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A New Pope for an Old Church

The Catholic Church has been in the spotlight a lot recently, but especially since Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation Feb. 28. As a non-Christian living in a secular society, you might think I wouldn’t care who runs the Catholic Church. For the most part, it’s true.

But make no mistake, the Catholic Church, as the oldest extant institution in the West, has been cultural force of unsurpassed power for well over a thousand years. During what’s commonly called the “Dark Ages,” it held European thought in a veritable stranglehold for somewhere in the neighborhood of six centuries. Starting from the moment Columbus landed on our shores, the landscape, language, and culture of most of the Americas were created and enforced by Catholic conquistadors and priests.

Today, the Catholic Church continues to insert itself into the public arena, as any organization might, to advocate for its particular beliefs and interests, such as urging the US Congress to limit access to birth control, supporting propositions to deny same-sex couples the right to legal marriage, and even denying sacrament to those whose political beliefs go counter to its own arch-conservative ones.

So when I learned of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, I was curious about who would be chosen to lead this still-powerful patriarchy. Within a fortnight, I had my answer: Jorge Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis. Hearing that he was from Argentina, I held out some hope for a kinder, more progressive papacy; many Latin American clergy are well-known for their belief in social justice, called “liberation theology.”

But such hope was short-lived. Bergoglio is as much a “company man” as his predecessor; he tows the party line in opposing contraception, abortion, gay rights, and ordaining women.

The Church he leads, and represents, has changed little, if at all over the centuries. As such a powerful public institution, it cannot be exempt from criticism. In any secular, free society, it is a good and necessary thing to turn a sharp eye and critical mind on any institution of power, including religious ones.

And it has a lot to answer for. Don’t get me wrong; I understand that there are many, many Catholics, both in the clergy and in the laity, who are doing wonderful work feeding the poor, taking care of orphans, and advocating for social justice. However, it’s important to note that many of these good people are actually defying the papacy by doing so.

Obviously, the Church has a big problem on its hands now because of its history of protecting and enabling sexual predators within its priesthood. But there are other, longer-standing issues that this institution needs to make amends for if it has any hope of remaining relevant in the 21st Century.

For one, it needs to stop treating women as second-class, “imperfect male” citizens. Women make up the majority of the Catholic faithful, and the Church’s directives about sex and childbearing affect women much more directly than men. It’s time to let women into the ranks of those who make and enforce those directives. 


Second, it needs to stop trying to put its beliefs into law, thereby forcing non-believers to live according to the Church’s mandates. Catholics have every right to warn their members against abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and anything else they consider “sinful.” But in the government, they should stand aside and let we the people live according to our own consciences, not theirs. 


Finally, the Church has yet to apologize for – let alone make reparations for – the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the cruelty and genocide perpetrated on the Native American peoples. The numbers can be debated, but the stark reality is that the Church is responsible for the torture and death of some millions of innocent people.

William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even the past.” Until the Catholic Church can acknowledge its own past, it will never be able to move forward.


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D.R. Bartlette, an ordained priestess, has been practicing what she calls "Zen Wicca" in her native Ozark Mountains for 27 years. She tries to serve her community (both spiritual and geographical) by participating in outreach and education in behalf of Wiccans and Pagans. She is also a freelance writer who teaches at a small community college.


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