(I orginally scribbled this down when I read Ross’s post last September. The busy last months made me set it aside until now.)

Pope Francis

A post from Alex Ross pointed me to a summary of a recent interview with the new Pope. I should get around to reading the full transcript when I have time, but if the excerpts in the Times are genuinely representative, I find it extremely encouraging. I think I remember hearing about a new Pope being elected months ago, but didn’t know anything about him. After the even greater disappointment of John Paul’s successor, I guess I assumed he would be more of the same, that the deeply-entrenched interests in Rome would continue to line up candidates to preserve an ever-bleaker status quo, and I didn’t bother to look. If something fresh is in the wind, it’s very good news indeed.

It’s caused me to reflect on my own relationship with the Church over the years. I was raised Catholic, growing up in a Church which had emerged from Vatican II both uncertain and alive with possibilities, and I watched it descend into contraction and reactionary conservatism. By the time I began an independent life, it had become a paradox to me. It had an embarrassment of riches to offer — millennia of uplifting literature, boundless gifts of prayer and meditation, sacraments which I saw enrich my life and so many others — and it made them all background noise to relentless insistence that its members renounce all independent thought and proclaim to the world that being Catholic meant they endorse without reservation every pronouncement which flowed out of Rome.

I watched John Paul II pay lip service to messages of love and kindness while condemning whole populations which fell outside his narrow, often Medieval conceptions of propriety. Several years after I’d left the Church, the final nail in the coffin of my estrangement came when I heard on the radio that John Paul had issued an order that not only could women never be priests, but that it was forbidden to Catholics to even discuss the possibility.

What was the Catholic to do when his beloved Church had reverted to a Fascist State? It was a purely hypothetical question for me — I was long gone — but the answer I saw for many Catholic friends over and over again was the obvious one. They went to Church, cherished the good it had to offer, listened to nonsense when they had to, kept their opinions to themselves, and encouraged one another to wait it out.

For myself, my move to Buddhism wasn’t really a move at all. It just offered a home where I could continue the practices of meditation which were so meaningful to me without the overlay of rules and regulations which were not only meaningless but which so often contradicted the clear ways of compassion in a mindful life. It wasn’t a conversion, it was an attempt at preservation of the heart of true religion while dropping a bunch of unnecessary clutter. Many others have done the same while staying within the Church, by embracing all the fundamental goodness and quietly ignoring all the politics and theatrics. I could have done that as well, but found in Zen a community of sincere dedication to practice which was right for me.

Over the years, I met many former Catholics who came to Zen viciously reeling against Christianity and loudly proclaiming how perfect Buddhism was. They rarely lasted. They were usually running from something, but not yet to anything, and wandered off when sitting on cushions turned out to be a lot of work. I wondered sometimes whatever became of them. I hoped they’d kept wandering until they’d reached some perspective, until they realized that Buddhism is perfect and Christianity is perfect, we Buddhists and Christians often not so much.

Since circumstances have forced me back into my family’s life, I’ve had opportunities to attend a number of Masses, and got some impressions of the state of the Church today. I’ve found it profoundly depressing to watch humble and earnest people trying to reconcile lives of striving for kindness and love within an institution espousing prejudice and corruption. In my more cynical and unbecoming moments, I confess I’ve fantasized of redesigning of the weekly collection envelopes with three checkboxes: “Please earmark my donation to support misogyny [ ], homophobia [ ], pedophilia [ ].” (Sadly, similar unhelpful sarcasm could justly be aimed at a number of Buddhist institutions.) The tragedy is that all the tools are in place to support a genuine and vibrant spirituality born out of centuries of remarkable men and women’s daily commitment to deepening the faith, just as the tools are in place in Islam, even for Muslims who ignore them in a rush to use their religion to condemn infidels, in Judaism for the Jew who uses them to disdain Gentiles, in Buddhism for the Buddhist who ridicules Christians.

The unique challenge I see for Catholicism (and perhaps a few other denominations I don’t know as well, such as the Episcopal church) is its hierarchy. I don’t know of any other religious institution which is so unbendingly an institution, so uniform in rigid prescriptions across its global congregation. In Buddhism in America, we’ve suffered from the opposite extreme, with decentralization leading to scandal after scandal in which lives are destroyed when practice centers turn into cults built around teachers who exploit their positions, with no one above them to step in and stop the abuses. We’ve scrambled inadequately to erect means of responding based on inter-sangha communication and peer pressure, and are still groping to find our way.

In the last few years, I’ve been exposed to a half dozen Catholic priests. I’ve listened as readings of rich and invigorating and challenging scriptures were followed by sermons by men who hadn’t given the least serious thought to them or allowed themselves to be opened the slightest crack by them, and I’ve enjoyed the contagious enthusiasm of others who have found in them pathways to wonder and humility and service. The dilemma is that, at the end of the day, both are bound by the same law and dogma. The best-intentioned priest does what he can to minister well, but will ultimately be reduced to admitting to the woman who wants to find a place in the Church that the highest position she can reach will always be subservient to a man, to counseling the mother of too many children that she must welcome more she can’t possibly afford, to telling the gay teen he will always be a second class citizen, condemned and damned if he finds someone to love.

Anarchy has failed to protect American Buddhists. Oligarchy has crushed too many Catholics. Maybe some of the Protestant denominations have found a healthy path, with common guidelines shared by local congregations who democratically elect and rotate ministers and leaders. Maybe the decentralization of Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism has allowed them to marginalize extremists in fringe sects while providing homes for the general body of practitioners within larger groupings which offer a variety of approaches to fit the variety of people’s needs and temperaments. Study of the many means of organizing and disorganizing among the faiths maybe instructive in finding a way forward.

Buddhism in America suffers from its lack of (local) tradition, Catholicism from its heavy burden of suffocating conformity. Short of a cataclysmic revolution, the Catholic Church will likely remain a thoroughly top-down institution for a long time to come. As long as that remains the case, the best Catholics can hope for is the best possible example shining from the top. I’m gladdened and filled with hope if we’re truly seeing signs that real open-hearted humanity is beginning to emerge from Rome for the first time in 50 years.

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