As If a New Pope Actually Matters

The New York TimesFrank Bruni explains why the election of a new Pope has virtually no impact on the lives of many Catholics:

In large parts of the Roman Catholic world, certainly in North America and Western Europe, most Catholics don’t feel any particular debt or duty to the self-appointed caretakers of their church. They don’t feel bound by the pope’s interpretation of doctrine or moral commands. And many regard him and other Vatican officials as totems, a royal family of dubious relevance, partly because these officials have often shown greater concern for the church’s reputation than for the needs, and wounds, of the people in the pews.

There’s another reason the Pope has little influence over anyone: Whenever religious beliefs conflict with what we know is true — the wafer ain’t Jesus, condoms are the solution instead of the problem, homosexuality isn’t a sin, etc. — it’s just easier to ignore what the holy books and priests tell us and do whatever the hell we want. It’s why plenty of Christians have abortions and pre-marital sex.

Whatever the reason, we’re all better off when religious authorities have less power over others.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • fett101

    THEN WHY BE A ROMAN CATHOLIC?! The authority of the pope is a pretty central tenant to the church.
    There are plenty of other sects that do the same thing but without the pope.

    • Sam Piip

      Brainwashing. Most of them have been conditioned from childhood to consider leaving the church as worse than suicide.

      • Jayn

        The monolithic nature of the RCC is frustrating. Unlike Protestant denominations, If you want to attend a Catholic mass you’re stuck with that organisation. (Fortunately I don’t feel compelled to stick to the denomination, although I still self-identify as RC) When I do bother to attend mass I have to choose between a liberal Protestant church or the RCC, and as much as I prefer the former sometimes I do wish there was a third option.

        • http://twitter.com/Freemage69 Freemage

          Find an Episcopal Church, preferably one that is functionally “high church” in their attitudes. The Mass is virtually identical (to the point that you’ll know when to stand, sit and kneel), they even make the same claim to Apostolic Succession, if that’s important to you, and generally the only big distinction is that the only mortal sin is cold tea.

    • Sindigo

      Geography.

    • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

      I suspect community plays a role in it for many people. To leave the church is to leave your friends and family — your support group.

      • ortcutt

        Plenty of self-described Catholics never set foot in a Catholic church or have anything to do with the Church, so they aren’t giving up any community at all. Maybe it’s about being part of an imagined community. Like being a casual sports fan. Someone might not actually watch any Patriots games, but calling himself a Pats fan makes him feel like part of something.

        • http://twitter.com/Freemage69 Freemage

          Yes and no. Even if you’re not having anything to do with the Church, it’s true that in many neighborhoods, other Catholics who accept your “laxity” will be offended if you actually renounce the faith. And many of these people will be family and friends. Confronting that can be a challenge, especially if you’re living in an insular environment (say, a heavily Latino Catholic neighborhood in a city) or have to rely on your neighbors for material and emotional support (as is the case in both inner-city and rural communities that are suffering economic hardship).

          So no, as much as I might genuinely wish every Roman Catholic would simply walk away from the church, I recognize that it’s not that simple. However, that said, there’s absolutely no reason for parishioners to continue to put more money in the plate than is necessary for the operation of their own church. Starving the beast in Rome would be a way for “good Catholics” to actually make a difference.

  • slaq

    Regardless of whether they’re good Catholics or not, the fact that millions of apathetic, cultural Catholics exist is what gives the Pope and his church legal immunity. I don’t care if you’re a Catholic and you dislike what the Church has done; by choosing continue being a Catholic, you are choosing to support an organization that covers up child rape. There is no excuse for this.

    • Bill

      Catholics will claim that it’s just a few bad apples and not what the Church itself promotes. Then they will go on to point out how lots of organizations have their own molestations scandals – from schools to other religious sects to youth camps. So they attempt to rationalize and deflect in order to keep their smug little world the same as always.

      • C Peterson

        The problem is that the apples don’t start out rotten, they rot because the barrel itself is tainted. Get rid of the bad barrel, and the apples will be okay.

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

      Also consider the financial contributions by the otherwise moral Catholics who still put their hard-earned money into the collection basket to fund the cover-up and legal defense for priests who raped little children.

      It is absolutely bizarre that folks who are otherwise moral keep giving their money to financially support an organization.

      There is a huge disconnect.

    • Claude

      Regardless of whether they’re good citizens or not, the fact that millions of apathetic Americans do not sue the government and refuse to pay their taxes is what gives the Imperial Presidency its legal immunity. I don’t care if you’re an American and you dislike what the Obama administration has done; by choosing to remain American, you are choosing to support a system that covers up drone warfare.

      For one thing, there has been an exodus from the Catholic Church. For another, Catholicism is not merely about affiliation with the Vatican, which has for centuries been recognized as a thoroughly corrupt institution. I find the apologetics for Vatican complicity in the sex-abuse coverup as obnoxious as anyone, but it’s rather cavalier to advise Catholics to simply lose their religion. There is a dissident movement within the Church that favors a progressive agenda; I certainly hope more Catholics get behind it. I left the Church years ago, but I assure you that for practicing Catholics the admonition that “there is no excuse for this” is just not going to have much resonance.

      • ortcutt

        Whether you like him or not, the American people got a chance to choose the President. 129 million people voted for President, and Obama got almost 66 million votes. How many Catholics got a chance to choose Ratzinger? 117 Cardinals hand-picked by previous Popes. The Church is run by Popes elected by Cardinals chosen by Popes. The Laity is literally out of the loop. Church governance is one thing that (some strands of) Protestantism got right, and Catholicism continues to get wrong.

        • Claude

          “Whether you like him or not”; please, I beat a lot pavement for President Obama in both elections, but yes, I’m annoyed that his administration has doubled-down on the extra-legal executive authority that made my head explode during the Bush years. There have been vigorous efforts by the ACLU and others to force transparency and introduce some judicial constraints on the president’s authority. How successful have they been?

          Yes, the Vatican is a monarchy that should be overthrown. But in the politics of the possible, that is not going to happen.

          • ortcutt

            If you or anyone else thinks that some government action is extra-legal, you can speak publicly and take it up with the courts. That’s how our political system works. Otherwise, you can try to defeat politicians you disagree with at the ballot box.

            • Claude

              Right, I get the difference between a republic and a monarchy. Thanks.

          • Randomfactor

            What is possible is the establishment of an independent North American Catholic Church, along the lines of the Anglican/Episcopal split in Revolutionary War times.

            • Claude

              Good point!

      • blasphemous_kansan

        Ahh the old ‘word exchange’. I’ve done it plenty myself, but it opens you up to the false equivocation fallacy. In this case your equivocation between being a member of a church and being a citizen of a nation fails right out of the gate. People do not choose their initial citizenry, and may lack the resources to change it. But people do choose to be part of a church. People start out with no church, then they choose a church, and have the ability to leave the church (at least in a practical sense, if not officially on paper) with significantly less complications than someone would face who wishes to emigrate from a nation.

        They don’t have to give money and support to a private organization that is so obviously corrupt and intent on maintaining it’s own secrecy and way of doing things that is not subject to our puny secular laws. I, personally, don’t care how much ‘resonance’ the statement has for whichever sub-genre of Catholics you wish to analyze. There is no excuse for it. If the statement doesn’t have much resonance now, then you still admit that it has some, and this is all that’s needed. This message needs to be heard, and for centuries it didn’t even have that dignity.

        • Claude

          Of course it opens me up to the false equivocation fallacy. So what? The dynamics are similar enough to warrant a comparison. Every presidential election third-party voters hector mainline party voters for complicity in an intractably corrupt system. What are the options? Lesser evilism, voting one’s conscience regardless of an optimal outcome, or not voting. What is the believing Catholic to do when confronted with the venality of the Vatican? Pretty similar options.

          People start out with no church

          Huh? Plenty of people, like myself, for instance, are born into a church and its culture. I got out early, but if believers want to stay, who am I to patronize them?

          C Peterson said above:

          Italy should annex the Vatican, raid its treasuries to reclaim what are rightfully national treasures, and the international law enforcement community should freeze the church’s international assets, and where problems are found (and they will be found) institute forfeiture procedures.

          That would be excellent! Not going to happen.

          • blasphemous_kansan

            “Of course it opens me up to the false equivocation fallacy. So what?”

            Well, this would seem obvious, but in a false equivocation fallacy then your equivocation is….well, false.

            “The dynamics are similar enough to warrant a comparison.”

            See ‘false equivocation fallacy’ above. The dynamics are in no way similar, as you admit. The rest of your first paragraph simply doubles down on your false equivocation, and my original point stands: leaving a church is not as difficult as, or in any way equal to, leaving a country. I await evidence to the contrary.

            “Huh? Plenty of people, like myself, for instance, are born into a church and its culture. I got out early, but if believers want to stay, who am I to patronize them?”

            I’m not sure what about this is patronizing to believers who stay in the church, so perhaps you’d like to elaborate here. But it’s very unfortunate that your parents gave you no choice in the matter. It’s great that you were able to get out, despite being born into the church. It seems like at some point you decided “there’s no excuse to believe in this”, and abandoned the faith of your childhood, and this must have taken great strength and conviction to accomplish. That’s why I’m so confused by your railing against the “there’s no excuse for this” message when, at some point, some variant of the message must have had an effect on you, whether it was related to child-sex scandals or not.
            People will listen, people will think, and people will leave, like you did.

            C Peterson said above:

            Something wholly unrelated to what I said. You should reply to C Peterson’s comment by hitting ‘reply’ on his comment.

            • blasphemous_Kansan

              ” leaving a church is not as difficult as, or in any way equal to, leaving a country.”

              I should clarify this as applying to the USA, which was the context of Claude’s original comment. Indeed, sometimes church and country are the same thing.

            • Claude

              Since I was intent to demonstrate that the dynamics are similar “enough” not sure why you would insist that I admitted otherwise.

              leaving a church is not as difficult as, or in any way equal to, leaving a country

              Actually for many people it is is quite difficult to leave a church. I suppose you would have to rely on anecdotal evidence, which is abundant enough if you are willing to google. It was not difficult for me; I was young, my attachment was superficial, I was skeptical of church authority, and I did not believe (long before the sex and other scandals). It took no “great strength and conviction” whatsoever. But for many Catholics and Christians more generally, it’s a far more agonizing process. Religion can obviously have a profound effect on people; it gives meaning to their lives. That is why I think it’s patronizing, not to mention ineffective, to glibly advise believers to simply “leave.”

              I referred to C Peterson because s/he rightly puts the onus on the political institution of the Vatican instead of the laity. Of course the laity, in the US and Europe anyway, is in revolt, as Bruni’s article makes clear. In response the Vatican becomes ever more reactionary. But the Vatican is not the Church; presumably one reason Catholics stay is to participate in the battle to define Catholic identity.

              • blasphemous_kansan

                “Actually for many people it is is quite difficult to leave a church. ….”

                And I spent a good portion in my last comment agreeing with this sentiment. Nowhere did I say otherwise, and nowhere did I say that the choice to leave a church should be ‘glib’, so please don’t put words in my mouth. I admitted from the start that leaving a church is difficult, but you were saying that leaving a church in the USA is as difficult as actually leaving the USA, and that if one feels morally inclined to leave one for the behaviors of their leadership, then they should be similarly inclined to leave the other. It is this idea where I believe you are incorrect; in your equivalence between citizenship and church membership, and, if you read above, it’s been the only thing you’ve said that I really disagree with. You didn’t mention it in your last comment, so have you abandoned the church membership = nation membership analogy? If so, then I think we pretty much agree on everything else.

                Regarding your problems with the harshness of the message, I really don’t know what to say other than this is the internet. There are harsh voices and soft voices, and as long as we have both out there, then we’ll continue to win people over to the side of critical thought! I, for one, think the ‘harsh’ messages are useful, but this is another discussion altogether.

                C Peterson makes a great point, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. It’s also totally unrelated to what I was saying.

                • blasphemous_kansan

                  “You didn’t mention it in your last comment, so have you abandoned the church membership = nation membership analogy?”

                  I didn’t see your opening paragraph until now, so apologies for my lack of attention. Suffice to say, I still don’t think you’ve provided a case that the dynamics are similar enough to warrant this comparison.

                • Claude

                  (No need to apologize, but thank you.)

                  It is this idea where I believe you are incorrect; in your equivalence between citizenship and church membership,

                  Is there a perfect analogy? I admit I was too lazy to search for one. The Vatican has a peculiar status and a peculiar authority over its global corporation. My point had to do with identity, whether as a citizen or a religious believer, and how much compromise is warranted as a participant in a corrupt institution like the US government or the Catholic Church. As a voter I opt for lesser evilism in the hope that the arc of history bends toward justice. I speculate that practicing Catholics make something of a similar rationalization for their continued participation. Mind you, I’m fully sympathetic with those who opt out but am compelled to try to understand those who don’t.

      • slaq

        If I don’t pay taxes, I’m breaking the law, and I will most likely go to jail. I can’t leave the country, because I don’t have the financial resources to do so. And I don’t “choose to remain American.” This is my place of birth. To become anything other than American would require me to have been born in another country, or to be living abroad for a significant amount of time. None of these things are true for Catholics.

        You will not go to jail for leaving your church (at least not in the States)

        Leaving your church does not cost money (it will probably save you money in many respects)

        The only thing that defines you as Catholic is your willingness to be called Catholic. The moment that you decide you’re not Catholic, you’re not Catholic. Again, this is not true for nationality.

        And finally, as an American citizen, I live in a democratic republic, which means there is an established system set in place that allows us to try and change what is going on in our country. We may question the efficiency of this system sometimes, but at least we have one. Those who question the Catholic Church too strongly run the risk of being labled as heritics, and being excommunicated, becoming yet another brand of protestants.

        In short, your argument fails.

        • Claude

          You most certainly can renounce your American citizenship, or, to take a less dramatic example, your political party affiliation. Anyway, your literalism certainly enables you to miss the point: What is the moral response to involvement in a corrupt institution for those who nonetheless embrace the institution’s idealistic aspirations? This is precisely the dilemma that confronts the voter every election. You can play or you can opt out.

          Criticizing the Vatican has a longstanding tradition in the Church, and there are plenty of dissidents calling for change. I had hoped to encourage some empathy for the predicament of Catholics who, while scandalized by the conduct of the hierarchy, do not want to leave the faith. I regret that I failed.

          • slaq

            Those who embrace the institution’s idealistic aspirations are those who embrace a culture without divorce, without same-sex marrige, without contraception, without abortion, without pre-martial sex, and without gender equality. They are individuals who are already morally bankrupt.

            Those who believe none of the above have no business being Catholic. If they choose to remain being Catholic, then they are choosing to support an organization that not only advocates for all of the above, but also has a long history of violence, torture, and child abuse. The excuse that ‘it’s just a part of my culture’ does not justify this.

            Also, voting is completely different from choosing to leave one’s faith, renouncing party affiliation isn’t the same as renouning citizenship, and criticizing the Vatican in any meaningful way often doesn’t end well for the party doing the criticizing.

    • C Peterson

      It’s not just the members of the Catholic Church that provide a shield, but the fact that- bizarrely- the Vatican is recognized as a nation, with the Pope a head-of-state. And that allows for all manner of abuse. Just as a country like China or Iran can commit all manner of human rights abuses with little repercussion, so too can the Catholic Church. Sure, individual priests may be indicted for breaking the laws in other countries, but the real source of the problem, the Vatican itself, is largely immune.

      Italy should annex the Vatican, raid its treasuries to reclaim what are rightfully national treasures, and the international law enforcement community should freeze the church’s international assets, and where problems are found (and they will be found) institute forfeiture procedures.

  • http://twitter.com/arensb arensb

    It’s almost as though the pope is the head of Catholics in the same way that Elizabeth II is the head of the United Kingdom: in lip-service only.
    Yeah, we’re happy to watch the pomp and rituals on TV, and buy the commemorative plates, and gossip about all the sex scandals and such, but at the end of the day, queen Elizabeth doesn’t get to tell me what to do with my privates, and neither does the pope.

    • http://twitter.com/docslacker MD

      The difference is that the Queen doesn’t even try to tell you what to do with your privates.

  • blasphemous_kansan

    Meh, Pontiffs are like Batman movies: Whenever a new one comes out, there’s no guarantee that the quality will measure up to the good ones that everyone liked. The only sure thing is that there will be another one.

    • Randomfactor

      If only it were like the Star Trek movie franchise, where the even-numbered ones seem worthwhile. Although I liked JP1 better far better than JP2, though he didn’t last nearly so long at the box office.

      • blasphemous_kansan

        And instead of “KAAAAAHN!!!”, it’s Ratzinger yelling “CONDOOOOOMS!!!”

  • TiltedHorizon

    Pope = Pedophilic Obsessed Preists Everywhere. New Pope = Same problems.

  • Greg G.

    At least we got a new rhetorical question:

    Who resigned and made you Pope?

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.ahern.31 Mike Ahern

    A more modern pope would get off the backs of America’s nuns and let them do the kinds of work that actually produce meaningful social benefits.


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