leave Democrat party. And we’re talking about an almost complete venn overlap. People who leave the Catholic church are cultural liberals and Democrats.

              To the extent this group of people says that’s a reason they leave…. It ain’t true or it’s an afterthought. Or they don’t give this as a reason and pundits are making it up. And we know this because it’s true in general in American life. People may say embrace some sort of Marxist ideal, but they don’t operate that way. It’s one of the biggest common hypocrises out there. Perhaps the biggest.

            • Anyone seeking refuge from hypocrisy will find little refuge in any of the organizations devised by human kind. But your best shot is probably an order of Catholic nuns.

            • The original essay didn’t appear to be asking why there was a drop-off to me. Asking “honest questions about ‘why'” is certainly welcome and important to all of us. Pretending that’s what the essay is about and then acting like I was attacking an honest question about why is a little silly.

              But it’s possible that I just got lost and missed your main point.

      • Joe: If you had dangled the offer of an “Annulment Ammo Pac”, of say 500 rounds, my man bertram here would have registered you as his official Annuller and thrown you all his business as the years and ex’s mounted up. Damn, you’d be sitting pretty today.

  7. Bertram is not pleased. Have you no mercy, man? 500 rounds is just a “Weekender” kit.

  8. Well, unlike our Minneapolis media geniuses, NBC Chicago has it right – gang violence, not “gun violence”.


    Once the libs drop the “gun violence” pretense and admit that they want the country disarmed, and still won’t acknowledge the social pathology in the the minority “community” that begets this sort of mass shooting, which will be ignored because of who what and where it happened.

    Hey, Beyonce’s the White House choice for family entertainment – see any connection folks?

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