I should tell these two brief stories for background. Both of them came from conversations I had with Roman Catholics who were trying to understand my religious tradition. The first was someone asked me the difference between the United Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. I replied, “We believe Jesus Christ as head of the Church.” The second came from someone who wondered how I saw the pope. I replied, “If the Pope came into this room, you would kiss his ring, I’d shake his hand.”
As a member of the United Church of Christ, I am a Christian, but I’m not Roman Catholic. Basically, I am of a different denomination. Despite the difference in denominations, I have professional and working relationships with Roman Catholic laity and clergy. Still, the pope has no authority over my ecclesiastical standing.
When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, I immediately thought that the Roman Catholic Church should choose an interim pope because there are so many problems in the church right now. Church membership is declining in North America and Europe, although growing in Africa. It’s still trying to grapple with the clergy sex abuse scandal, most recently in England and Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles. Despite its public position on homosexuality, there is a sub-culture of gay priests (and I’m not saying that gay clergy is wrong, but how does a denomination reconcile its public position with practices within the denomination that are contrary to it?). The church has not been supportive of the American nuns who took strong anti-poverty positions contrary to the GOP during the last election cycle. Furthermore, the church’s positions on birth control and divorce are not the reality of its laity. Other issues, such as ordaining women or clerical celibacy are still too much to ask. While felt an interim pope could concentrate on some serious internal issues, I knew the idea was outlandish.
I can’t say I know anything of the new pope beyond what I read in the newspapers. He looks to be a wonderful pastor who has real concern for the poor. That he came from South America is a strong statement for the Vatican on its sense of importance for the Church in the third world. I like that he seems truly humble.
I’m fascinated, however, by the recent media coverage of the papacy. Yes, Benedict’s resignation was newsworthy, but no minute detail was left unreported in the subsequent coverage. As the cardinals gathered in the Vatican, even the newspaper reports seemed breathless. Of course the smoke … And then banner headlines announcing the new pontiff. That was a lot of coverage, especially for a church leader. True, he leads the largest Christian denomination and that denomination has a global reach, but that was still a lot of coverage.
Contrast that to the coverage of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Communion, another denomination with global reach. Most people don’t even know his name or when he became Archbishop. (The Archbishop of Canterbury is Justin Welby and was named as archbishop on February 4, 2013.) I probably wouldn’t be far off the mark to state that I doubt many people in the United Church of Christ could name our General Minister and President, Geoffrey Black.
Although I thought the amount of papal coverage was too much, it does point out that the pope, despite only heading the Roman Catholic Church, is perceived by many to be the leading Christian on earth. (Not unlike how the rest of the world looks at the President of the United States.) Even though he has no ecclesiastical authority over me, as the world’s leading Christian his perspectives on the world through his faith lens are hugely important even if they don’t square with mine. His stature is such that when he speaks for the Roman Catholic Church, many people, especially those who are nominally Christian or not Christian at all would perceive him as speaking for all Christians. And that can be a struggle for clergy like me because as Christian clergy, I am not always seen as independent of the pope.
So I wish Pope Francis well. I pray that he will be able to address some of the deep-seated issues in the Roman Catholic Church. I hope that he can convince people that Christians are not narrow-minded homophobes or sexually oppressed. I hope he can remind everyone that Christians really do care for the poor. I hope he will do better with interfaith relationships than predecessor. I hope he can express his thoughts with some humility and to leave open the possibility of some question and doubt and thus, give space to other perspectives.