Thursday, March 3, 2016

Why God Sends Us Imperfect Popes

Pope Francis set tongues wagging again with his latest comments that contraception might be used to prevent birth defects caused by the Zika virus. The secular media seem delighted by the implication that the Catholic Church's traditional opposition to artificial birth control might be eased.

In response to reporters' questions during his flight from Mexico to Rome, Pope Francis compared contraceptive use during the Zika outbreak to contraceptive use by nuns to prevent pregnancy due to rape in war-torn countries. While the Catechism calls contraception "intrinsically evil" (CCC 2370), there are exceptions where the goal is not primarily preventing new life. For example, the use of emergency contraception (like Plan B) to prevent conception after rape is allowed, even in Catholic hospitals, based on the argument that the contraception is primarily a form of self-defense against the rapist (USCCB Ethical & Religious Directives, para. 36). The question is whether married couples using contraception to prevent conceiving a baby with birth defects is similar to victims of rape attempting to prevent conception of their rapist's child.

Honestly, I can't see portraying an act of love between spouses as comparable to rape or a disabled child as an aggressor equal to a rapist. And many Catholics who think similarly have felt betrayed -- again -- by Pope Francis' off-the-cuff comments. In the words of one mom in my Facebook feed:

This is what I think the Pope should have said: that every life is valuable, even the life of a baby with special needs, even if that baby dies or has many medical complications or can never add 2 + 2. There are never any guarantees. Your child can develop a virus AFTER birth. My very perfect baby developed Infantile Spasms, and was as alert and responsive as a newborn baby when he was 8 months old. He was floppy too - like a rag doll - couldn't hold his head. Now he is interested in books and letters and clocks and numbers, and he carries on amazing conversations. His doctors cannot explain how well he is doing. But we loved our son even when he couldn't respond to us. He was still a person, and he still had incredible value and human dignity. We should not be so scared of disabilities because in God's eyes, there ARE no mistakes, and every child is perfect in His eyes.
Jesus' constant compassion toward the sick and crippled is a hallmark of the Gospels, and the Catechism stresses that the disabled "deserve special respect" and "should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible" (CCC 2276). Pope Francis' comments don't seem to reflect the same concern for life. But here's why that shouldn't worry us.

Not the First Imperfect Pope


It's possible that Pope Francis spoke without thinking and without considering the hurtful implications of his statements. If so, he wouldn't be the first Pope to do so. In fact, St. Peter had a well documented habit of putting his foot in his mouth.

When Jesus foretold his own death to the apostles, Peter blurted out: "God forbid it, Lord!" Then Jesus responded: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me" (Mt 16:21-23). On the mountain at the transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared in glory before Jesus, Peter -- "not knowing what he said" -- jumped in with the suggestion to build little houses for them (Lk 9:28-33).

Most dramatically, at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, Peter denied Jesus three times. Confronted by servant girls and bystanders with the truth that he was a follower of Jesus, Peter "began to curse, and he swore an oath, 'I do not know the man!" (Mt 26:69-74). We don't know what the bystanders wanted from Peter. Maybe they were on a witch-hunt, looking for the next person to crucify, or maybe they were searching for a reason to believe in Jesus. The answer they received made Christians look like cowards and liars. The answer was a betrayal.

So, why did Jesus choose Peter as the rock on which to build his Church (Mt 16:18)? Jesus could have chosen St. Paul, who traveled tirelessly throughout the Middle East, founding churches and carefully penning letter after letter to encourage, reprimand, and guide the fledgling Christian communities. Instead, God chose St. Peter, whose response to the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was to give an impassioned homily and then baptize all 3,000 people on the spot, no catechumenate or RCIA or teaching or doctrinal formation required (Acts 2:41). Peter welcomed them all and trusted God to sort it out later. (Can't you just imagine Pope Francis doing the same thing?)

Peter was often the first to say things that he later regretted, but he was also often the first to proclaim and act on his faith. When Jesus asked the apostles, "who do you say that I am," Peter was the first to answer: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God" (Mt 16:15-16). He was the first to walk on the water towards Jesus (Mt 14:28-29). And he was the first to run into the empty tomb (Jn 20:6). Peter's passion for God could not be denied, although he was clearly an imperfect man.

So the question is not why has God sent us an imperfect Pope now, but why has God done so from the very earliest days of the Church? The first reason is to keep us humble, as individuals and as a Church. The second reason is to push us towards a more mature faith.

Humility 


Pope Francis admits, "I am a sinner."   This is how a Christian says that he's not perfect, that he makes mistakes. Pope Francis has also reminded us that we are a Church of sinners. None of us is perfect, popes included. Sometimes we complain that it's too hard to imitate Jesus or his mother Mary because they were too perfect. We can't turn around and lose respect or love for Francis because he's not perfect enough.

The call to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48) does not amount to a promise of perfection on this earth. "Be ye perfect" means failing -- sometimes spectacularly, struggling to keep trying, until at the end of our lives we throw ourselves on the mercy of God. Because we aren't perfect, we can't be perfect, we absolutely cannot even come close without him.

In explaining her "little way" to holiness, St. Therese of Lisieux described how she needed an elevator to heaven: "I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway of perfection. ... The elevator which must raise me to heaven is your arms, O Jesus, and for this I have no need to grow up, but rather I have to remain little."

In other words, holiness is not a result of our best efforts to avoid ever messing up. Holiness comes from someone greater than ourselves. Pope Francis once asked, "how can a Church made up of human beings, of sinners, be holy?” Answering his own question, he continued, “We do not make the Church holy,” he said. “God, the Holy Spirit, does.”

An imperfect pope reminds us that each of us is imperfect, too, yet still welcomed, cherished, loved and called to follow Christ.


A Mature Faith


The clear teaching of Pope St. John Paul II has always consoled me. I was similarly consoled when Cardinal Ratzinger, John Paul II's close friend and adviser, became Pope Benedict XVI (although Benedict made some famous media missteps of his own). In contrast, Pope Francis regularly shakes me up. He unsettles me.  I find myself alternately exhilarated and aggravated. Rarely does he bring me consolation.

But a mature faith doesn't need consolation. Look at Jesus on the Cross, look at him weep tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, imagine Mother Teresa ministering to the poorest of the poor while mired in spiritual darkness unable to sense the love of God. We are called to a mature faith that stands firm regardless of internal and external temptations.

St. Paul explains that "infants in Christ" are fed with milk when they are not ready for solid food (1 Cor. 3:2). Consolations are like milk, given to us to make us strong. "But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil," as it says in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 5:14). If through prayer and study, we are confident that we can distinguish good from evil and right from wrong, why be bothered by what our pope tells a reporter on the plane? Nourished by the solid food of Scripture and the Catechism, our faith can stand firm and our hearts can be undisturbed.


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6 comments:

  1. I have troubles with the pope's latest comments too. As a convert, one of the things that drew me to the Church was Her teaching on contraception (and I know many other women with similar stories). To have the pope say, "oh, no, we're gonna change what we say about contraception in a few places" doesn't seem right to me. It's either right or wrong. :) But sometimes I'm too black-and-white... :) thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    1. A few years ago when I first heard of Catholic hospitals allowing Plan B in certain situations, I struggled with the feeling that they were primarily trying to comply with state laws and only secondarily trying to uphold Catholic moral teaching. But as a lawyer, I'm familiar with interpretations that "slice the bologna pretty thin" (i.e., make very fine distinctions) -- and bioethics is an incredibly complicated amalgam of scientific and moral truths. I just try to wade through and keep my head above water!

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    1. I disagree! I think Bonnie's comment reflects an admirable to desire to think with the mind of the Church (as expressed over decades if not centuries) with respect to complicated and divisive issues.

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