Why an ex-Catholic watches the Pope

Why an ex-Catholic watches the Pope

The Pope is in America. I’m reminded of Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to the U.S., which my father and my maternal grandmother sat together and watched on TV. Dad and Grandma didn’t have a lot in common, but they were both descendants of the German-Catholic diaspora that flowed into Minnesota in the 19th century. If you were raised Catholic, it’s hard to ignore the Pope.

I was raised Catholic too—attending Mass twice a week, and Catholic school five times a week—until I graduated from high school in 1993. I then went to college and surprised everyone, most of all myself, by promptly abandoning the faith; it’s now been over half my life since I was a practicing Catholic.

Over the course of those years, I have to say, the Church hasn’t made it particularly difficult to stay away. There have of course been the child abuse scandals, with the tragic evidence of predation and deception cascading in waves that have crashed particularly loudly in Minnesota. Then there was John Paul’s dogmatic successor, Pope Benedict, whose appointment seemed intended to please the most reactionary elements of the Church.

The new Pope Francis—who aims both to promote social justice and perpetuate the Church’s longstanding traditions—has been, for me as for many current and former Catholics, at once refreshing and frustrating. In his forthright engagement of international policy and his openness to dialogue about matters Benedict seemed to consider beyond discussion, Francis has made the Papacy relevant in a way it hasn’t been since the heyday of the globetrotting John Paul II.

Though some lapsed Catholics (a euphemism I’m surprised hasn’t been more widely picked up: “Oh, she didn’t dump me—she’s just lapsed from our relationship”) are waiting for reforms that would inspire them to return to the fold, I’m not waiting for anything. There are any number of alternate faiths I could join if I were looking for an alternate theology. I’m happy to be unchurched.

Still, the Roman Catholic Church and its actions will always resonate strongly with me: it’s what I knew and was taught to honor for my entire childhood, it’s the faith that many of my friends and family members still practice, and it’s been foundational to my community. Every day when I bike to work, I pass the “Holy Trinity” of buildings representing Minnesota’s traditionally towering institutions: the James J. Hill House (industry), the State Capitol (government), and the Cathedral of St. Paul (church).

Watching the coverage of Francis’s visit to America, I’m reminded of just how many Pope-watchers there are. Beyond the country’s millions of practicing and formerly practicing Catholics, the Pope’s visit has interested politicians of both parties—Francis was personally greeted by President Obama, and invited by John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress—as well as a wide swath of observers interested in the Pope’s positions on social and environmental issues. Then, of course, there are the good old-fashioned celebrity gawkers.

In all the coverage, I’ve particularly noticed indications of just how many Americans are like me: people who feel a strong connection to the Church, but who don’t subscribe to all of its theological tenets.

A substantial majority of practicing Catholics in America disagree—in principle and/or practice—with the Church’s ban on birth control, and many also depart from orthodoxy in their views on homosexuality and the need for priests to exclusively be celibate men. Beyond those who consider themselves active members of the Church, there are many millions more who exist along the spectrum from occasional churchgoers to people—like me—who have left the Church behind as an institution but continue to live with the Church as part of our personal histories.

The Pope still matters to us in a way that about more than just his salience to international affairs; he still means something special to us emotionally, even if not theologically. Like my dad and my grandma, we’re all drawn together in front of the TV when the Pope gets off the plane.

The Papacy is quintessentially Catholic: an elaborate, ritual-laden embodiment of God’s purported presence on Earth, with a lineage believed to extend straight back to St. Peter himself. Love him or hate him, when the Pope appears, we children of his faith can’t look away. We watch, we listen, and—even if we don’t know what for—we wait.

Jay Gabler