Being about the only professor at a liberal, tolerant, cosmopolitan Western university who is known to be a practicing Catholic — baptized at the age of two weeks — I have been asked frequently in recent times about what I think will happen to the church in the light of Pope Benedict’s resignation. Will it split further, between conservatives and liberals? Will there be an African pope? When will there ever be female priests, then bishops? What about declining attendance of the European congregations (as opposed to the surging populations in the southern world)?
I sigh. When I turn to my daily newspapers, I sigh further, at the stereotyping, the false assumptions, the hostility in some quarters, the focus upon protocol rather than substance, the obsession with fiscal laxities at the Vatican rather than the proclaimed mission of Christ. Much of this criticism is boringly predictable; I may be wrong, but I suspect it might be hard to find a month, for example, when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd does not launch an attack upon the papacy and the Catholic Church. And when the College of Cardinals announces the successor to Benedict, there will be fervid speculation about the new pope’s attitude toward divorce, abortion, the Jews, secularism in Italy, and so on.
That is one view of the Catholic Church, the church of hierarchy, tradition, formalism, its bursts of reform soon restrained by a return to conservatism. It is the church so familiar to the minds of secularists, pagans and anti-Catholics everywhere. It is the church of the 19th-century popes. It is the church of infallibility, incense, candles, and of Latin masses. Pushing it further, it is the church of financial corruption and sexual abuse. It is the church of stereotype, which is not wise.
In the early 1790s, as Europe reeled under the shock of the French Revolution, the great English politician and philosopher Edmund Burke warned against condemning an entire nation, a France of about 30 million souls, for the troubles and wars. Shouldn’t we be wary of condemning a church of roughly 1 billion believers?
On Wednesday last week, I went, as I usually do, to work in the lunchtime soup kitchen of the St. Thomas More Catholic chaplaincy at Yale University in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, founded almost 30 years ago to meet the needs of the poor and hungry. Among our customers, there was the usual group of permanent down-and-outs, meth addicts, drinkers, druggies, and dignified older ladies and gentlemen who had recently lost their jobs and decided to take our food so they could spend their pittances on energy bills. There was a father with four young kids; the local schools had closed because of a blizzard, so they could not get their free school lunches. To talk with our clients is sometimes a revelation. Just a few weeks ago, I talked with a young man (never seen before or since) who wanted to discuss the poems of Shelley and Keats — plus Eliot’s “Four Quartets”!
The helpers at the soup kitchen are all volunteers; they would never expect to be remunerated. Not everyone is Catholic, but most are. They are the parishioners who live around Yale and come in for Sunday Mass and collegiality. They are the Yale students who also work in the downtown evening soup kitchen, or in the men’s overflow night shelter. A number of them are going off to Guatemala in mid-March to help rebuild a village still hurting from the civil wars. They welcome guest speakers and participate in theological discussion groups. This is not a dead or decaying church. It is vibrant and pulsing, rejoicing also in the beauty of the services (especially the sung Masses) and the sheer intellectualism of the homilies. It is our Catholic Church. Nobody is leaving it. What happens in Rome is, well, distant.
A few Sundays ago, the Gospel featured that very familiar tale of “the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). A man going to Jericho from Jerusalem was assaulted by robbers, then left to die in the ditch. A priest came by, and rode on. A Levite came by, and did not stop. But the despised Samaritan stopped, took the unknown victim to an inn and paid for all that he needed. Note that the benefactor did not assist a family member, or a college friend, or a favored charity. That’s simply not enough. “Even the pagans do that!” scoffed Jesus in another address.
The litmus test is whether you help the unknown, the desperate-looking person at the soup kitchen, the beggar on the street. At the end of his striking homily upon this passage, the remarkable Catholic chaplain at Yale told us bluntly: “This is the test. Do you love your unknown neighbor as yourself? Do you love your dirty, hairy, smelly, dispossessed neighbor as yourself, and will you reach out to help?” Loving your God, and loving your known and unknown neighbors as yourself, is the core. Everything else, said Father Bob, “is footnotes.” Wow. The married-priests issue is a footnote; the female-priests issue is a footnote; so is divorce, contraception, Latin Masses, changes in the liturgy, even perhaps the death penalty.
What matters is your reaching out to help. That’s the sole question you will be asked when you reach the Pearly Gates.
Does this mean that Catholics do not need a worldwide church structure? Not at all. We need the parish, the parish priest, the parish church, where most of us will be baptized, take Communion and confession, get married and eventually enjoy the last rites. But those parishes reside under the protective umbrella of a diocese and its bishop — and the line from a bishop goes straight to Rome.
The physical parish church offers not only a place for public worship but also a place for study groups, social and fund-raising events, soup kitchens and the like. Nobody, surely, wants to be like the early Christians, wandering through deserts and hillsides, without a physical place of worship, without roots. We need the Church Physical, just as we need the Church Ethical and the Church Social. Even the modest Quakers, with their great commitment to prayer and social justice, need meeting houses, organization and a network.
But no one launching an attack upon the papal elections, Vatican finances, sexism and the rest should think that they are attacking Catholicism per se. From my perspective, our Catholic Church is vibrant, helpful, intellectual, and working in so many ways to fulfill the message to love God and to love, and reach out to, one’s unknown neighbor. Everything else is, well, footnotes.
Paul Kennedy is Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at Yale University; and the author of many books, including The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.