Give Up Your Pew for Lent
(Paul Elie, a senior fellow in the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown, is the author, most recently, of "Reinventing Bach.")
Published: February 28, 2013
AT 8 p.m. last night in Vatican City, Benedict XVI resigned the papacy. Now American Catholics should consider resigning too.
- Discord Remains at Vatican as Pope Benedict Departs (March 1, 2013)
- News Analysis: Healing Schism, Pope Risks Another (January 26, 2009)
- Muslim Leaders Assail Pope's Speech on Islam (September 14, 2006)
The conventional wisdom has it that Benedict's resignation sharply reduced the aura of the papal office, showed a tender realism about old age, and made clear that even ancient Catholic practices could be changed. That is all true, but the event's significance is more visceral than that. It has caught the mood of the church, especially in North America.
Resignation: that's what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won't be fixed anytime soon.
So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.
We are in the third week of Lent, a six-week season of reflection and personal sacrifice when Christians prepare for Easter by taking stock of their religious lives. In recent centuries Roman Catholics have observed Lent by giving up a habit or pleasure, whether red meat, chocolate, soap operas or Facebook, to simplify their lives and regain their independence from worldly attractions — their religious freedom, if you like.
Two years ago, Stephen Colbert gave up Catholicism itself. As the comedian told it, he swore off Catholicism on Ash Wednesday and made it as far as Good Friday, when he went on a "Catholic bender." His riff inverted the old saying that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Mr. Colbert beat the pope to the punch.
In traditional parlance, Benedict's resignation leaves the Chair of St. Peter "vacant." So I propose that American Catholics vacate the pews this weekend.
We should seize this opportunity to ask what is true in our faith, what it costs us in obfuscation and moral compromise, and what its telos, or end purpose, really is. And we should explore other religious traditions, which we understand poorly.
For the Catholic Church, it has been "all bad news, all the time" since Benedict took office in 2005: a papal insult to Muslims; a papal embrace of a Holocaust denier; molesting by priests and cover-ups by their superiors. When the Scottish cardinal Keith O'Brien resigned on Monday amid reports of "inappropriate" conduct toward priests in the 1980s, the routine was wearingly familiar. It's enough to make any Catholic yearn to leave the whole mess for someone else to clean up.
Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is a theologian. He would not have stepped down if he did not think he was setting a sound precedent: a resignation prompted by physical, not institutional, weakness. That he felt free to resign suggests that he thinks the church is doing fine. But countless ordinary Catholics know otherwise.
That is why this Sunday, I won't be at the Oratory Church of St. Boniface in Downtown Brooklyn, even though I love it there — a welcoming, open-minded, authentically religious place.
Instead, I'll be at the Brooklyn Meeting of the Quakers, who have long invited volunteers from our church to serve food to the poor.
Or I'll be at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, an Episcopal congregation that hosted the Occupy movement's relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy.
Or I'll go to the Zen Mountain Monastery at Mount Tremper, in the Catskills.
Or I'll be in Washington, with colleagues who attend Shabbat services at Georgetown, the first American Catholic university and the first (four decades ago) to engage a full-time rabbi.
Or I'll knock on the door of the Masjid Ibadul-Rahman, a mosque on my block, or the Zion Shiloh Baptist Church, across the street, or L'Église Baptiste d'Expression Française, on the corner.
I hope and expect to return to the Oratory church the following Sunday. But I can't be sure. To some degree, it's out of my hands, a response to a calling.
A temporary resignation would be a fitting Lenten observance. It would help believers to purify and deepen our faith in the light of our neighbors' — "to examine our own religious notions, to sound them for genuineness," as the American writer Flannery O'Connor put it. It would let us begin to figure out what in Catholicism we can take and what we can and ought to leave. It might even get the attention of the cardinals who will meet behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel and elect a pope in circumstances that one hopes would augur a time of change.
And it might dispel the resignation we feel. Most ordinary believers have given up hope that the church will change its ways. But Benedict's resignation reminds us of a truth we have known all along: change in the church can happen, even dramatically. If so hidebound an institution as the papacy can be changed, what can't be?