Bending the Pope's ear

A couple of years

ago, my wife scored tickets to a free James Taylor concert. She was working for an outfit that gave assistance to Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010, and the concert was Taylor's than you to her group and others. We had a great view -- balcony seats that overlooked the stage. And after the concert, we had a chance to go backstage to meet James Taylor himself!

He was gentle, kind and terrific. He came around to each person on our entourage and shook our hands. When he got to me, I was just star-struck, and babbled on and on about how we named our own "Sweet Baby James" after him, etc. etc. He smiled politely. But without warning, and mid-gush, he simply moved on to the next person in line.

It was a humbling experience for me. I guess I hoped that he would recognize me in some way. But I was just another face in the crowd.

It was an experience (among many others) that made me look at my own need to be recognized, but also at how desperate I might appear to people who have acheived actual greatness. Who am I to think that James Taylor would want to chat me up after a two-second introduction?

But what if instead of James Taylor, it was the Pope who would greet me in line? What if I had five seconds to say something to him? Or would it be better to say nothing?

What would you say to him?

Hoping not to be as goofy as I was with Taylor, I hope I could to keep a leash on my nervousness and say something that would express my needs as a Catholic. But there are so many topics to choose from -- imperialistic tendencies in my own country, anti-intellectualism in my nation and Church, the hatred of many for the poor, our Church's continued diminishment of women and homosexuals, the sad state of vocations. The list goes on.

But in  my 5 seconds, I would ask the pope to look at an area that might represent the bad faith and shoddy arguments underpinning too many Church practices and teachings. I would say this: "You must reexamine the intellectual support for a total ban on birth control."

Birth control has long been a sore spot for the Church. But ever since 1968, when Pope Paul VI promulgated

Humanae Vitae

, which reaffirmed the Church's ban on artificial BC, it has become a cornerstone of the Church's teachings, its entree into the culture wars that have divided churches and nations, and one of the main reasons that many Catholics -- priests and sisters included --left the Church. The teaching about birth control ignores so much about human life -- population growth, the nature of love between men and women, the need to soften the impact of young lust in an open and unsupervised society. The encyclical is an ignorant and deeply flawed document that only a theologian can love.

Today, because of

Humanae Vitae

, we have gained yet another a litmus test for Catholics. If you accept the teaching, you are a good Catholic. If you don't, you are a sinner and even an apostate. People, myself included, have kept ourselves out of the priesthood and the diaconate because we refuse to sully our integrity by swearing that we believe in the teaching. Catholics have to hide their use of contraceptives from each other, though every Catholic family with "only" 2 or 3 kids should be suspect. Meanwhile, the teaching has drawn the not-too-bright and not-too-virtuous into the clergy. I have met precious few deacons who are even intellectual lightweights -- never mind contenders or heavyweights. These men, good though they are, believe what the Church teaches, because the Church teaches it. As for priests, even for the brilliant and scholarly, their choice is to accept the belief and advance in rank, or question it and see their careers stall. There are few truly courageous men in the priesthood. Which is an irony for men who follow a savior who chose crucifixion to standing for his message.

In my five seconds, I would ask the pope to look at the totality of the teaching on birth control. Not just it theological ramifications, which involve spirit and the will of God, but the way it plays out in the real world of men, women and relationships. I would ask him to honestly study how the use of the Pill in the last 50 years has not been the unmitigated disaster that its critics believe it to be. How it has broadened women's choices, allowing them to use their God-given faculties. How it has relieved Catholic families from unwanted and unsupportable children. I would stress how Catholic parents are still capable and more than willing to cooperate with God in the creation of human life -- just not an endless series of pregnancies. I would ask him to sever the Church's ties to natural law as a means of regulating every aspect of human existence. We no longer need this medieval system of "science" -- especially in light of what we have learned about our bodies from medicine (we are by and large machines), evolution (sexuality is a biological imperative, not a pure gift from a loving Father) and psychology and anthropology (sex helps men and women maintain a pair-bond). It's past time to abandon the pseudoscience of natural law, an to top insulting the intelligence of educated laypeople.

I would ask the pope to take into account the real-world consequences of the Church's teachings as well. The overcrowded


in Brazil and the overpopulated streets of Manila and other great cities challenges the teaching that every human sexual act must be open to procreation. Those in Catholic countries have been forced into that situation. And it has not increased their human freedom or tapped their human potential. It has merely created an army of souls that can be registered in the church rolls and given the Church someone to succor as they toil in poverty and want.

I don't think Jesus would approve of a system that creates poor people -- especially when the only winners are churchmen in cassocks and frilled robes. He warned of those who:

"Tie up heavy burdensand lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’" Matthew 23:4-7

Replace "phylacteries" with "mitres," "tassels" with "red capes," "synagogues" with "church banquets" and "Rabbi" with "Father," and you have a good sense of what Jesus might have to say about our current Church.

Humanae Vitae

has made fools and liars of us. It diminishes the Church's authority as arbiter of morals. And it has brought out the worst in Catholics. The destructive urge to seem better than the people you serve is what drives so much of what is wrong with the Church. It is what allows weak teachings to be accepted when they bear no relevance to the lives of the faithful and to be institutionalized when they harm the very people they are trying to help.

Perhaps it's time to be a little less starstruck when "Father" or "your Eminence" or "your Holiness" comes to town. And more demanding that the teaching they promote has some basis in gospel values and in lived experience.