Both the concept of God and systematic religion have, throughout the ages, been used for political and personal gain. Doctrines have been emphasised or skewed and sometimes even conjured from the most tenuous of bases in order to suppress, oppress, manipulate and/or exploit. This is an old complaint, long leveled against the church by embittered souls with no faith in redemption. I, for one, would like to take Pope Francis’ cue, and propose a democratic overhaul of institutionalised religion.
Last week the Pope announced the launch of a global survey to ascertain the thoughts and practices of the laity on issues concerning ‘the family.’ This virtually unprecedented move is yet another example of the sort of initiative that has earned Francis the moniker, The Peoples’ Pope. More strikingly, the survey asks very candid questions about previously taboo subjects such as birth control, and same sex partnerships. Further, these are phrased with a clear concern for inclusion and a desire to make the church more gracious. This shift in emphasis was evidenced in a September interview in which the Pope said, “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently… We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible… 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.”
The Catholic church understands the Holy Spirit as a living force working in communities of faith as they seek to practice that faith in a real and changing world. Though the development is slow, there is an inbuilt theological mechanism for contextualisation and adaptation. The idea that Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith is taken seriously in the sense that as the Spirit of Christ works in people of faith, that perfecting work continues.
It’s a side note, but I can’t help pointing out at this juncture the irony that while the Protestant church continues to schism despite its insistence on Sola Scriptura, it is the Catholic church with its dual source of authority, scripture AND tradition, that seems to have found a way to remain theologically stalwart in the face of trending ideologies. More to the point, on those few occasions when a Pope has spoken ex cathedra, i.e. in his official capacity, (the only time, contrary to common understanding, in which he is deemed to be infallible) it has been to codify and make doctrine of beliefs hashed out through lengthy clerical discourse, in some cases taking place over years.
Although Vatican spokespeople made sure to point out that the results of the survey would not usher in sweeping changes and that the church would stick to its doctrine, there is a clear desire on the part of Pope Francis to begin a conversation which could result in a shift of thought somewhere down the line.
This sort of democratic Christianity is intriguing to me. That faith can be living and therefore changing, without invalidating past experience or the immutable nature of God, leads me to wonder whether something more radical might not be possible.
Is it possible to use the power of the God concept to endorse and reinforce the moral consensus? Can God be used for good?
In ‘God in the Mind of a Sad Atheist’ I put forth my view that God is real in the sense of being a physical neuronal structure, a concept in my brain, but not an existent entity. This means that my God is a conglomeration of the teachings of scripture, parents, pastors, theologians, and hymns, coupled with my own perception and evaluation of these in the context of life events i.e. my God is a social construction. Knowing this, I feel that the Pope’s efforts to deemphasise the contentious and divisive aspects of doctrine in favour of those that are conducive to cohesion, is admirable. Perhaps, with enough consistency over time, the whole of the church will finally be able to evidence St. Paul’s proclamation that “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” Perhaps the universal church could adopt a more ‘beatitudinal’ and democratic approach to doctrine, where the voices of the ostracised, marginalised and forgotten are given equal weight in determining the nature and direction of the theological conversation. Perhaps faith could become consensual.