While watching a highly influential Catholic priest bear the brunt of BBC'S HardTalk interviewer the other night, I found myself in a strange and unexpected position, as I actually found myself agreeing with most, if not all, of what the holy man said. (I'm assuming that he's 'highly influential', because his official title was 'The Most Revered Such and Such'. He's not just a reverend; he's the most reverend. I have no idea what that means, or if it's even grammatically correct, but it sounds kind of cool, like something a rapper would declare for himself.)
Not that I'm saying that I agree with what the Catholic church stands for, necessarily, because I'm as about as agnostic, on-the-fence, maybe-there-is-or-maybe-there-isn't kind of guy that you could find when it comes to believing in the existence of a Higher Power. (If there is a God, I think he would resemble either Dustin Hoffman or Johnny Carson. I don't know why; something about the quiet confidence they both have. An ease with their power and ability. Either those two, or Pauly Shore, who may, in fact, be the Prodigal Son, already returned to us, but we're too ignorant to notice. Put a beard on him, have a few shots, squint your eyes a bit -- just tell me that dude doesn't look like Jesus. ) The church's attitudes on abortion, gay marriage, divorce, you name it, clearly aren't in line with what most free-thinking societies in the world will tolerate anymore.
This priest the other night is a die-hard, given-my-life-to-the-church kind of guy, right? He's in it for the long haul. He's accepted the doctrine, gone through the rituals, accepted the life. And his argument to the interviewer boiled down to, essentially, and I'm paraphrasing:
"Look. These are the rules of this particular religion that we belong to. What we believe is based on our interpretation of divine scripture -- the word of God, not the word of the state, or the word of the president, or the word of Sally Jesse Raphael. It's not the church's jobs to move with the times, to get with the times, to bend and sway with the people's will. This is what we believe. It may not be practical in a modern world, or even sensible, but you know what? These are the rules of the club, rules that have stood the test of time for centuries. You're either in or your not."
(That was a very loose paraphrasing of his remarks, by the way.)
I'm with him on that. With something as sacred as religion, you don't take it lightly, and you don't change it lightly; you can't add an amendment here or there every two, three hundred years if the Book that you're following, whose Word you are following, you believe to be divine. It is what it is; if you don't like those rules, if you think they don't apply to your life, fine -- choose another religion. Or none at all.
That's my take on it, anyways. As I said, I'm not a Catholic or a Christian, and I don't follow any particular faith. It's not my deal, at the present moment; it's not for me. (I could barely handle it when my high school teachers used to tell us to do chapter four, pages twelve to fifteen, because I always wondered why, who says we have to, and they would say we do, so just do the work, so organized enforcement of spiritual rules ain't my cup of tea.)
As a certified not-sure-what's-out-there kind of guy, then, to me, the big argument seems to centre upon: The church is not in step with modern mores and attitudes. To which I would answer: That's right, because that's the nature of the beast; it's an old, almost ancient religion -- if you think it's views are archaic and obsolete, well, they probably are, but rules are rules. (Other issues, like the effect these views have on attitudes towards AIDS and abortion are senstive and extremely relevant politically, emotionally, even spiritually, but again, this is the nature of religion itself -- interpretation of ancient texts, and we can't expect a religion that strives to maintain the sanctity of God's original intent to change with the same ease and grace as The Dukes of Hazzard did when switching their lead roles from Bo and Luke to Coy and Vance for a season or two. And if there was any time in life when I did believe in God, it was when the original Dukes, Bo and Luke, returned to their show after their extended hiatus --which was, I think, the result of a contract dispute, but that was in the real world, which had no logical or relevant boundaries on my immersion in that fuller, more plausible fictional one; at that point in time, my seven-year old self would have gladly, even enthusiastically accepted the notion of divine grace -- what other explanation could there be? Man, was I happy they came back to Hazzard. But don't get me started...)
It's like saying that the rules of basketball should be changed, because it's not fair that only really tall guys get all the breaks; short people should have an automatic in. Or declaring that playing hockey with skates is ridiculous because time has shown that this gives an advantage to fast skaters; slow skaters are left behind. The game should thus be played on grass, or even sand, but not ice. And who says that a 1500 metre running race has to be 1500 metres? That excludes those who are better at short distances, not to mention those who are disabled, or even just fat.
Silly comparisons, I know, but my point is, often adjustments are necesary in life; the rules are, occasionally, altered. But at a certain point you have to say: You know what, if we make any more changes, than this isn't the game we started with at all anymore. If we take skates away from hockey and change the surface from ice to sand, and make everyone wear wet t-shirts instead of shoulderpads, and pair the teams boy-girl boy-girl, at a certain point you're forced to declare: This ain't hockey. It's something different entirely -- maybe equally valid, equally entertaining, but not hockey. Call it something else.
Religion comes with rules. Religion comes with principles. I don't think it's the job of the religion itself -- whether it's a Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or Islamic one -- to change. There are many sects, many denominations, many possibilities, but they all come with certain guidelines and unbreachable barriers, based, in the end, on the essential uncertainty of faith itself. If you can handle the rules set down based on this faith, maybe it's for you. If not...
I was royally pissed off when I was a kid that both Marvel's Secret Wars II and DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, the most entertaining comic book series I had ever read, had finite runs -- Marvel's book being nine issues, DC's being twelve. But I knew that going in; I knew they were limited series, not ongoing ones. I accepted the rules that the companies were playing by, and I played the rules, bought the books, and accepted the limitations, which largely centred around the sadness I would feel when both series ended. It wasn't fair; I didn't agree with it. But I bought the books because I wanted the experience.
The Catholic church is saying: If you want the experience, well, these are the rules. It's okay to not live up to them from time to time, or even often, because we're all sinners, but these are the rules. You either follow them or you don't. You're either a Catholic or you're not. If you come to a point where the rules don't match your own, personal, experienced view of the world, maybe it's time to question what you thought you believed in -- which could lead to a deeper, stronger faith, or an unexpected, painful exit.
Either way, we're the ones that have to change, not them.