With the imminent demise of Pope John Paul II, and the constant media coverage thereof, many spiritual -- as opposed to merely religious -- questions arise. Since we have been discussing various wampeters (sacred objects/people) lately anyway, here is an instance where the foma (harmless, comforting untruths) and granfalloons (proud and meaningless associations of people) are in full accompaniment.
For someone only moderately familiar with the customs and rituals of the church, like myself, this is all a bit perplexing. Religious institutions are inherently political, but true spiritualism is the antithesis of that earthly paradigm. So to see quotes like this tend to wobble the mind:
Of course, just as a fellow human being, we all wish the pope a speedy recovery. But he is old, and has been quite frail for several years. So the intellectual quandary we see here involves the problematic conditions of worshippers seemingly unprepared for his death, as if they would be completely lost, unable to interpret the meaning and purpose of scripture without their wampeter to do it for them.
Quite simply, I do not understand this track of thought. There is no other way I can put this.
Perhaps you have seen the movie Stigmata. It is a rather run-of-the-mill religiously-based thriller. The main plot is largely irrelevant; the real nut of the film is the church's supposed conspiracy to suppress the Gospel of Saint Thomas.
As it happens, there really is a Gospel of St. Thomas, and there really is a passage which a politically- and financially-motivated religious hierarchy would find fairly problematic [emphasis mine]:
This Gospel, unlike the four traditional ones, was written contemporaneously with Jesus' life -- that is, rather than the Rashomon-style ex post facto retelling of the other four, Thomas can be taken as more of a direct link to what Jesus actually said.
And again, given that the vast majority of the history of the church is one of fear, persecution, superstition, and above all, guilt and shame, we can see just why the notion of plainly laying out before the worshipper that the kingdom of God is all around them, rather than exclusively within the ornate walls of cathedrals, would be antithetical to such a power structure.
Real faith needs, by definition, to be contemplative and self-reflective. The proprietary notion of trading heavenly favors on celestial brownie points does not encourage good, but rather merely discourages bad. If you know that you just have to say a few dozen Hail Marys and Our Fathers for [pick a sin], human nature is such that you weigh the offense against the putative punishment. If you think your slate is automatically wiped clean by rote intonation as prescribed at confession, there is less motivation to search deep within your character and figure out why you did what you did in the first place.
One of the most offensive practices of the church is indulgence. This is the practice of allowing wealthier people to buy their way out of things, especially failed marriages. Thus Michael Kennedy, the late babysitter-banger, was allowed to have his marriage annulled, even though he already had two children. This is indefensible. Other famous annulments have been granted for people like Rudolph Giuliani (from his cousin, no less), and John Kerry. It is one thing to grant an annulment to a short, childless marriage; it is quite another to allow wealthy politicians a pass on long-time relationships with multiple (in some cases grown) children, merely to retain some sort of credibility with the devout components of their constituency.
This is a base cynicism all the way around, and does not withstand any level of honest scrutiny. It is merely a none-too-subtle reminder that their are different sets of rules and principles, based on one's place in the socio-political strata.
Another enormously offensive practice that the church has gotten away with for years is the molestation of children, primarily altar boys, by priests, as well as the church practice of merely transferring these animals to other parishes when they were caught. Finally the chickens are starting to come home to roost, but many of the cases have passed the statute of limitations, or are at least so long outstanding that they are too difficult to prove in a court of law.
And law is the key here, that the church hierarchy saw itself above the law for decades, and granted itself the right to circumvent civil prosecution. Imagine for a second that instead of priests, we were talking about public-school teachers doing this sort of thing. How forgiving would the law be? Certainly it would not be dragging its feet the way it has in so many urban parishes. Indeed, were there this widespread a molestation problem in the public-school system, with corrupt school principals transferring molester teachers without informing law enforcement, you would likely have congressional investigations into the whole rotten system -- and rightly so.
Instead, aside from a few marquee names actually going to prison for this, the church has been allowed to buy silence from the victims, for the most part. This is possibly the most inexplicable part of the whole mess to me -- exactly why would anyone in their right mind willingly donate money to an organization that has willfully and knowingly committed and abetted such awful deeds?
A corollary to this would the preponderance of so-called "cafeteria Catholics". If you don't like the rules, why would you want to stay a member? If you feel you have found a better path to actualizing your own personal spiritual journey, then why not just pursue that path on your own?
Some have attempted to excuse such messes by pointing to the many good works the church does. True enough, but the US government does many benign things too; that does not excuse them from, say, starting wars based on bunk intelligence.
The sheer inability and unwillingness of the church to get to the root of these problems suggests a systemic malaise, an institution that is being propped up at this point by sheer longevity. This can also be evinced by the number of canonizations and beatifications by this pope, far more than all his predecessors over the last two thousand years combined. To the outsider, this would reasonably appear to be effective marketing strategy, more than mere spiritual actualization and self-realization.
Finally, we turn our attention to the objectification of suffering, as a path to redemption.
If you've read Christopher Hitchens' The Missionary Position, then you know that Mother Teresa was a big believer in suffering as a "gift from God" as well; besides living austerely herself, she was known for gutting furnished houses and lining them with cots, and giving cancer patients dying agonizing deaths nothing stronger than aspirin. She was also rather injudicious about whence some of her donations came, including animals like the Duvaliers, and savings-and-loan thief Charles Keating. (Even after the US government contacted her and explained that Keating's $10,000 donation had been grifted from US taxpayers, Mother Teresa never returned it.)
Now, the notion of suffering having a redemptive value is, at its heart, one of medieval times, when life for the vast majority of people was nasty, brutish, and short. (Frequently because of the church, rather than in spite of it.) Of course, we all experience suffering in our lives now, in modern times, but less so, and there are many secular coping mechanisms. So the church has been behind the curve on taking a break from the fetishizing of suffering. Considering they took 500 years to apologize for the Inquisition, and for torturing Galileo, this is not a huge surprise.
Science, philosophy, politics, and the intellectual freedom of humanity grew by leaps and bounds once the church got its claws out of them, and I submit that personal spirituality can do the same. Not in the "if it feels good, do it" sense, but in the sense of letting people come to terms with who they are on their own, without lectures from sanctimonious hypocrites who refuse to clean out their own closets first.
Just in the last half-century, movements comprising millions of people have demonstrated their caring for human and civil rights, as well as a serious understanding of what the stewardship of all God's creatures and creations entails. This has happened in the secular world, by and large, despite the execrable entreatites of some that agnostics and atheists can never be as moral as a person of faith. That this notion can be disproven in both directions is so obvious, it barely merits mentioning. And yet, for some, it does.
That is what Saint Thomas was trying to get across, I think -- that God's cathedral is all around, within, without, and not just behind certain doors of certain buildings populated by hypocrites in dresses with their rituals and incantations. It is not in the weird principle of transubstantiation. It is not in the gnomic utterances of a single man who heads a very worldly institution. Nor does it all boil down to a single hot-button political issue, nor over the jumping through hoops to get an annulment instead of a divorce so you can still receive communion. It is not an hour in a certain place on Sunday, it is everywhere, all the time. What Thomas said -- what Jesus said, according to Thomas -- was that you really don't need all that shit. If you truly believe, it does not need to be reinforced with trinkets and doodads and chalices and spells, because the believer knows that it's all around them.
Even those of us who do not have a belief in humankind as a divinely-inspired creation can accept this gospel in its practical utility and spiritual simplicity.