Religion helps a lot of people. It reinforces admirable values and provides community, kinship, charity, music, a moral compass, and stories. To me, religious faith is stone soup: like the soldiers whose boiling rocks induced villagers to donate carrots, potatoes, and meat until there was a plentiful stew after the stones were removed. We could worship an old bicycle chain instead of an almighty deity if it brings us together to do useful work and help the least fortunate among us. Come to think of it, there are plenty of reasons to prefer the greasy chain over dead guys in white robes.
My distrust of superstition has always meant that God and I are not on speaking terms. He presumably finds my lack of gratitude amusing. So we leave each other alone. I also think that despite its good works, the cost of religion frequently exceeds its benefit. For millennia, religious intolerance has been a global scourge that has led millions to a life of hatred and violent death. Churches exploit the poor, abuse the vulnerable, and empower the rich more often than they admit. Religious leaders happily frighten children into believing that they will burn in hell forever if they don’t submit to church authority and doctrine. This is designed to terrify the weak into compliance — it is nothing like parents fibbing about Santa Claus.
Most religions oppress women, perpetuate outrageous sexual myths, and demand sexual conformity. Hell, if it exists, it surely has a nice warm corner reserved for the modern Catholic church, which abuses children on a horrific scale. That thousands of priests swore an oath to chastity before sodomizing more than ten thousand Catholic boys and (20% of the time anyway) raping Catholic girls is both horrifying and outrageous.
As with all great crimes, we will never know all of the victims. The governing body of the church admits that more than 3,000 priests have been accused of sex abuse during the past 50 years. In the US, more than 3,000 Catholics decided to speak out, lawyer up, and file lawsuits as they fled the church. The church has paid out between $2-3 billion to victims to settle these claims, depending on who is keeping score. Eight diocese have gone bankrupt due to an inability to pay these settlements. One widely cited count documents 6,115 priests who stand accused of sexually assaulting 16,324 minors. The actual account may be a fraction of this or it may be a multiple. What we know for sure and the Vatican concedes is that child abuse is simply not reported in much of the third world. If it were, one doubts that the church would still be growing there (watch the Philippines, where people are finding their voice and beginning to accuse predatory priests. The spread of Catholicism has been stopped cold).
It was thus with a jaded eye that I watched the cardinals assemble this week at the Sistine Chapel. Like everyone else, I was surprised to hear of white smoke on the second day of the conclave. I was moved to see that the man who emerged wore not the traditional large ornate cross of gold, but a simple cross of wood. The cardinals had chosen a man who as Cardinal had refused his palace and limo and who, upon his elevation, refused to ascend the papal throne. Instead, he greeted the cardinals standing up, as brothers. I was stunned to hear that Bergolio chose the name of Francis after Assisi, who renounced his wealth, lived with the poor, founded the Franciscans, and spent a lot of time protesting outside the Vatican. Francis of Assisi was never ordained as a priest, much less a pope and as Robert Francis Kennedy noted, is a name associated with the quest for social justice, not the papacy. In his first talk, Francis spoke simply and generously. He asked that people pray for him, not to him, as most popes do. My antipathy to the church aside, this had to be good news.
The world was stunned that an Argentinian had ascended to the papacy. This is not really surprising, since half of all Catholics now live in Latin America. Shocking to me is that the cardinals had chosen a Jesuit, the order that is a century-old pain in the Vatican ass. Jesuits are an intellectual order that values study and critical debate. They are big in the US and founded some of our best high schools and colleges, including Santa Clara, Boston College, and Georgetown. Jesuit priests take vows of poverty, which most gold-bedecked Cardinals think is beneath them. They are famously disrespectful of authority, challenging the Vatican on contraception, abortion, gay marriage, the role of women, the need for political revolution and all manner of causes (to be sure, not all Jesuits dissent on all of these issues. Francis appears to conform to Vatican thinking on all of them).
Through the ages, the Vatican has kept its distance from the Jesuits. Despite their size and influence, no order has been cast out further from the center of Vatican power. The cardinals of Rome are about as likely to name a Jesuit pope as the United Nations is to name a North Korean Secretary General. Indeed, the Vegas oddsmakers did not even have Bergolio on their list. When in his first words, Francis noted that the cardinals had “reached a very long way” to find a new pope, most people assume he was referring to the distance from Rome to Buenos Aires. He could as easily have been describing the reach it took for his fellow cardinals to support a Jesuit pope.
I confess to a soft spot in my heart for Jesuits because so many of my best teachers were of that order. In high school and in college, every single teacher who challenged me to think deeply and critically and to live a moral life was either Jewish or a fallen Jesuit. Three were former priests who decided that a vow of chastity was nuts.
Will Francis liberate the church? Nope. He is theologically conservative even if he modernized the Argentinian church. He made some dubious compromises with the military junta that will become public knowledge in the coming months. More fundamentally, he faces an unimaginable turnaround challenge rooted in both sex and money. The ongoing financial corruption of the Vatican’s Curia is deep and entrenched. Organized pedophilia and its cover up could kill the church, and arguably should. The average age of priests increases by about 10 months per year. Still, I wish Francis well, even if I would not miss his church if it vanished. I sympathize with those who have trouble kicking the Catholic habit, and for them, and for children who are forced into religious life before they can make a choice, I truly hope that Pope Francis fulfills the promise of his first glorious hours.