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This whole thing coming out of Rome is just astonishing, isn’t it?

I’m wondering now just how much of the current Pope’s activities were expected by the crusty old cardinals who elected him. He’s done such a 180 since he got into office that you’ve just got to think his handlers must start clutching at their chests whenever he steps outside of his frugal little apartment or talks to anybody in the media. He’s like a reality show in a way: What’s he going to say next? You’ll just have to watch!

He reminds me of a nice-guy version of Pat Robertson. Instead of saying things that are so inflammatory, so hateful, and so mean-spirited they just make non-fans’ jaws drop, Francis is saying things that are so common-sense, so loving, and so humble that they just make everybody’s jaws drop. You can just about hear the cardinals muttering to each other behind his back: “Did you know he was gonna do this when we elected him? Cuz I sure didn’t.” It’d be like if Mitt Romney had won the Presidency and immediately signed bills into law to protect the ACA, Planned Parenthood, gay rights, and separation of church and state… in his first hour in office. The Pope’s party must feel very much like he bait-and-switched them. He’s admitted as much, saying that his earlier rigid stances were a lot different from his more loving ones now, and that those earlier attitudes and behaviors were wrong.

He’d barely gotten his fancy hat on his head when he began shocking everybody with crazy statements like “atheists aren’t necessarily hellbound” and refusing to live in the big fancy apartment Popes get. Oh, but honey, that was just the opening salvo. After delivering a shocking manifesto about how maybe the Catholic Church needs to stop demonizing gay people and stuffing its religious privilege into other people’s sex lives, he went on to tell everybody that being rich is bad the other day. I’m sure that went over well with the Catholic church hierarchy.

Pope Benedictus XVI
Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia). One of Pope Palpatine’s clones.

Now, don’t get all over-excited. Women in clergy? Forget it, “the door is closed.” And abortion is still totally awful and contraception’s still naughty, so he’s not sure women deserve full human rights yet like they’re people or something, though he just doesn’t want to talk about these as much as his predecessors did. Really, about all Francis said was “Hey, let’s kind of get back to basics here and stop with the culture war.” It’s not really that revolutionary. The fact that everybody’s taking it as so revolutionary that a Christian leader wants his religion to be, well, more Christian speaks volumes about how far off-course Catholicism has steered its ship in the last hundred years.

See, folks, I was raised Catholic. It was a fairly benign community sort of thing back then. Remember, I’ve got family members who are priests and nuns. It’s not like I don’t know this church very well. The culture was affirming back then, at least as far as I remember. I was straight and too young to have sex at all, so I didn’t have anything to worry about. I’m also female, so… you know. (Sorry. But it’s still true. When do you ever hear about little girls getting raped by priests?) My early years were spent largely church-free, but for about five years in there I was as ultra-Catholic as the Pope could wish, and I remained very Catholic at heart till I was a teenager.

I was about as hardcore as a kid could get, too. I attended church religiously, gave money when I could, cried during the Passion, loved Sunday school, and thought nuns were awesome enough that I wanted to be one. I helped dress the baby Jesus doll for the holidays–the golden robe with the gorgeous trim was my favorite; I carefully slid the dress down over the statue and poked its little fingers-upraised hand through the one sleeve, and its other holy-hand-grenade-holding hand through the other, and arranged the dress around its porcelain neck. I loved going down to the Avenue to Sprocket’s in Baltimore to look at their Christmas display (does anybody else remember Sprocket’s Christmas lines? Filing in single-file to trudge past the resin nativities and Christmas ornaments in the poorly-lit shop, while the air bloomed with the scent of winter coats and mothballs?). I loved Easter and going to church in my brand-new outfits. I loved the church fairs with their silly sideshow games and I still have the purple stuffed bunny I got one year from the fishing game. I loved–and still love–the soaring music of a good Catholic choir on Christmas Eve vigil service. I can still recite the Apostle’s Creed from memory, as long as I have someone else struggling alongside me to recite it as well. I loved all of it. But that church is a million miles away in my mind now to what I see as I survey the wreckage before me.

I’m not exaggerating. I do not even recognize this religion now. When I think of Catholicism, I think of what it stands against–women’s rights, gay people’s rights, real science–especially around contraception (like the morning-after pill and the their lame version of contraception, Natural Family Planning [NFP]), and only-recently-changed preference for people to get AIDS instead of protecting themselves against disease with Demon Condoms. What does my onetime church “mother” stand for? Fake miracles, pedophilia, slavery, moralizing and paternalism, a brand of inhumanly out-of-touch sexism so mystifying I swear it was concocted by space aliens, ties to organized crime, and excessive and ostentatious displays of wealth. I know that most Catholics don’t even think about this stuff.

But non-Catholics do.

I’m sure of one thing above all others: Jesus would not approve at all of what this behemoth institution has become over the centuries.

It’s not that Catholicism hasn’t contributed to the world. Its Jesuit scientists have helped both learning and science to incredible extents. Its monasteries transcribed books in the ancient past that we wouldn’t even have now if it weren’t for their efforts. The charity work their convents and abbeys did in the Renaissance was so instrumental to people’s everyday lives that when England tore down their organizations during the Reformation, it plunged countless poor people into despair and starvation. I’m not saying the Catholic church hasn’t done some small part here.

Most Catholics are decent people just like everybody else, just trying to get through their days and do the best they can. Some are even saintly.

And I’m pretty sure that these good Catholics are really hoping their church gets away from a culture war that it is only destined to lose.

There was a time when Catholic leaders could raise a fuss and people took them seriously. Interdiction, Inquisitions, all those threats they could issue, they were serious business. They could kill dissenters and make their lives difficult at will; they could do everything from invalidate a marriage to force sinners to wear scratchy, uncomfortable clothes and nearly starve these folks to death to atone for their crimes (you know, like eating the wrong food on the wrong day, thinking or saying the wrong thing, etc). Catholic leaders could imprison those who refused to bend knee, and, of course, if nothing else worked, they could even kill these dissenters. Catholic leaders strangled the world to get their way. Now they’re down to just waving their fists and stomping their little feet and yelling loudly; their pronouncements are no longer law, and even their own congregations barely even pay attention to what their leaders say from their ivory pulpits. A distressingly high percentage of Catholics have no earthly idea exactly what transubstantiation, one of the central points of their entire Sunday service, is (another poll found an even worse percentage). And that’s just one doctrine. Imagine what the other ones look like.

And that’s the doctrines that people don’t actively reject. Other doctrines, like the ones around birth control, are largely just ignored. On that subject, be aware that the “98%” figure you might know about might be a little artificially high. Here’s how this link has it going down: 68% of surveyed Catholic women used actually effective contraception like the IUD and pill; 2% used NFP; 11% just hoped for the best and used nothing; 4% used “other” forms of birth control like withdrawal, which isn’t on the list of approved methods of avoiding the consequences of sex like the little sluts we all are–but still, that leaves quite a few women who are actively trying to avoid pregnancy in non-Pope approved ways. Oh, and by the way, there’s never been a lot of difference at all between Catholic and non-Catholic women in terms of birth control methods chosen, which means that Catholic women nod and smile to their priests, then go out and use whatever birth control they’d use if nobody’d said anything. Out of every other doctrine, this one is the one that seems to give Catholic leaders the most fits, barring abortion, of course.

But even with abortion, which one would think would be a total slam-dunk considering the Roman Catholic Church (RCC)’s long history of opposing abortion in America, they run into trouble making their female parishioners obey–27% of abortion patients are Catholic–which is kind of funny considering this same link states that only 22% of American women are Catholic. And majority of Catholics support gay marriage or civil unions, while only 22% oppose recognition of gay relationships. And despite Francis’ predecessor’s ringing endorsement of Mitt Romney, in 2012 Catholic votes went mostly to Obama–especially those of Hispanic Catholics. Congregations are increasingly isolated from the leaders’ opinions on a lot of topics, is what I’m saying here.

And this isolation is a good thing, too; I remember how freaked out I was when I found out what transubstantiation was when I was ten years old, and that was a long time ago. How much weirder will a child of today find the idea that those styrofoam-ish wafers really and truly and honestly and really, for reals, for honestly reals, turn into some long-dead guy’s gibbets of meat and warm, salty blood? I mean, how crazy is that? The real miracle is that I didn’t hear that and just burst out laughing and quit going to church altogether if that’s how things were going to roll. The old thought-stoppers like “it’s a mystery” just don’t work on people today like they used to. Back then, I heard this story and asked some intense and worried questions of my aunt, the nun, and that’s what she said, and it was enough for me at the time. But we’ve come a long way, baby, since then. A lot of Catholics might swallow (haha) transubstantiation and just put up with it as one of those crazy things their elders like to do, but these social issues have them leaving in droves. “It’s a mystery” doesn’t readily explain anything, and that saying neither compels belief nor forces allegiance to codes that seem increasingly oppressive and cruel.

That’s why I think Catholic leaders have lost the culture war. They can’t just force people to accept their crazy ideas, and the ideas are just too toxic and obviously delusional to stand on their own. That’s why the Catholic church is losing more people than it’s gaining through births and conversions–as in, to the point that one in ten Americans is an ex-Catholic and one out of three kids raised Catholic will leave the religion. That’s why dioceses are going bankrupt (list is not exhaustive; Gallup, New Mexico just went belly-up a couple weeks ago thanks to sex abuse lawsuits). That’s why its priests are getting tossed in prison for their crimes, and why church leaders like bishops who protect atrocity-committing priests are also facing serious penalties where in the past everybody would have just let them get away with it. And it’s why there is a serious shortage of priests and nuns in many parts of the world now. Catholic leaders are losing dominance and they are losing it so quickly it’s making my head spin to watch the downward-trending arrow. I’m not sure these crusty old cardinals are ready for the modern age; they sure don’t seem to understand that if things continue the way they are, in just a few years we’re going to be standing inside their Vatican’s deepest, dankest rooms to plumb their secrets before carting off their treasures to pay their debts.

Alas, when a controller is faced with certain loss, the answer so often is to drill down harder on the control to try to get it back, and that’s what we see happening every time Francis pulls a wacky. The alternative is to actually listen to the person they think their god elected through their tawdry little election, but since he’s not saying what they want him to say, that’s not going to happen. Surely if they keep doing what they’ve been doing, things will magically reverse and they’ll suddenly find themselves important and dominant again. Surely. (What’s the definition of insanity again?)

So I’m sure these leaders are happy they don’t go in for papal infallibility right now, so they can distance themselves from their Fearless Leader’s pronouncements. Every time Francis tries to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg, the rest of these gargoyles have to leap into action to try to reverse and finesse everything he’s tried to do. But he seems pretty stubborn to me, and the sheer response he’s gotten so far from the world is surely enough to tell him he’s on the right track. Just about any change he made in how Catholic leaders deal with the secular world would be welcome, and even these relatively minor changes are like a breath of fresh air in a smelting-pot.

Yes, absolutely Francis and his handlers are allowed to think whatever they want about issues like abortion, birth control, which humans should get full rights and which ones shouldn’t, what configuration of genitalia ought to determine who is and isn’t eligible for leadership positions, and countless other things, but they need to keep that in their own ranks and not try to shove their ideas onto others. We’re not Catholic. If we wanted to live like the Pope thinks we should live, the Roman Catholic Church would know it because we’d be, well, Catholic. And we’re not. It does nothing but alienate non-believers and hasten the exodus of one-time believers to force people to live under ideas we consider repressive and whackadoodle, and the harder Catholic leaders try to force those ideas onto us, the harder we’re going to start pushing back to escape their attempt to force us to live that way.

The best thing Francis will bring to the table is a recognition that the genie can’t be stuffed back into the bottle, that the RCC has lost these wars it tried to fight. They picked the fights they did, and I suspect they did so because they were certain they’d win–and that a win would mean a regaining of cultural dominance. But for a variety of reasons they lost, and that lost is resonating all through the world. You know, I always thought that if Catholicism got hit hard enough, long enough, where it hurts–in the wallet–that they’d find some way to change their tune. I’m no longer quite as sure of that, but still I really hope that Francis can drag his stubborn and proud cardinals and bishops and handlers and all, kicking and screaming, to something that looks more like being good people.

I admit, though, I am a little nervous for him. I study history semi-pro and can tell you what happens to popes who get too far out of line for too long. Francis is the best thing the RCC’s seen since John Paul Whossname was in office. The RCC needs someone like him desperately right now, and the worst–or most hilarious, depending on where you’re standing–thing about their whole situation is that the people who most need to understand that simple truth don’t realize it yet. Who knows? Maybe one day the world will see a Roman Catholic Church that cares more about charity and love than it does about stripping people’s rights from them and dehumanizing those it finds icky. I’d actually like that.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...