I remember staying up into the wee hours of April 20, 2005, watching CNN, eagerly anticipating the new pope. I was Catholic then and the only pope I had ever known was John Paul II. He had reigned for 26 years, and suddenly, my Church had no earthly leader.
When Benedict stepped out of the curtains that morning and into the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, I choked up. I believed I was witnessing God’s hand, active in the world. While John Paul I began the tradition of eschewing the extravagant papal triple tiara, popes were still kings—and we had a new one. Popes are absolute monarchs of the Mussolini-established Vatican state. At the same time, popes are vicars of Christ. That is to say, they take the place of the Son of God on Earth. For Catholics, popes aren’t really elected by the College of Cardinals. Rather, popes are chosen by the Holy Spirit—the third person of the triune God. This gives the pope supernatural powers to rein in a billion-strong flock.
Unlike the popes that came before him for hundreds of years, Benedict quit his post. He quit being Jesus Christ’s human representative. Had I stayed Christian, his leaving would have deeply troubled me. Here was a man who was throwing away a divinely ordained commission because he was, as he says, too sick to go on. Too sick to be supported by God, apparently.
Looking from the outside now, it is patently obvious how utterly human the entire Catholic institution is. And, no, not the humanity that the Church peddles as sharing in human experience. It is human in the mortal and parochial sense. For all its lofty claims, the Catholic Church is really an earthly business run by a small cabal of conservatives. Benedict’s resignation made this clear and it is made entirely transparent by the election of Jorge Bergoglio, a 76 year-old Jesuit of Italian descent from Argentina. Latin America, once a bastion of Catholicism, is now seeing a dwindling Church losing political influence—one a South American pope just might rectify.
It always struck me as strange when Catholics hope for the new pope to reform the Catholic Church. That is like asking God Himself to change his mind. (And, of course, what are petitionary prayers for but to ask God to suspend his divine plan for your insipid request?) If one truly believes that the Holy Spirit guides the pope and, in turn, guides the Church, why would one even think about reforms?
Bears defecate in the woods, and popes are Catholic. It therefore comes as no shock that the new Pope Francis, just like the old pope, is an enemy of equal rights for the LGBT. Apart from allegations of colluding with the Argentinian military junta in the 70’s, including hiding political prisoners from an international delegation (an evil not as easily dismissible as Joseph Ratzinger’s membership in the Hitlerjugend), Bergoglio was also a staunch opponent of the marriage equality initiative in Argentina. Belying supernatural intervention, Argentina is the first Latin American nation to allow same-sex couples to enjoy equal rights with opposite-sex couples. Bergoglio called the initiative a “destructive attack on God’s plan,” which of course includes stopping gay marriage.
Benedict XVI is my last pope. I left the Church under his reign when I saw how much suffering it had caused the world—suffering my Catholicism indefensibly and directly supported. Francis has now replaced Benedict after 7 years of reigning. At Francis’ age, he will probably be replaced just as soon. Cardinals are keenly aware of how young popes tend to stymie ambition with long reigns. Behind the pomp and circumstance of white smoke and secret conclaves, the pope is the leader of an organization that stands enemy to human rights, all the while touting humanitarian causes. Apologists complain that skeptics like to emphasize the flaws of the Church and that we should not expect a perfect organization. But, at some point, when you claim that your club is divine, faults as egregious as those the Church is guilty of simply cannot be excused.
I didn’t wake up early this time to hear the new bishop of Rome address the city and the world. It is no longer a supernatural event to me. But, the Catholic Church is still important, despite my complete rejection of it, as long as it continues to dictate so many things about our lives. I, now an atheist, maintain hope that perhaps this new pope will take that miraculous tiny first step towards joining the world here in the 21st century. Forgive me this one delusion.
Image Credit: National Geographic