I was talking recently with a friend about the death of the Pope. We were talking about the process for selecting a new Pope, and the subject of the novel The DaVinci Code came up. I asked her if she'd read it. "No," she replied, "The church says it's a sin to read it." Clearly, my friend was familiar with the concepts in the book and our discussion continued, but her comment stayed with me and I've been pondering it ever since.
How can reading a work of fiction be a sin? How can exposure to an imagined idea be a bad thing? Does the church not believe that its followers can think independently about the ideas in a novel?
I guess I understand the concept, generally: if you start from the proposition that the ideas are the work of Satan, then turning away from them and not letting them into your head (and not exposing yourself to the temptation to believe them) is the preferred course. I guess. You can see I'm not convinced.
I consider myself a spiritual person, although I prefer to keep my beliefs about God to myself. They feel very private to me. I'm not a church-goer. I was raised Episcopalian. I've also had lots of exposure to the Catholic church, as my father's family is Catholic and we frequently attended ceremonies and masses for various purposes. I've also attended other churches in my explorations...but to my mind, the organization of religion is a separate matter from inner spirituality. I understand the importance for many people of the church community, and I deeply admire the people I know who are truly and positively guided by their religion. But I have not had an easy relationship with the group experiences of religion I've explored.
So, the flurry of news stories about the Pope has got me thinking again. I know some people who believe in the precepts of the Catholic church, and follow what the Pope says, as a matter of faith that as the leader of the Church he knows what's right. Like my friend who didn't read The DaVinci Code... She was told not to, and she won't. I couldn't do that -- I don't believe that any one person has a direct line to God which is superior to anyone else's -- but I have deep respect for the faith that guides them when they choose to follow what the leader of their religion tells them.
But I know lots of other Catholics who simply disregard the Church's precepts when they disagree with them. And that puzzles me. If the Church is based on the foundational concept that one person is the leader of the church and sets its dictates for the entire religion, and you choose to be a member of that religion, how can you reject some ideas and accept others and still consider yourself a faithful follower of the religion? Doesn't that mean that you ulimately don't trust the judgment of your church's leader? Honestly, I don't understand.
I don't mean any disrespect to anyone by these questions. I truly don't understand how people can consider themselves Catholic while disregarding basic tenets of the Catholic faith. Is it the belief that what the Pope says about birth control, for example, or abortion, or homosexuality, or the role of women in the church, isn't considered applicable in American culture? Is it the inner belief that one has to find one's own direction from God, regardless of the Pope's instruction? But doesn't that conflict with the idea that as a Catholic, you're bound to follow the Pope as the leader of the Church?
It's hard to raise these questions with my Catholic friends without sounding like I'm accusing them of hypocrisy, however subtly. And I don't mean to do that. I just don't get it. How do they reconcile their beliefs when they contradict the church's, when the church itself says you're not permitted to pick and choose?
Regardless of my own beliefs and disagreements with the Catholic church about a whole host of issues, it's difficult not to react to the Pope's death and solemnity of the occasion as Catholics mourn and prepare to elect another Pope. It's amazing drama.