Of Popes and Progress
“I the Lord do not change.” – Malachi 3:6 (NIV)
My interest in the election of Pope Francis lies somewhere between the rapt attention of the pilgrims at St. Peter’s, and the bemused detachment of an observer who doesn’t know a catechism from a cassock. As an ex-Catholic, I feel no duty to obey the leader of a denomination I left more than 25 years ago. Yet I wish Francis well, and I can’t help but feel the direction of the Catholic church has some place in the greater story God is writing, perhaps to conclude in my or my children’s lifetime.
Almost as interesting have been the reactions of rank-and-file Catholics to the events of the past month. Not that all Catholics think this way, but a couple of on-the-street sound bites from one local newscast gave a remarkable, condensed summary of how people in our age think about religion. The reporter asked a man and a woman what they hoped to see from the new Pope. The man said he hoped for “reform,” which he defined as “loosening up the rules a little.” The woman offered that the church needed to “move with the times.”
The man’s response reflected the common view of religion as a set of man-made rules with a supernatural overlay to keep the superstitious rubes in line. He and the woman also showed what so many people want – a religion that doesn’t change them, but changes for them. Nothing in their responses suggested a dynamic relationship with a living but unchanging God.
Clearly, I have my differences with the Catholic church, or I wouldn’t have left it. But I won’t, as some do, call it a cult or suggest that Catholics can’t have authentic, saving faith. And there are things I very much respect. One is the way the church reflects the unchanging nature of God. It will not and should not change its teachings simply because a world that doesn’t follow God has moved on. If a teaching changes, it should be to align with eternal truth where there has been error. This principle seems lost on that man and woman on the street, and countless millions more like them.
If changing with the times means simply speaking to the world as it is – yes, the church needs to do that. But it’s a matter of applying timeless principles to the times, not changing the principles to fit the times. The transformations wrought by history leave the church with issues to address that were inconceivable in the first century. But God isn’t surprised by any of it, and if we seek Him through prayer and His Word, He will point the way for us without changing who He is. Unfortunately, some churches have tried to redraw the picture of God to please their members. Congregants whose churches hold the line look at the churches that waver, and they naturally want some of that.
As for people equating religion with rules, the Catholic church (and others) bears some responsibility for that perception. At least in my experience, an enduring weakness of the Catholic church has been a failure to point its members to a one-on-one relationship with God. Instead there are liturgies, hoops to jump through and mediators of the believer’s standing with the Lord. But before non-Catholics start feeling all superior, think of the dos and don’ts that have piled up in many Protestant denominations.
Whatever banner they fly, churches have done much to distort the world’s understanding of who God is and how He wants to relate to us. Here’s hoping Pope Francis can do for Catholics what needs to be done for millions of churchgoers in every denomination.
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