It has been nearly a year since Pope Francis got the attention of the entire world with his election as Bishop of Rome and Shepherd of the Universal Church. Beginning from the moment of his acceptance remarks he has unveiled an approach to living out the faith of Jesus which seems dramatically different from the face that the Church had been presenting to the world for the most part over recent decades. Does the face of the Church change? That is, of course, a figure of speech but arguments can be made that some of the difficulty blocking a rapid spread of the message of Jesus Christ is caused by the leaders in the Church, whether they be theologians, priests, nuns or bishops, who are harsh and rigid. That is a harsh statement. Can it be justified? Is raising the issue valid? I think that it is.
Church leaders have occasionally placed obstacles in the way of people who want to follow the simple loving message of Jesus of Nazareth. The leaders themselves are influenced not solely by Christ’s teachings but by the culture and customs in which these leaders have lived through in their own lives and have internally absorbed with the passage of years. Let me give you a few examples.
When I was a kid in the 1930’s it was perfectly justifiable for a pastor to refuse to bury a person who had committed suicide. Thankfully, that cruel policy was beginning to give way as pastors became more sensitive to the complexities of human psychology but the policy was still on the books and it could still happen. The same was true of a person who died in what the Church considered an invalid marriage. How sad. How sad. Not giving Christian burial to a deceased person who died under an ecclesiastical cloud did not hurt that person in any way but it generated tremendous pain for the family. Why did the Church have a policy that would inflict so much pain without any theological justification whatsoever? Simply put – it was the custom. It was the tradition. It was the way we did it!
Slavery! I am thrilled to note that many Catholic institutions are beginning to generate real concern and energy for the tragic issue of continued slavery in our society. My friends, even today it is widespread. While you are watching the evening TV news, some victims are being trafficked up and down IH-35. A splendid organization opposing human trafficking is called End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, ECPAT-USA, asserted that 1.2 million children are trafficked annually and hotels are the common spot for commercial sexual exploitation of children. It is wonderful to see an alliance of forty Roman Catholic institutions located in the New York metro area working together to help eliminate trafficking. Their work is headed by Dominican Sister Patricia Daily who is also Executive Director of the New Jersey based Tri-state Coalition for
All of this is leading up to the tragic historical reality that there were many times in its history when the Church was not comfortable with slavery but chose to live with it. Once again, the culture, the tradition and the customs! It was the way we did it.
And then there is racism. The Church did commendable work in communities of the South long before 1964 with the first major piece of human rights legislation to be passed by the Johnson administration. The fact is, however, that the Church lived with it! We lived with a cruel and unjust system. Catholic schools were segregated, Catholic hospitals would not accept African-American patients and Catholic seminaries would not accept Black applicants. That was true of my own seminary in Houston in the 1950’s. Why? Because that was the system formed by the hateful culture of the Old South and, to a great extent, the whole nation. It was just the way we did it! May God forgive us!
There are terrible things out there, many are still going on, but I am proud of the fact that today the Church really is trying to utilize its Christian values more effectively and with greater energy than we have done in the past. Now our society is dealing with the issue of homosexuality which has long been at odds with the dominant custom and culture but we are beginning to see dramatic changes and adaptations in this area. More on that tomorrow.
Share on Facebook