Reflections on a Progressive Pope

The expression “love of God” is ambiguous:  it can refer to God’s love of man or to man’s love of God.  The expression “fear of God,” therefore, suffers from the same ambiguity, but not heretofore in any practical sense.  That is, since it makes no sense to speak of God’s being fearful, inasmuch as he is all-powerful, the phrase can only refer to man’s fear of God. Interestingly enough, a God fearing man is generally understood as being a man who fears nothing else, though what that fear accomplishes is hard to say, since it is not unusual to see a Western featuring a whiskey drinking, tobacco chewing, woman chasing, two-fisted, God fearing man.  A sniveling coward, on the other hand, who frets and worries over every little thing, would never be called a God fearing man, not because he does not fear God too, but because he is not man enough to qualify for that characterization.

But a remark made by Pope Francis a little less than a year ago introduced the possibility that the phrase “fear of God” might actually refer to God’s fear as well.  In his effort to soften the position of the Catholic Church on divorce and homosexuality, the pope said, “God is not afraid of new things.” Ironically, by denying that God is afraid on these matters, he opens up the possibility of God’s being afraid in other areas. Could the Deity be a man fearing God?

Of course, ever since Feuerbach, or perhaps even Xenophanes, it has been known that talking about God is just an indirect way of talking about man, and that what the pope is really saying is that Catholics in general, and the bishops in particular, should not be afraid of new things. But while we may understand the pope in this manner, surely the pope does not mean to be so construed.  Presumably, then, the idea is that God has the courage to declare that divorce and homosexuality are not sins.

There are only three ways to understand this.  The first is that God changed his mind.  He used to think divorce and homosexuality were sins, but now he realizes he was mistaken.  But that would mean that God is fallible and mutable.  Who wants a wishy-washy God, one who is always changing his mind about whether this or that is a sin, depending on who talked to him last, and, in any event, when he does change his mind, can we be sure if he has it right this time?  The whole point of having God be the foundation of morality is so he can lay down eternal truths about right and wrong.  If God is going to vacillate about such things and have to admit that he was mistaken, people will quit taking him seriously.

A second possibility is that we were mistaken about what God thought was a sin.  According to this way of thinking, God has never been opposed to divorce or homosexuality.  Putting men to death for lying with each other was never his idea, but just the ravings of a bunch of homophobic Jewish priests.  And he doesn’t know why Jesus kept saying that divorce was wrong except in the case of fornication, because he told him and he told him that no-fault divorce was the way his Father in Heaven wanted things all along. But if we were mistaken about what God thought in the past, how do we know we are not mistaken about what God thinks now?

A third possibility is that God does not change his mind per se, but that what is a sin at one stage of civilization may not be a sin at a later stage.  That is, back when Jesus was alive, divorce was pretty rough on women, and thus they had to be protected from being abandoned by men.  But now that we have child support, community property, alimony, and equal rights in the workplace, divorce is no longer the problem it used to be, and thus is no longer a sin.  It is not God that changed, but the circumstances.  In the case of homosexuality, however, most would prefer the second option, which is that this never was a sin, that we were mistaken about what God thought on the matter all along, and not that God once wanted homosexuals to be put to death, but given the different circumstances of the modern world, God is now all right with letting them live.

No matter which option we choose—God changed his mind, we were mistaken about God’s will, or there are different sins for different circumstances—every change is one more nail in God’s coffin, for it is impossible to avoid the impression that it is no longer God who tells us what is or is not a sin, but rather it is we who are deciding whether something is a sin, and adjusting our conception of God accordingly.  It is one thing to say man has free will when it comes to choosing whether or not to sin; it is quite another to say man has free will when it comes to choosing what is and is not a sin in the first place.  Freedom to believe what one wants about God soon leads to freedom from God altogether.

Part of the appeal of religion comes from the sense that there are eternal truths, that they were revealed to man long ago, and that we know what these truths are.  We may smile with amusement when the Catholic Church continues to use the Latin Mass, even though Jesus never spoke Latin, and no one else speaks it anymore either, just as we do when Protestants think that the King James Bible is the only translation that is sacred text.  But using the same words that have been used for centuries gives people a sense that they are receiving the unchanging word of God.  The footnotes provided by a modern English translation of the Bible may reflect the latest scholarship, but they do not inspire much reverence.

The Ten Commandments are revered as being the word of God, in no small part because they were written down over three thousand years ago.  Part of the problem with Mormonism is that it is only two centuries old, and even its founder, Joseph Smith, had to claim that his Book of Mormon was ancient in order to have any chance of being taken seriously.  And if someone comes along today and tells people that he has been talking to God, and has written down everything God said to him and published it in an e-book, he will be dismissed as a crank.  What is modern, up to date, and new is inimical to religious feeling.

Therefore, the Catholic Church faces a dilemma:  either it can refuse to change, thereby alienating people who are divorced and living in sin, or who are homosexuals; or it can change to suit the times, thereby vitiating the feeling that one is conforming to the eternal word of God.  If it chooses to modernize, it will keep more of its members, but will there be anything left for them to believe in?  Being an atheist, I prefer that the Church change its views on divorce and homosexuality, not only because tolerance in these matters is a good thing, but also because the more a religion changes, the weaker it becomes.  The more the Church changes the word of God, the less likely people are to believe that it is the word of God.

So, if God is not afraid of new things, maybe he should be.

As progressive as this pope seems to be regarding homosexuality and divorce, he may not be as progressive as people first thought regarding animals.  One of the things children want to know is if their pets will go to Heaven when they die.  As a bachelor, I am not sure what I would have said if I had had a child who asked me that question, but my guess is that I would have told a bald-faced lie and said, “Yes.”  I suspect many parents do the same, regardless of their religious beliefs.  And thus it was a big story for a while when it was reported that Pope Francis said, in response to that question, “Heaven is open to all creatures.”

However, it turns out that Pope Francis did not say that.  Instead, Pope Paul VI said, “One day we will again see our animals in the eternity of Christ.”  I am not sure what to make of that. When I was a child, I used to imagine Heaven as a place where our souls went when we died, and they were shaped like our bodies, and that my dog’s soul would be there, shaped accordingly as well.  Somehow, I don’t think that Pope Paul VI’s phrase about seeing our animals “in the eternity of Christ” exactly matches my childlike vision.  It sounds more like one of those vague statements we sometimes hear from politicians.

In any event, what Pope Francis said was, “Sacred Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this marvelous plan cannot but involve everything that surrounds us and came from the heart and mind of God.”  That is nothing but the usual general statement about God’s divine plan, which is used to justify this world with all of its shortcomings.  And so, the heart-warming story about Pope Francis saying that pets go to Heaven turns out to be apocryphal.

But now it appears that the pope thinks that people are placing more importance on animals than was intended by God in his marvelous plan, according to an article by Thomas D. Williams:

Francis also had strong words for what is wrong with the world and the way people’s values get twisted.

According to the Pope, the worst problems in the world today are poverty, corruption and human trafficking. He also expressed his astonishment when he read about what people spend money on.   “After food, clothing and medicine,” he said, “the fourth item is cosmetics and the fifth is pets. That’s serious.”

In fact, for an “environmental pope,” Francis seems to think that people pay altogether too much attention to pets.

“Care for pets is like programmed love,” he said. “I can program the loving response of a dog or a cat, and I don’t need the experience of a human, reciprocal love.”

The Pope said this kind of trade-off is “worrisome.”

So, not only did the pope not say that pets go to Heaven, but he also seems to think less attention should be paid to them right here on Earth.

At first, being an atheist and in the habit of disregarding the pronouncements of religious leaders, my initial reaction to simply to dismiss the pope’s remarks.  But then it occurred to me that there was much wisdom in what he said.

When I was twelve years old, my parents asked me if I would like to have a dog.  I said, “Yes,” of course.  Then they said, “You will have to be the one who feeds the dog and takes it for a walk.”  I willingly agreed.  This was unfair.  I had no idea what my future life as a teenager would be like, and so I had no idea what kind of sacrifice this would entail.  But my parents knew, and they took advantage of my innocence and extracted from me a commitment at a time when I was hardly of age to enter into a binding contract.

At first, everything was just fine.  I fed my dog and walked him, played with him, and loved him.  But then I went through puberty and discovered the importance of girls.  And then it was that I began to experience a conflict in priorities.  For example, there was this one day in which Charles, one of my friends, pulled up beside me in his car one Saturday afternoon while I was walking the dog.  “Hey, John,” he said.  “Donna’s parents will be gone for the weekend.  She’s going to have a bunch of her girlfriends over there, and she wanted me to get a bunch of guys together and come over so we can party.  As soon as you’re through walking the dog, I’ll give you a ride over there.”

“I can’t,” I said, “because at five o’clock I have to feed the dog.”

“Oh,” he said.  “Well, that’s too bad.  Donna said she had a girl all picked out just for you.  But don’t you let that worry you none.  I’ll be making out with her while you’re still opening that can of dog food.”  And at that point, he peeled out, the tires blowing dust into my face as he sped off.

It was just as the pope said.  I needed “the experience of a human, reciprocal love,” and instead, all I got was the love of my dog when I emptied the can of Alpo into his bowl.  Petting a dog is no substitute for petting a girl.

My dog died when I was a senior in high school, and it broke my heart.  But a year later, while I was in college, my parents began talking about getting another dog.  Some people may have their values twisted, as the pope said, but mine weren’t.  I laid down the law.  “This will be your dog,” I told my parents sternly.  “You will walk it and you will feed it.”  They nodded in agreement. This turned out to be a much better arrangement.  I could love the dog the way a grandparent loves a grandchild.  But when there was a girl available to give me the reciprocal, human love I needed, I was able to give her my full attention, while my parents were home taking care of their dog.

I never got another dog.  Years later, one of my dancing partners, who had a couple of dogs herself that I would play with when I visited her, asked me why I did not get a dog of my own. “Why buy a dog,” I asked, “when you can pet one through the fence?”  Anyway, as I said, we were dancing partners, and while some dancing partners are also lovers, many are not, as was the case with us.  This did not seem to bother her.  “Dancing is better than sex,” she would often say.  But the two were not mutually exclusive, and besides, such a bold hypothesis should be put to the test, I figured.  So, one night, when the mood seemed right, I sat next to her on the couch while we had a discussion about the meaning of life or some such, and was just about to make my move, when her two dogs jumped up onto the couch and in our laps, demanding attention.

Once again, I found myself in agreement with the pope.  My dancing partner’s twisted values resulted in her caring more about playing with her dogs than receiving some of that reciprocal love she could have gotten from another human being, namely me.  The pope said, “I can program the loving response of a dog or a cat.”  He sounds like a computer geek in saying that, but one thing is for sure, you can’t program the loving response of a woman, and so I have to agree with him on that point.

Anyway, when my dancing partner had to go out of town for a while, she asked me to take care of her dogs while she was gone.  I agreed.  “You can sleep over here, if you want, to keep them company,” she offered.  And so, the only time I got to sleep in her bed was when I slept with the dogs.  But when she returned, she told me she had met someone and had fallen in love. He did not dance, and he did not have a dog, and so I guess without dancing and dogs to distract her, she found the space in her life for love.  Well, three’s a crowd, and it was not long before I was looking for another dancing partner.

One girlfriend I had, after asking me why I did not have a pet, and hearing my tale of woe, bought me a cactus.  It was the perfect gift for a bachelor who does not want the responsibility of taking care of a pet or taking care of a wife and children for that matter.  And so it was that when I saw the final episode of Mad Men, when Pete gave Peggy a cactus, I began to wonder if there were something archetypal involved.  Peggy had given up her baby, had never gotten married, and did not have a pet.  But now she had her cactus.  There was a sense of completion in that.  But then, Matthew Weiner spoiled it by having her and Stan hook up at the last minute. Sometimes a dramatist does not realize when his story has ended.

Well, I found out that the cactus had to be watered once every two weeks, and so I would mark that on my calendar, and then worry whether I would forget to look at the calendar.  And I would have to put it on the balcony in front of my apartment to let it get some sun.  But then I would have to worry if it rained, because it is not good to let a cactus get too much water.  This wore me out.  After three months, I came home one day to find that the cactus had been stolen.  A great burden was lifted off my shoulders.

But I had learned an important lesson.  I will never get another cactus.

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