Segal: Not all beliefs are created equal
October 5, 2013
Last month, Pope Francis made headlines (again). In a lengthy interview for a Jesuit journal, the pope said that the Catholic church is too obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and birth control. "It is not necessary to talk about all these issues all the time," he said. It gets in the way of the church's broader purpose of being a "home for all."
The pope's inclusive comments caught the attention of many liberal and lapsed Catholics, who interpreted his statements as a door newly opened to rethinking the church's positions on these issues, along with the place of women within church leadership.
These statements indeed express an openness and warmth that are rightly perceived as a breath of fresh air. However, another action by the pope last month indicates that he and the church are more complicated than some progressive Catholics may have hoped. He excommunicated an Australian priest for heresy, an unappealable decision that forever excludes that priest from participation in Catholic sacraments and institutions. Although no specific reason was given by the pope, the Associated Press reported that the Archdiocese of Melbourne blamed the priest's support of women's ordination and homosexuality.
On the one hand, the pope spoke openly about his vision of an expansive church, embracing enough for everyone. On the other hand, he clamped down on a heretical priest, presumably for that priest's inclusive views and actions regarding women and homosexuals. At first glance, this juxtaposition may appear hypocritical, suggesting that the liberal Catholics who praised Pope Francis' inclusive comments spoke prematurely. But in fact, it indicates something more nuanced about this pope's beliefs and actions.
As he said in the interview, "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently." This is a profound theological statement — a revelation, even — from the representative of one of the oldest institutions of religious dogma. What the pope is telling us is that, yes, church doctrine prohibits abortion, gay marriage and birth control; but church doctrine also insists on serving the poor, infirm and marginalized. And — here is the key — those moral commitments are not of equal import. Though a Catholic may believe in them with equal faith, his actions should manifest a hierarchy of values.
The pope seems to invoke a higher law that stands behind individual church policies. In his words, "A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question, 'Tell me: When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love or reject and condemn this person?' We must always consider the person." (One may reasonably ask, doesn't considering the person in this way ultimately lead to full acceptance of gay marriage? Perhaps it should, or perhaps this pope is less concerned with the politics of the issue and more concerned with how to live as an agent of God's unconditional love. One may also reasonably ask, would Pope Francis excommunicate a priest who doesn't sufficiently serve the poor? That would be an interesting test of his beliefs, for which we will just have to wait and see.)
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In our age, conservative religious leaders tend to flock to certain hot-button issues, speaking from their pulpits as if those issues — and those issues alone — define true believers. Pope Francis offers a different orientation, while still maintaining his commitment to conservative dogma. He explained his approach in the interview with a striking metaphor: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else." There is so much suffering to heal, he seems to be saying, so many lost souls to love, that we shouldn't waste time quibbling about less important things, even when we hold firm beliefs about them.
There's a lesson here for all religions. Every religious system has an array of teachings and doctrines that cannot be emphasized or acted on equally, given limited resources and time. So the question for every religion and religious person — and for everyone with a set of beliefs — is not simply, "What do you believe?" Rather, it is, "What do you believe in so fundamentally that it informs how you act on all your other beliefs?" For Pope Francis, the answer seems to be service and love without judgment. We could certainly do worse.
In that spirit, I'll let Pope Francis have the final word here, "If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble."
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or email@example.com. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.
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