Every pope has a personal confessor, a person to whom the Pope confesses his sins.
This Confessor may be a life-long friend of the Pope and the Pope’s intellectual and spiritual peer.
Below you will find the circumstance and the text of a confession between the Pope and his Confessor.
As usual, late one evening, on ancient merbau and marble floors; surrounded by colossal and opulent tapestries depicting unicorns and princes and dogs on the hunt; encircled by frescos of Moses in death, David in tears, Solomon in judgment, Jesus in agony; bounded by deep-dark mahogany chairs and settees and gorgeous threadbare Turkish rugs; in a thousand-room palace housing the papal apartments; all within the larger antique Vatican complex: the Pope spoke—face to face—to his Confessor.
The Pope said:
I have kept something from you, from everyone, for a very long time, and I need to tell you because I have an important decision before me, more important than you can know right now. I want to begin a series of confessions to you—all basically on one theme, and that theme is my doubts about the faith.
I want to admit my doubts to you and tell you why I have them.
As I make confession, I’d like that you simply listen and not respond. I’m acquainted with all the defenses of our faith anyway. And I’m aware of the stratagem that says all those who critique our religion have never really known it. But you must understand I have really known our religion, both intellectually and emotionally.
I want to use this forum—the confessional—because I respect the pedigree of our friendship. And please understand, I do not feel I need forgiveness for expressing honest doubts. Do I need forgiveness for expressing a candid thought? In that sense, I’d like to say, ‘Bless me, for I have not sinned.’ But you may feel I need forgiveness, because I will speak bluntly, even harshly at times. And I suppose from you I desire forgiveness.
Over the next several weeks and months, as is our custom, we’ll meet at night here in my apartment before bedtime, since our days are full of busywork.
You know that it is done. Popes do slip away into the night and dine at friends’ homes. I had a most exquisite dinner with Salvatore Marino and guests earlier tonight. Oh, the wine! The wine! The rain nearly conspired against us, but we made it without a sail. Sal is a gifted storyteller with a golden heart and a red-rusted liver! Vittorio and Shari were there. Mary and Ingrid too. We spoke of many things, in many languages—morality among them. This, I think, is my cue for tonight’s confession. I’m a bit practiced, now. So, let’s have at it. Sit in your normal chair. I’ll pace.
Bless me, my dear Confessor, for I have not sinned. It has been seventeen days since my last confession.
I think I could list at least twenty criticisms of our Christian morality.
One. We have a God who either causes or permits severe, gratuitous suffering and pain for people and animals, which no decent human being would do. Therefore, we have a God with a lower moral standard than humans.
Two. We have a God who reveals life-giving information late in world history and only to a few people. That is, the revelation from God to the Hebrew prophets arrived late to the world stage, at least three thousand years after the dawn of human writing and advanced civilizations; furthermore, the revealed message was given only to a few nomads in ancient Canaan, not the wide world.
Three. We have a God who imputes guilt to all humanity based on the supposed offenses of Eve—and Adam.
Four. We have a God who punishes children for the offenses of parents. See Exodus Chapter Twenty. And then there’s the second of the Ten Commandments.
Five. We have a God who, though humans are ‘born sinners,’ commands humans to be good, faults us for not being so, punishes us not being so, and tortures us everlastingly for not being so. Yes, we have a God who will keep billions of people forever alive in hellish torture.
Where was I? Six. We have a God who developed a method of salvation wherein an innocent person suffers for the guilty, which no other system of jurisprudence would permit.
Seven. We have a God who devised a method of salvation that only manages to save a tiny fraction of the human race—barely a squad.
Eight. We have a God who does not accept the saving efficacy of moral virtue and therefore condemns morally eminent people to hell—Socrates, Cicero, Gandhi, and millions more—while the vilest man in the Americas inherits eternal life for mere mental assent to the phrase ‘Jesus Saves.’
Nine. We have a history of violence toward, and coercion of, and expulsion of, and persecution of, and execution of, hundreds of thousands of people—pagans, apostates, heretics, Jews, Muslims, infidels, heathen, witches, savages, fellow Christians.
Ten. We have the belittling of women through patriarchy and the male God.
Eleven. We have the defamation of sexuality. The virgin and celibate ideal. The ever-virgin Mary. The contagion of original sin via libido. Rigid sexual rules. Prudishness.
Twelve. We have a revealed morality (thus supposing moral rules were formerly concealed) while people all over the world lived by similar rules without the bible for thousands of years before and after the revelation of the bible.
Thirteen. We have a morality that creates false crimes: unbelief, suicide, various sexual acts, and the supposed sin of ‘playing God’ by manipulating the material world or interrupting the course of physical disease.
Fourteen. We have a morality that invites frivolous merits: we have imagined that dietary rules, fasting, special clothing, bodily mutilations, church attendance, performance of rituals, and so on, merit God’s favor.
Fifteen. We have a morality that, for most of its existence, countenanced slavery; even priests and ministers owned slaves. The biblical God and the biblical Jesus never prohibited slavery.
Sixteen. We have morality founded upon the existence of God though it is imprudent to base one’s morality on the existence of God because the proofs of God’s existence are not persuasive to all!
Seventeen. We have an ‘It’s-wrong-because-God-said-so’ morality. Our theism tells us that murder, incest and torture are wrong because an invisible being said they are. Meanwhile, atheists say murder, incest and torture are wrong because wise, civilized people have agreed they are. As long as both the theist and the atheist concur on what’s wrong, there seems little worth debating. But what if the theist were to press his case and claim an invisible being said the following: ‘If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death’? You will recognize this as God’s words from Leviticus 20, verse 10. Or from verse 13 of this same chapter: ‘If a man has sex with another man as with a woman, both shall be put to death.’ Well, well. Wise, civilized atheists may not agree with these godly rules.
Acts are deemed wrong because experience and reason tell us they are. Morality, as you know my gentle friend, is based on reasoning, and even God must have reasons for God’s commands. But if God’s rules are based on reasoning, then anyone with reasoning may discover the rules without God, as has occurred among every other ‘godless’ people in every other culture.
Moving on. Eighteen, was it? Yes, eighteen. We have purported moral absolutes that are actually relative moral rules, since all the rules admit exceptions, and extenuating circumstances can make the prohibited act the right thing to do. Can we think of any circumstance wherein lying or stealing would be the right thing to do? Yes, of course. Then the rules are not absolutely true for all times, places and circumstances. They are relative; that is to say, the rules are relative to the contexts in which a person finds him or herself.
Nineteen. We have a promise-and-threat morality, a morality based on the promise of reward and the threat of punishment: heaven and hell. This is juvenile. Being moral means doing what is right because it’s right, not because a prize awaits us. Being moral means avoiding what is wrong because it’s wrong, not because we might get caught and punished and tortured everlastingly.
Twenty. Twenty. What’s twenty? Hmm. Well, I can’t think of a twentieth critique right now.
The Pope stood staring at the ceiling. The Confessor sat staring at the Pope. Minutes passed, and then the Pope continued:
Can a pope speak such blasphemies? But if it’s true, is it blasphemy?
Really, though, has our Christian system been superior to non-theistic moral systems devised by people like Aristotle, Buddha, or Confucius?
Here is my humble opinion on morality:
First, start with the sheer unlikelihood of the simultaneity of existence in a multi-billion-year-old universe. It is utterly remarkable that I and you and billions of other people and animals are alive at this moment; it’s stunning that we exist at the same time. How rare to share these minutes of life!
All these living entities are the objects of my moral concern, from the newborn to the dying. All are ‘my people,’ even the animals. All are my ‘graduation class.’ And every living thing craves existence and would love to continue existing unmolested by the others. First moral rule: Do not molest others.
Next, our second moral rule emerges from the fact that living generations always lament the moral lapses of dead generations. We ourselves do this when we ask how otherwise moral people in the past could have permitted slavery or the mutilation of criminals, or infanticide, or gender inequalities, or other acts we now deem barbaric. Otherwise moral people in the past permitted these practices because the practices seemed absolutely natural to the practitioners and therefore beyond moral critique.
Isn’t it probable that we in the present moment also act in a similar moral fog concerning some pattern of thinking or behaving? In a thousand years people will look back at us and marvel at our moral lapses. But about what? We would be surprised at the actions they will indict us for, because these acts seem completely natural to us now and therefore beyond moral criticism.
Remember that, in times past, a tiny minority of people arose to critique the mindless immoralities of the majority, and they did this until entire civilizations improved their thinking and conduct.
We should be willing to entertain the notion that there are among us tiny minorities of people who are critiquing the mindless immoralities of the rest of us.
Therefore, and this is the second moral rule: Be alert to the vocal, moral minority among us.
Our third moral rule comes into view when we ponder what every generation needs: an Ethics of Urgency. This would be a reverse of that old utilitarian maxim that says: what is good is what causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number. In other words, an Ethics of Urgency says that that which is bad is that which causes the greatest un-happiness to the greatest number.
An Ethics of Urgency will engage in moral triage, an assessment of moral concern based on a hierarchy of needs—from basic needs to higher needs. Needs of humans and nonhumans. Wouldn’t this revolutionize morality? Third moral rule: Urgent needs come first.
That’s my confession for tonight. I’m afraid I got a bit worked up! You can see the weight of my subject matter? Yes?
And the Pope rose and bowed for a blessing.
The Confessor, conspicuously peaceful, pronounced absolution and then withdrew to leave the Pope alone.
The Pope walked from the large antechamber and entered the papal bedroom, a rather small space in comparison to the rest of the papal apartments: a room outfitted with ascetic rigor and simplicity. Wooden floors, Afghani wool rugs, a single slim bed, a nightstand and lamp, a bookcase, a desk and a chair, a reading chaise, a centered window with a view of St. Peter’s Square and the Via della Conciliazione, an adjacent bathroom, an adjacent dressing room.
The Pope’s index finger, long-ago bent downward at the tip by a playground injury, traced the faces in the photos on the bookcase, on the nightstand, and on the desk. One photo depicted the Pope as a four-year-old amidst shredded gift-wrap with gleeful siblings under a soaring Christmas tree. Another photo presented teenage siblings affecting mock consolations for a teenage Pope’s skiing accident. A third picture saw the Pope as a twenty-year-old guitarist. Yet another was of several toothy and broad-mouthed seminarians arm in arm. A fifth, the effulgent countenance of the Pope’s mother and father at their young priest’s ordination. Sixth, a first Mass. Seventh, another Pope, handsome, almost pretty. Lastly, the Confessor in earlier days.
The Pope traced the round faces in each of the pictures, touching the glass lightly, and then sat upon the bed.
Slippers were peeled off and tossed to a corner. Silk socks were stripped from calves and feet with an overgrown (guitar-playing) thumbnail.
The Pope padded barefoot to the bookcase where a decanter of port sat waiting. Just a sip. A sip or two, and then into the bathroom and into the bath. Then to bed, but still pondering the eternal verities, the everlasting doubts.
The sheets and pillowcases were peach-colored tonight. Peach-colored with a satisfying chill.
And the Pope slept, and the Pope dreamed.
Featured image ‘The Mitre’ by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr