What have I learned lately? I’ve learned that you can get real religious insight from what is essentially a financial newspaper.

I grew up near the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and I remember seeing a building called the “Newman Center” there–something I’ve seen on other campuses as well. Recently I read a story in the September 11th (ominous anniversary!) edition of the Financial Times about Pope Benedict’s preparations for beatification (the first step towards sainthood) of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a theologian who converted from the Church of England to Catholicism in 1845. There are several reasons why having to complete this phase of Newman’s incipient sainthood (despite the fact that Newman once said, “I have no tendency to be a saint–it is a sad thing to say so. Saints are not literary men”) must stick in Benedict’s craw.

This is a process which did not originate with Benedit–it began many years ago and he just happens to be the pope who has to carry it out. There’s a real irony here, because Benedict is a pope who is steeped in rules and believes in enforcing Catholic dogma, especially against renegade ideas such as homosexuality and birth control, and on his trip to the UK, he criticized Catholics there for their liberalism. Yet he felt that he had to speak highly of Newman, who, according to the FT, “has always been a source of inspiration to Catholic liberals for his tendency to see both sides of every question and to following conscience wherever it may lead.” The article goes on to say that “the most dramatic difference between Newman and Benedict involves the role of conscience in the life of a Catholic. What should a Catholic do when individual conscience and papal teaching are at variance? Newman was opposed to such an all-embracing view of papal infallibility.” In fact, the FT quotes Newman as saying about the papacy: “He [the pope] becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts and does cruel things.” One recent example of this is telling Catholics in Africa, where AIDS is rampant, that condoms don’t protect against the disease or even CAUSE it– disinformation obviously meant to enforce their ban on birth control. And of course there is the scandal of priestly sexual abuse of children in countries around the world. In Belgium, it is estimated that one in 10 priests actively molested children.

Benedict is reported as saying that “It is important to recognize dissent for what it is and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.” But how can there be debate without dissent?

Another thing that must really stick in Benedict’s craw is the fact that Newman was so close to a priest named Father Ambrose St. John that they lived together as adults and were even buried in the same grave. Why do this if they were not very dear to one another, perhaps even lovers?

I discovered (Episcopal) Bishop of Newark, N.J., John Shelby Spong, at a talk at Chautauqua many years ago. Although not gay himself, he has long been an advocate for homosexuals and explains that they are prominent in the church because until recently, they basically had nowhere else to go. This is a story he told: He was at the funeral for his wife, with his 2 young daughters. They were sitting in a pew in the front of the church, with his wife’s coffin in the aisle next to them. Suddenly a woman who was one of his parishioners came darting towards him and hissed a nasty comment about him being pro-gay. Then he noticed what he described as angelic music coming from the front of the church and looked up to see a chorus of men there, singing hymn after hymn. When the service was over, he went up and complimented them and asked them who they were, because he hadn’t arranged for any music. They explained that they were the Gay Men’s Chorus and that when they heard about his wife’s funeral, they felt they had to come and sing because he had done so much for them over the years.

Now who were the real Christians in this scenario–the woman who was mad at him for breaking the “rules” or the grateful young men who sang for free?

If we are to live by conscience rather than rules, how do we develop a conscience–that inner voice that tells us when we are doing something wrong? A lot this has to do with how we are raised: Proverbs 22:6 tells us to “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Could Benedict’s boyhood in the Hitler Youth, an organization that was definitely run by “rules,” have led to his belief in the value of rules and dogma above all else? In contrast, Newman was relaxed instead of rigid, and is reported as saying, “Here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Benedict has a fierce allegiance to belief, which may be another legacy from his childhood. But if our belief doesn’t build a conscience that results in good works, according to the Bible it is worthless. James 2:26 says, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead.”

Jesus Himself emphasized this point. Mark 9:38-40 tells us that “John said to Him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is for us.'” We have another version of this in Luke 9:49-50: “John answered and said, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not hinder him, for he who is not against you is for you.'”

But Jesus spoke highly of belief as well. Matthew 17:20 quotes him as saying, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” In Luke 17:6, the item moved is much smaller but the idea is the same: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” Matthew is the earlier gospel, the one Paul had clearly read, since he wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:2 that “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

In the Sept. 19th edition of the Financial Times the following week, John Lloyd, reviewing a book on religion and liberal thought, wrote the following about modern political leadership, and since Benedict is the political leader of the Vatican State, it is relevant here: “In the end, what has been called ‘thin’ morality must trump ‘thick’ morality. The thin version is that which prescribes the moral universals: the thick is that which is the moral content of different religions and cultures. The thin must predominate, because it speaks in the language of rights, freedom and the claims of decency.”

Or as Newman himself said, “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink–to the pope, if you please–still, to conscience first, and to the pope afterwards.”

NOTE: This Diary entry, previously published on our old site, will have any links removed.

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