A Catholic's Take on the Pope's Trip

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Frank Franklin II / AP

Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Edward Egan, left, look on as the New York Archdiocesan Deaf Choir performs at St. Joseph's Seminary Saturday, April 19, 2008 in Yonkers, New York.

Whenever someone asks me why I'm still a Roman Catholic in spite of the pedophile scandals and the retro dogma, I usually reach for Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron and its story about a Catholic trying to convert a non-Catholic friend. The friend insists on visiting Rome so he can observe the Holy See himself. This being the 14th century, when church leaders were about as saintly as Enron executives, the Catholic fears that his pal will return home appalled. And so he does — but he declares he's ready to become a Catholic anyway. The reason: he figures any religion that can have that bad a church and still have so many followers must be pretty good.

As the father of a son who, five years ago, on the eve of his first communion, asked me what clerical sexual abuse was, I'm as gratified as any Catholic that Pope Benedict XVI confronted the issue as strongly as he did during his U.S. visit. And yet, as the celestial glow and the cable news giddiness wear off, most U.S. Catholics will still be angry at the church over the scandal; most still won't adhere to church teaching on issues like birth control, homosexuality, divorce, female ordination and the death penalty; and most still won't believe you have to obey those church teachings to be a good Catholic.

Benedict pointedly called it a "scandal" that a majority of us favor even limited legalized abortion. Yet we're not the Da Vinci Code heretics the Vatican suspects. We look instead to the Boccaccio Code, especially in the wake of the abuse crisis. We've learned to conform to the Catholic faith instead of the Catholic hierarchy. And if the Pope's visit and its aftermath indicate anything, it's that we aren't likely to change that stance until the church, with deeper structural and doctrinal reform, changes its own. As the Pope returns to Rome, a common question here will be, Did he make American Catholics feel any better about their church? But just as common an answer may be, Does it really matter anymore?

Nonsense, say our bishops and priests: the church is your religion and issues like abortion are "non-negotiable." But U.S. Catholics know better — and that's a sign, I would argue, that they are good Catholics. I didn't convert to Catholicism as a college student because of the church, although I'm the first to acknowledge that my church, like most churches, is capable of sublime holiness, a la Mother Teresa. I converted to a religion that I felt more meaningfully engaged my spirituality because it more meaningfully engaged my humanity — and, as strange as this sounds to my atheist friends, because it more meaningfully engaged my reason, not just my senses (although I'm as much a sucker for Palestrina and Michelangelo as anyone else). What gets lost amid the Catholic Church's reputation for obscurantism is the fact that the Catholic religion, with its earnest contemplation of Christ's human as well as divine nature, stresses reason as the turnstile to faith and the great good that belief in God can inspire.

Boccaccio knew this in the era of Catholic thinkers like Aquinas, who reconciled Augustine and Aristotle, just as my generation received it from the likes of John Courtney Murray, who defended democracy against doctrine. Aquinas and Murray figure prominently in books like Faithful Dissenters, by Robert McClory, which chronicle how such independent souls have not only questioned the church but helped save it from the kind of glaring errors — like its acceptance of slavery, a stance that Pope Leo XIII finally ended in 1888 — that underscore what a human and fallible institution the church can be.

Catholicism's rich intellectual tradition makes its faith tradition richer, because the point isn't just to believe but to know WHY you believe. Benedict the scholar, as Jeff Israely and David van Biema noted in their TIME cover story this month, admires America's blending of faith and reason. And yet it's this very facet of our religion that is itching powder to a church that insists that only it can be trusted in the end to exercise reason on moral questions — don't try theology at home, the Vatican always seems to tell us — because it inevitably invites the laity to come to its own informed and conscientious conclusions about when human life begins or whether women should be priests. Vatican II, the modernizing church council of the 1960s, emboldened that lay assertiveness among U.S. Catholics as never before; the pedophile tragedy has made the laity's self-reliant spirit irradicable.

None of which, however, means that U.S. Catholics don't want the Church. We do. Like everyone else, Catholics fall away from God on a regular basis and become pretty dismal human beings; and we benefit from the spiritual and moral guidance of priests and nuns, especially the example so many of them set as aids to the poor. We may not impart the church's ban on premarital sex to our children, but we're glad the church is there to help us teach our kids that sex should be shared in a context of love, respect and responsibility. While many of us may object to the Vatican's blanket condemnation of stem cell research, it's still good to have powerful global voices like the Pope's warning us not to play Frankenstein. And it's not as if we don't get along with our clerics: as a Catholic journalist, I've learned that if any two groups of people can drink with each other, even if they don't agree with each other, it's reporters and priests.

We also know the church's profound value as a receptacle of culture — and we cherish its quieter value as a place to ponder deeper questions than our inane media consider, and to mark life from baptism to burial. Perhaps most important, it's where and how Catholics receive the redemptive tonic of the Eucharist, a sacrament that so palpably but transcendentally expresses Christianity's faith that in the end, despite life's suffering, light always defeats darkness.

Still, the love most U.S. Catholics have for their church may never again be unconditional. It has to be earned, and simply wearing a collar or a habit won't do the trick anymore. Pope Benedict XVI took some positive steps toward earning it last week. But he needs to realize that his American flock, as good Catholics like Boccaccio did before us, follows a religion more than it follows a church.