Red Tape at the Table

Picture this: a devout woman, active in her local parish, has been denied communion for years, because her husband (not her) has been previously married. Therefore, her marriage is not considered legit by the Church. So she writes a letter to the Vatican.

I’m not sure what sort of response she was expecting. But what she got was a call from THE POPE. He calls her up, says, it’s cool, you can take communion. No biggie.

She leaks the call to the media, so for about 5 minutes, Catholics everywhere think that the Vatican is loosening up about who’s in and who’s out when it comes to receiving the sacrament. BUT, then the Vatican does its thing and says, hey, that’s just the Pope being the Pope. Guy’s a loose cannon. He is forever going rogue/Batman on us, and like, blessing the homeless and the gays… Lol. We love him but, sorry divorced and imperfect people everywhere… you still don’t get the cup.

Here’s the most interesting part of their argument… Vatican officials say that this particular conversation happened in the context of a ‘pastoral relationship’ with an individual and therefore does not “in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities…”

My question for the big-C Church is this… If pastoral relationships do not inform public activities… what in the world is the point? I don’t care if we’re talking about His Holiness, or Pastor Steve at Tiny Baptist Church down the street.  When one is ordained to Christian ministry, one takes on a certain authority that comes from God and the ordaining body. This leader is then called to serve, and serve with, that particular community. Public acts—such as serving communion, performing rites of marriage and baptism, or, you know, praying over the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Hy-Vee—we perform these signs on behalf of the larger body of believers. By the power vested in us by God and others, etc.

Granted, in the Catholic faith, the Pope is viewed as infallible (Pastor Steve and I are not); and, specifically hand-selected and called by God (Pastor Steve and I…well, folks might give God credit for us on some days. Others, maybe not). With that in mind… shouldn’t the Pope’s one-on-one interactions bear even MORE weight in the context of the broader Church? If the Pope is representative of God—isn’t, then, the individual representative of humanity? Or at least, Catholic humanity?

Apparently not. The Vatican talks out both sides of its ecclesial mouth when it comes to how much authority the Pope actually has to speak for God and the Church. (And their tendency to equate the two…well, that right there can be problematic.) When he preaches status quo, he’s their guy. When he ventures into the prophetic, transformative, justice seeking voice… Hold on there, old man. We’ve got appearances to keep. A system to maintain.

People to keep in their places.

This is just one episode in a string of episodes where the Head of the Church—endowed with about as much authority as any human can receive from another human entity—has been mansplained into silence by his handlers.

Meanwhile, in other quarters of Christendom… The voice behind the curtain proclaims “Rachel Held Evans does not speak for us when she says that women can lead in the church. Neither does Sarah Bessey.” “Rob Bell does not speak for us when he alludes to universal salvation.” “That guy from Jars of Clay who is questioning our homophobic speech patterns… we are going to Tweet him out of town right quick, so don’t mind him.”  “Nadia Bolz-Weber and her tattoos are not the true sacred embodiment of the gospel.”

Yeah…not just Catholics. Not just about communion.

People who claim to follow Jesus have always spent a shocking lot of their time deciding who’s in and who’s out, and who’s the boss of deciding. This is nothing new. This is not surprising.

But every time the Pope goes rogue, I get a little hopeful. And every time the larger body tries to go back and undermine his authority (which they gave him!), I say, you go, Padre. They tried to shut Jesus up, too…

Meanwhile, this is an opportunity for churches like mine—and hopefully, churches like yours—to say, again: COME TO THE TABLE, WORLD. Pull up a chair, all means all, you are ok, we are all broken, God is love, have some bread, and share the cup. We promise, you will not catch divorce cooties from your neighbor. (Silly Catholics. Everybody knows that the only thing you can catch from the common cup is gay.)

Every time Christians make headlines for putting limits on God’s grace—or just for saying something epically stupid (thanks Sarah Palin. Again.) it’s an invitation for the rest of us to do a better job. To be a little louder with the voice of reason, and the voice of love beyond all reason; to sing a little more joyfully; and to do everything in our power to remove the red tape that “authority” keeps putting around the gospel.

It’s an invitation to the fullness of life around a table. Here, we recognize that Christ-shaped good news means broken embodiment; a table that gathers imperfect, hurting people, just like us…who have wrecked stuff up and will probably wreck stuff up again…but who keep trying, all the same, to look and talk a little more like Jesus.

Once we are seated in that place, we look at each other and say, well…what is church for, anyway? Are we here for our own enjoyment and survival? To prescribe behavior, fear our neighbor, and hold on real tight to our stuff?

Or are we the living, breathing, body of Christ? Love and mercy, unleashed on the waiting world?

The question doesn’t really sound like a question any more, does it? That’s what this table will do to us… makes all that red tape look kind of ridiculous, in the scheme of things.

I’m rooting for Padre Batman. He seems to have been invited to the same table as the rest of us, and is ready to remove the obstacles for those outside of Vatican-standard ‘grace.’ I tell you what though… he does make me nervous. Because seriously, my current congregation is about half full of former (and even current) Catholics who love peace and justice; but who also believe in LGBT equality, lady preachers, and a lot less drama around the cup. Lucky for us, His Holiness is still not down with ordaining the nuns. Because if he keeps it up—this march to open up the table—well, some of the rest of us might lose our edge.

What a wonderful, holy pickle that would be. To go with all that bread.


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  • Kelly Gindlesberger

    Yes to all the above! Some great writing and even better theology. I would like permission (so I don’t need to seek forgiveness) to put “Padre Batman” into use as my common reference to the current Pope – whom I agree is shaking up the Vatican only-old-boys network.

  • I’m liking this new Pope more and more. He seems to believe that the communion table is God’s table and that everyone is welcome. A point of clarification about the the Pope’s infallibility. He is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith. So technically the Vatican is right that the Pope’s actions haven’t changed anything. However from a practical stand point this Pope is making huge changes in the Catholic church no matter what the Vatican says.

    • Erin Smallwood Wathen

      Thanks for sharing, James.

  • wellston25

    A favorite hymn at many parishes “All are Welcome in this Place” was removed by a local Bishop. Many Jesuits have practiced open communion for years but stayed under the radar. Just like Pope John XXIII he is rearranging the furniture. I am convinced if Pope John heard Rev. Wathen preach he would give his big smile and say “You Go Girl

  • David Massey-Brown

    I like your article very much, but one thing needs clarification. The Pope is not “viewed as ‘infallible.'” Papal statements are considered to be infallible only when the Pope speaks “ex cathedra.” Such statements are extremely rare, and concern theological dogma, not pastoral liberty. The Pope carries authority only because the Roman church has ascribed that authority to him — not because he’s “hand-picked by God.” It’s difficult to equate Papal and Vatican actions and philosophies with those of ours, since the Roman church is hierarchically defined, not covenantally defined, as we are.

    But I do get your point — and I agree with it!