Monday, February 25, 2013
All (Bad) Pope News All the Time: Implications for Protestants
Judging by the press coverage, you would think that the Roman Catholic Church was selecting the king-emperor-president-premier of the whole world. Which it is not. In fact, as Frank Bruni points out in last week’s Sunday New York Times, the new pope won’t even hold much sway over most Catholics in North America.
Still, as Bruni points out in a memorable phrase, right now it’s “all pope all the time, a tsunami of papal coverage.” Bruni believes this is because the media loves the clear-cut drama of transitions. But, the truth is, even if the new pope is not the king of the whole world, he will have significant influence over many of the 1.2 billion people in the world that are Catholic—Western Catholics notwithstanding.
So what are Protestants—and maybe Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists—to make of this? What does this wall-to-wall coverage mean for us, and them? Especially the wall-to-wall coverage of scandal and intrigue in the Roman Catholic Church? Rumors of prostitutes, blackmail, secret gay lobbies and cover-ups in the hierarchy? Cardinals like Roger Mahony, who made a career out of covering up sexual assaults by priests sitting in the conclave to select a new pope? Billions of dollars in payouts to victims of sexual assaults? Many of those victims children? An out-of-control Vatican Bank that no one seems to be able to rein in, at least so far? The butler didn’t do it.
Well, perhaps most importantly, this sort of news coverage makes all religious institutions look bad. That is because the eruption of scandal and intrigue from the Catholic Church, like the ash and lava of any volcanic eruption, rains down on the whole religious landscape, indiscriminately.
But before Protestants and people of other faiths bemoan this as an undeserved fate they ought also take a peek at their own dirty laundry. Here in Canada we’re not that far removed from the Residential School scandal, for example. Thousands of First Nations children forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, where far too many of them died with no good explanation. But thousands of children were also assaulted, and nearly all of them emotionally scarred while being robbed of their culture, language, families, and religion. Who was the guilty? Well, the Canadian government, of course, shares a lot of the blame. But so do the major Protestant denominations besides the Roman Catholic Church in Canada. But that’s not all.
Google “pastor (or imam or rabbi) charged sex Canada,” limit the search to just the past year, and you’ll come up with hundreds of press stories of not only Roman Catholic but Protestant pastors who have used their positions of power and authority to assault, dehumanize, diminish, and abuse parishioners.
Of course, such stories don’t tell the whole truth about the church, or even the main story about the church. That makes the tsunami of negative coverage doubly galling. Mostly, churches—including the Roman Catholic Church—do great things. The health care system in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, countless orphanages and schools for the poor, Catholic and Protestant social service agencies, billions in charitable giving and millions of hours in voluntarism flows from the church and other religious communities every year. It’s wonderful, compassionate, glorious stuff. We need churches and synagogues and temples to keep it up.
But even if we know it isn’t the whole story, the flood of news coverage about the underbelly of the Roman Catholic Church will continue unabated. And for us in churches, it hurts all the more because the stories are too often true. It will undoubtedly lead to tidal waves of skepticism about, and rejection of, all religious institutions. And people who do so will, at least in part, only be doing what the Bible suggests they do. They will be judging the tree by its fruit.
Our institutional Christian response? Well we’ve heard all these suggestions before: more transparency, police checks, safety policies, reparations, and so on. I’m for all of it and more of it. Bring it on.
But really, what more can Christians who love the community, the prayer, the care, the preached morality, the social justice witness, and the God of the church do? Not much but clean up the wreckage and rebuild. There are no shortcuts back to business if you live in Fukushima or Pompeii.
The news coverage of Rome’s underbelly and the selection of a new pope coincide with the Season of Lent. In my church, Lawrence Park Community Church in Toronto, and all around the world, we’re singing one version or another of the “Kyrie Eleison.” That’s a Greek phrase that means, “Lord, have mercy.”
We sure need it. And not just because of that tsunami of negative press coverage.