When I was eight, I was elected pope. It wasn’t exactly a canon law-approved election, as the sole “cardinal elector” was my second grade teacher at St. Mary’s Elementary School. Every year on All Saints Day (November 1), the second grade would lead a procession at Mass, each student dressed as a Catholic saint. Then during the ceremony, each student would read a brief biographical sketch of their chosen saint. Most kids dressed as the saint whose name they shared. As I lacked an eponymous saint, Mrs. Rudman and the nuns decided that I could lead the procession as Pope John Paul II. My mom made an elaborate costume for me, including a miter I loved so much that–according to my cousin Susan–I wore it for a month after. I still remember the first line of my speech: “I represent Pope John Paul, who is very close to the saints.” A local news station covered the event and interviewed me on camera. The reporter asked me when I planned to release my first encyclical. I replied, “huh?” It was my first experience with “gotcha” journalism.
After the end of my papacy, I remained a good Catholic boy. I celebrated First Communion. I became an altar boy. Not to brag, but I was a really good altar boy. I once served at Mass every week for an entire calendar year. A parishioner even requested that I serve at a Mass in memory of her husband. Years later, I was confirmed. I continued to attend Mass every week. I became a lector. And while I wasn’t the most pious of the boys my age (that was my friend Patrick), I was devout enough that our parish priest considered me as a potential vocation (Translation for non-Catholics: he thought I might become a priest.)
Indeed, when I was seventeen my diocese thought enough of my vocation potential to send me on an all-expenses-paid trip to Poland to attend World Youth Day with Pope John Paul. I spent the night in a field outside the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa with one million people, waiting for the Pope to say Mass the next morning. I was so far away that I needed binoculars to see him (although I did accidentally happen upon the route of his motorcade in Krakow a few days later. He waved at me.) In Poland, I was embedded with a group of students and seminarians from several different states. I was a little smitten with a young seminarian from Galveston and I watched with surprise as he was treated with respect, dignity, and friendship by the Poles. No one treated priests like that in my hometown. When I returned home, I told my mom that–if I were to become a priest–I would want to do so in a Catholic country. (Years later, I got over this desire to be treated with dignity in my chosen profession and became a teacher.)
But, of course, I never pursued a vocation–largely because I am, in the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and the Interdicasterial Commission for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “intrinsically disordered.” Sure, I wouldn’t have been the first self-loathing gay man to become a priest. There’s Cardinal O’Brien, who was having “inappropriate relationships” with his seminarians while throwing gays under the bus. There’s Pope (Emeritus!) Benedict XVI with his red shoes and dreamy secretary and theology of repression. And yes, there’s that seminarian I furtively hooked up with years ago in the basement of the Notre Dame library. In other words, the Church has been fishing for men from that gay pool for decades. And I would have fit right in. After all, I spent my college years cruising guys while writing anti-gay editorials. Cardinal O’Brien looks shamefully familiar to me.
Eventually I got better. I moved to a new state, made new friends. I walked away from the Church. I came out. I still remember the last Mass I attended. It was Easter Sunday and I didn’t feel any joy; I felt out of place. A few years passed and I read history and philosophy and psychology and became an atheist. Even so, it took me years to break most of the habits I learned as a child. More than a decade later, it’s finally gotten to the point where I don’t pray anymore–not even as a comforting reflex on bumpy flights.
But I still can’t quite let go of the Church. I wouldn’t call myself a “non-practicing Catholic,” a phrase that still carries a connotation of belief. Rather, I prefer to call myself a “cultural Catholic”: someone who lacks belief but whose worldview was formed within the Church. For one thing, I still can’t shake the fascination of Catholic asceticism, a strain of thought that remains fundamental to my worldview. (This probably sounds surprising to those of you who know me or who have seen me. However, I would note that it is possible–indeed, probable, when you think about it–for one to be a failed ascetic.) But even stronger than the appeal of the monastic life (I also consider myself a failed monk), is my conviction that the Catholic Church can do so much good in this world.
I guess this makes me, in the words of Timothy Radcliffe, a “Kingdom Catholic.” As E.J. Dionne notes in a summary of Radcliffe’s book:
“The Christ whom [Kingdom Catholics] cherished,” he writes, “was the one who overthrew the boundaries between human beings, who touched lepers, reached out to foreigners and gathered us into the People of God.” Theirs was “an outward-looking theology” that was “rooted in experience” and emphasized “liberation.” The Kingdom Catholics look back to the [Vatican II] era as a time when “everything seemed possible.”
In other words, Kingdom Catholics believe in the “good” version of Jesus–you know, the one that you never seem to hear about in American political discourse.
Which is why, I guess, I felt so giddy over the last two weeks in the run-up to the Conclave. For someone like me, it’s surprisingly easy to fall back in love with the Church at a moment when it lacks the usual leadership. The great thing about the interregnum is that there is the theoretical possibility that somebody like the good version of Jesus could walk out of the Sistine Chapel. Even better, good Jesus would do so after a week filled with fabulous costumes, mesmerizing rituals, and sumptuous art. The whole thing is like an Alexander McQueen runway show that ends with the possibility of social justice. What could be more appealing to a leftish homo like me?
But that’s what is so crushing. The reality is that were a version of my “social justice Jesus” sitting in the Sistine Chapel, he would be unelectable. Because after roughly 20 years of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological and administrative domination, the College of Cardinals is filled with men of the contrasting style, the ones that Radcliffe calls “Communion Catholics.” These are men who are more interested in protecting the doctrinal integrity of the Church in the face of modernity. It’s an inward looking orientation, concerned more with a version of holiness than with social justice. If this sounds familiar, it should. Communion Catholicism is the worldview of Ratzinger, who provided the theological and doctrinal underpinnings of most of John Paul II’s papacy and who succeeded JPII as Pope Benedict XVI. Now, I’m not here to write a theological treatise on Ratzinger or a detailed analysis of the political currents inside the College of Cardinals. I’m qualified to do neither. My analysis, such as it is, is undoubtedly simplistic and reductive. However, there is no doubt that, over the past several decades, Ratzinger has been remarkably successful at remaking the Church’s hierarchy in his image.
And we can see the results in the narrowness of the Church’s moral vision. It is a sad truth that the Church’s two most visible interventions into contemporary Western society have focused on abortion and gay marriage—issues on which the Church is desperately concerned to keep marginalized people in their place. And when it comes to immigration, income inequality, austerity, environmental destruction, AIDS? Even when the Church says the right thing on these issues (and that is rarer than it should be), we still never see a serious, organized attempt to intervene in politics. Catholic bishops show up in Congress to complain about their employees having access to free birth control, but none of them show up to advocate for raising the minimum wage.
So what should we expect of Pope Francis? I’ll admit that I like his choice of name and his call for austerity in the Church—that’s austerity I can believe in. But realistically, there are more questionable or negative indications than there are positive ones. He may not end up being the cruelest Pope of the last 35 years, but that’s very faint praise indeed.
I know that many of you probably think there is something quixotic in my hope for the Catholic Church as a force for social justice. And I can’t entirely disagree. But it’s also true that the most committed everyday champion of social justice that I have ever known was a Catholic nun. Her name was Sister Dolora (an astounding name, when you think about it). Throughout my childhood and beyond, she organized our parish’s Christian Service Organization and food pantry. I remember her driving around town in a Chevrolet Citation filled with groceries. Even though she was in her late 60s, she was an absolute whirlwind. An excerpt from her 2004 obituary:
“It was in 1979, when Sister Dolora arrived in Niles, that she organized the Christian Service Organization. In 1988, concerned parishioners pulled together to build the new home for the pantry at its current location in the Christian Service Center located at the corner of Clay and State streets. The pantry assists about 100 needy families a month and even more during the holidays. If there was any community project or service that St. Mary’s offered, Sister Dolora played some part in organizing or directing it. Through her work as director of the Christian Service Organization, Sister Dolora visited the sick, held bingo games for seniors, and offered coffee and donuts on Sundays during the winter months. She organized the spring and Christmas arts and crafts bazaars, and made Thanksgiving baskets for the needy. She also organized the junior volunteer program through St. Mary’s, which got fifth and sixth grade students involved in helping in the community.”
She served the poor, regardless of their religious beliefs. And she did it every day. To be honest, as a kid, I was a little scared of her. Her single-minded focus on the poor was perplexing to me and a bit embarrassing. Now, all these years later, it’s clear to me that Sister Dolora is exactly what is right about the Catholic Church—as are, indeed, so many American nuns. What the Church needs is more nuns. And this makes Ratzinger’s crackdown on them even sadder.
I’ve been thinking a lot about nuns in the past few weeks, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about what kind of priest I would have been. As mid-life crises go, this isn’t one that you regularly see on sitcoms. Even after all these years and all this baggage, I guess still have doubts about whether I missed my vocation. Not that I think I would have been a very good priest—I probably wouldn’t have been. I’m too proud, occasionally vain, and not very good at quiet, humble obedience. I don’t take orders well. I lack a deep spirituality. I might have had a little trouble with sexual abstinence.
And yet. Perhaps I would have become a Jesuit. I could have been a teaching priest: history or literature, of course. My life as a parish priest is less easily imaginable. I would have been lonely. I would have taken up smoking, drunk too much, and cultivated an eccentric hobby (Opera? Chess? Building birdhouses?). I couldn’t have become a bishop—I’m not very good at management or organizational politics—and the papacy would have been out of the question, of course. But I would have done some things well. I would have written and delivered strong homilies. I would have been approachable, slightly but not too worldly. I would have been occasionally bemused or exasperated by my parishioners, but I would never have been cruel. It would have been okay.