Pagan Wishes For The New Pope

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Catholic church.

I grew up in a small country Baptist church. The building was plain, the pews were hard and the services were long. The preacher hadn’t graduated from high school and his sermons showed it. Well before I was old enough to realize what I was being taught didn’t match up with known science and history, with much of Christian theology and with my own core values, I felt like I was in a second-rate church.

The Catholic church looked so… different. The beautiful buildings and statues, the distinctive dress of the priests, and the reverent, ritualized worship – it all seemed so much better and deeper than what we were doing at the Baptist church.

Yeah, I know – the grass is always greener and all that. This was before I realized that what the Catholic church taught was just as opposed to my core values as what the Baptists taught. It was different, not better.

Still, I’ve kept that soft spot for the Catholic church. Their cathedrals are still awe-inspiring and their rituals still are beautiful. I respect their teachings against war and the death penalty, and the humble work many Catholics do in the field of social justice. And even though I’m a good anti-hierarchical UU and Pagan, the engineer in me is envious of their organizational structures.

So I’ve been watching the developments in Rome ever since Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation / retirement / abdication last month, and yesterday I was following along with everyone else when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was announced as Pope Francis.

I offer my best wishes to Pope Francis. At my core I’m a universalist who believes the world is richer with a wide variety of religious traditions. I’m also a realist who understands the Catholic church still has a lot of influence beyond the bounds of its parishes. What he does will affect all of us, Catholics and Pagans and everyone else.

I’d love to see the new pope bring his church into the 21st century. I’d love to see married priests (it’s coming, though not any time soon), a healthy approach to sexuality and an acceptance of sexual diversity (not in my lifetime), and the ordination of women (I’ll reach apotheosis first). But those aren’t realistic expectations for this pope and Catholics who feel strongly about those issues will continue ignore the pope and to vote with their feet.

But there are some wishes and expectations that are reasonable for those of us who are not Catholics but who understand the considerable power the Catholic church still wields.

I hope Pope Francis will put an end to the child abuse scandal by removing every priest and bishop who is guilty of abuse or of enabling abuse by covering it up. No exceptions.

The Catholic church has a long tradition of claiming it alone is the One True Church. I do not expect this pope to reverse that claim and accept that Paganism – or Judaism or Buddhism or even Protestantism – is an equally valid religious path. I do hope Pope Francis will treat both leaders and followers of all religions with the same dignity and respect he expects for himself and his fellow Catholics. I’m no Christian scholar, but I think that part about “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” means everybody.

I do not expect Catholic teachings to change. But every pope chooses which teachings he will emphasize, and I hope Pope Francis will choose to emphasize his church’s teachings on compassion to all and service to the poor.

Cardinal Bergoglio took the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose life was admirable and whose Canticle of the Sun expresses a relationship to the natural world familiar to many Pagans. There is power in a name, and I hope Pope Francis will use his influence to care for the Earth and to respect all its creatures.

Contrary to what many believe, the power of a pope is not unlimited. The Catholic church has a long tradition and an immense bureaucracy and like a large ocean liner it cannot be turned quickly – assuming it wants to turn at all. It is not reasonable to expect this pope to reform his church in the ways those of us on the liberal side of the religious spectrum would prefer. But there are things he can do within the bounds of traditional Catholicism that will make our world a better place.

I hope Pope Francis is successful. Though I am quite happy as a Pagan, a Druid, and a Unitarian Universalist, I still have a soft spot for the Catholic church.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • http://www.endlesserring.wordpress.com Treeshrew

    Perhaps your soft spot for the Catholic Church is related to your not being born into a strict Catholic family? ;)
    I think this pope might be a very slight improvement on the last guy (he couldn’t be much worse) but I can’t see any real change happening.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      There’s no “perhaps” about it, Treeshrew – you’re exactly right!

  • Kenneth

    There are plenty of Catholics doing good work on the ground level, and the architecture may be cool, but at the institutional level, this church is not a positive force in the world, and I don’t see much prospect for meaningful change with the new guy. This is the same outfit that just recently took a stand against the federal Violence against Women Act because the legislation also protects non-hetero women. Protecting gays and lesbians from domestic violence is no good, because it only legitimizes their “disordered lifestyle”, you see. This is not a church arguing for the right to practice its own theology and ritual as it sees fit. It demands that government enforce its doctrine on all of us. It aspires to theocracy or a functional equivalent.

    Francis is very much a man cast from that culture war/spiritual warfare mold. I don’t see a lot of hope for ecumenical engagement. He seems to frequently equate worship of anything but the Catholic God as “devil worship.” He may or may not bring meaningful change to the abuse crisis. On the plus side, he doesn’t seem hideously tainted by personal involvement in shielding predators himself.

    On the minus side, the entire culture of bishops and cardinals is rotten where this issue is concerned. They have never shown any gut understanding of a failure in leadership or held themselves accountable in any real way. They truly believe they’ve done nothing wrong and that the entire thing is the product of a hostile media, Western secularism and societal decadence and homosexuals. The general tone of the RCC these days is to circle the wagons against the outside world and purge the internal dissenters. Not the sort of atmosphere which prompts organizations to transparency or accountability. Maybe Jesuit discipline will tend toward stricter responses to abuse, but maybe not. The order has its own history of cover-ups in that regard.

    The one potential bright spot with this guy is his apparent humility and distaste for ostentatious wealth and the trappings of privilege. That (may) be a sign of a man who is willing to roll up his sleeves and taken on the dirty work of administration and take personal responsibility for it. Benedict was not a manager in any sense of the word. He spent his days writing scholarly works and ginning up the conservative mob against gays and the outside world in general.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Kenneth, I have no argument with your comments – they’re pretty accurate observations. But at this time of transition, I think it’s appropriate to hope and pray for the best. The Catholic Church isn’t going away any time soon, and it won’t suddenly turn into the UCC. But the new pope can make significant improvements and still remain loyal to Catholic tradition.

      I think that’s a reasonable hope.

      • E.V. Laurie

        The question is not that he “can make significant improvements”, the questions is if he is willing to. In my personal opinion, the bishops, cardinals and Pope himself are all old people and old people are set on their ways and beliefs. I would really love to see a change in that regard. It’s not pretty to see news about the priests abusing a kid almost every week. It’s disgusting and sad. And what is sadder is that the way the church was established leads to covering that kind of behavior.

  • Natalie

    Amen! :) I was raised a Catholic, and still hold a soft spot for the Church. I tried a number of Christian denominations before converting to Paganism (Druidry), but no other Christian church offered the beauty of ritual that Catholicism does. I have mainatained that if I were to convert back to Christianity I would likely go back to Catholicism based on ritual alone. I liked Pope John Paul II, he had a healthy relationship with the Divine Feminine, and I hope he was not directly responsible for the molstation cover up. Benedict, not so much, and glad he is no longer in charge. I am rooting (within reasonable bounds, I don’t expect miracles, so to speak) for the new Pope as well, as a lover of nature, the fact that he chose Francis for his name gives me hope.

    • E.V. Laurie

      Maybe I should drop by a church some of these days because, to be sincere, I found them boring. I remember I once fell sleep. But I was child then I have never gone back.

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  • eric devries

    I hope he does some good as well. As you pointed out, the position doesn’t have unlimited power but I think it is one of great influence and if he operates from a place of service and love he can do some good for interfaith relationships around the world. The last pope, to my mind, did a lot to alienate Jews and Muslims and I didn’t really dig that. I don’t have high hopes for reform but I do think that married priests would be awesome. I see a lot of folks piling on his anti-homosexual views but it wasn’t like there was a pro-gay option among the cardinals. Also, since there is an element within our own community that is wrong minded about LGBTQAI issues I’m not going to pick on another faith for that. I advocate taking care of ones own yard before telling the neighbors whats wrong with theirs. The man seems to have a genuine sense of service and that does give me a little hope that he can accomplish something positive in the world. Saint Francis is syncretised with Orunmila so maybe that helps some wisdom reach the man as well.

    • Kenneth

      Whatever issues of homophobia the pagan community may still have, it is not even within several orders of magnitude in scale relative to that of the RCC. Apart from the very early figures of Wicca and perhaps the extremist fringes of Nordic traditions, I cannot think of any examples of significant homophobia at the level of trad or leadership these days. We grappled with issues of transgender inclusion in the past couple of years, and I believe we emerged with a very strong consensus in favor of LGBT rights. I can count on one hand the number of pagans I have ever seen oppose gay marriage, and that was mostly on Witchvox and other forums a decade ago.

      I don’t doubt that we have some individual bigots among us, but we have nothing at all like the daily drumbeat of hate rhetoric and enormous culture war and lobbying expenditures that characterize the Catholic Church on this issue. If our own shortcomings leave us unqualified to speak out against such obscene hatred and injustice, then our own religions offer no basis for forming any moral or ethical judgment and in that case, our detractors are right: we are just a bunch of new-agers playing dress-up in the woods. I think it’s fine to wish for the best and give a new pope a benefit of doubt to let his actions speak for themselves. I don’t see where we have to pretend “it’s all good” or ignore clear distinctions to do so.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/panmankey jason mankey

    Great piece, and I’m happy to see that I wasn’t the only person writing about the new Pope on Patheos Pagan. My wife was raised Catholic so we have serious problems with the Church, but still admire the architecture, art, and much of the ritual.

    Your statement “I do not expect Catholic teachings to change. But every pope chooses which teachings he will emphasize, and I hope Pope Francis will choose to emphasize his church’s teachings on compassion to all and service to the poor,” just nails it. I’m hopeful his focus will be on the poor and social justice.

    The most troubling part of Catholic doctrine to me is the “no to birth control” rule. As the Catholic Church increases in number in Africa, it also basically promotes the spread of HIV by not advocating condom use.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks, Jason. The last pope seemed to move in the right direction, but in such vague language I doubt it will make much difference to the people who are in danger.

      The core problem is the idea that sex in particular and the body in general are sinful or at least distracting from “higher” activities, thus conception is the only legitimate purpose for sex. This is – quite literally – an unnatural position… which is reflected in the fact that the vast majority of educated Catholics ignore it. As some point I hope the Catholic hierarchy reconsiders.

      Until then, I’ll settle for an emphasis on social justice and benign neglect on birth control.

  • E.V. Laurie

    I’m sorry to say that while you seem to see the Catholic in a benign light, I can only focus more on the bad. I try hard not to be so harsh but it seems it just come naturally. I’m all for everyone practicing their own religion, beliefs and anything else they like. It’s obvious that the Church does not and that really bothers me. While, as I mentioned before, I’m all for the positives thing they can do. I’m not hoping for anything resembling a miracle. In fact, if they solve the current issue of child molestation, I’ll be surprise. Let’s pray that I’m wrong. BB

  • Teresa Morris

    I have much love the Catholic Church I believe out of our natural instincts as people who learned to survive in days of the cave man, man found spirituality as well as how to build a fire and learned how to keep a fire going and man even invented wheels to make their physical work a lessor burden. And through the ages God our father in Heaven blessed us with more inventions and knowledge and we evolved until a day we were ready intellectually to recieve higher laws that were given to us by His only begotten Son Jesus Christ who God our Father entrusted to teach us the eternal plan of salvation to show us by His living example the virtues and attributes of our Father in Heaven. Jesus showed us the way to return to our creator and Father in Heaven taught us the teachings which we still live by from the writings of the apostles who recorded Our Lord Jesus Christs words and teachings of the eternal plan of salvation which were recorded and compiled into the New Testiment and added to older Testiments which became our Bible a guide to follow and give us a plan to follow to become more Christ like to learn how to become a more civilized and humaine culture of people on a planet that was manifested and created for mankind to prosper and to have joy. We were created by a loving Heavenly Father who intended for us to use our gifts to help one another and to share each others burdens to lighten the burdens for us individually as Our Savior Jesus Christ did for us on the cross so that we would never have to carry our crosses and burdens alone. We are a culture of evolved people who live the teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ through His Holy Catholic Church guided by Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit led by the most eminent and most reverend lord, Lord Jorge, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, Argentina’s Bergoglio now Pope Francis.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I see things differently than you, Teresa, but thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Anton O’Faolin

    I was raised in a very strict Irish Catholic family. My mother was from the west coast of Ireland, a very pagan territory. The druids of Ireland were so frightening in their slaughter of young virgins, they even disgusted the Romans. I left the Catholic church twenty four years ago. The Catholic Church is totally pagan. In 1986 I lined up to view the body of Mao in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. Whilst I was waiting, I felt a a sickness in my spirit. I was so overwhelmed with this spiritual grief, that I had to step out of the line. My friends begged me to stay in line and see this corpse. I only had the vaguest knowledge of Mao, but I found out later that he murdered more people than Hitler, all Chinese. Two months later, I got to see Pope John Paul 2. I was really excited, as I was a devout Catholic. When he came into the building, a powerful spiritual force swept into the stadium, and everyone leapt to their feet, including people who were just minutes before mocking him. I was glued to my feet. The same overpowering nausea swept over me that had afflicted me whilst queuing for Mao’s body. I realised that this man didn’t represent God, but his power was something other. The power of the Vatican is pagan- sorry if this offends you, but Roman Catholicism is based more on paganism than on the teachings of Jesus of Nazereth.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Anton, thanks for reading and commenting. I apologize for taking so long to approve your comment, but I’ve been away since Friday morning and wanted to be able to post a proper follow-up.

      There is ample evidence the ancient Celts (and thus their priestly class, the Druids) ritually killed people. What is less clear is why they did so. Were these human sacrifices, or were they executions of criminals, political prisoners, and prisoners of war? The latter seems more likely. There is NO evidence the Celts sacrificed virgins. Given the lack of importance the Celts placed on virginity, it seems extremely unlikely.

      Those who said the Druids “disgusted the Romans” were – guess who? – the Romans, who were writing to justify subduing the native Britons, not for historical accuracy.

      By the way, the Romans never invaded Ireland, and Ireland’s conversion to Christianity was almost entirely peaceful.

      As for the Catholic church being “totally pagan”, that’s simply not true. Are there elements of ancient paganism in Christianity? Certainly – but that’s not limited to the Catholic church. I recently read De Mysteriis, written by the Greek Iamblichus around 300 CE. There were many parts of that book that could have been written by John Calvin.

      What you experienced around the body of Mao and around John Paul II was power. Power is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. What makes it good or evil is how it’s used.

      Don’t misunderstand – while I retain that “soft spot” for the Catholic church, I am no fan of Catholicism. But it remains the largest religious institution in the world, it isn’t going away any time soon, and I am hopeful the new pope will use the immense power he now possesses for good.


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