Recently Pope Francis made a rather remarkable statement that even atheists would go to heaven if they were good people and treated their fellow man well. That salvation was not the sole domain of the Catholic Church. From a non-religious point of view, this means that atheists can be good people and deserving of eternal reward. Obviously, none of this means anything to atheists, but to Catholics it’s a strange turn of events. The odd part here is that the Vatican is walking it back.
Aside from the fact that Freud would have a lot to say about that reverend’s choice of words about entering the Catholic Church, the Pope, conduit of God’s word and infallible head of the Church, done goofed. Now, it would be hypocritical, but not strange if the Pope himself had come out first and said he made a mistake. People didn’t understand what he was saying. He used poor wording. But it isn’t Pope Francis taking it back. The Vatican is doing it for him. The Pope is the CEO of one of the most powerful corporations in the world and he told everyone that going with the competition or abstaining from buying any of the products all basically have the same end result. That’s really terrible salesmanship. So now the board has to rein him in before they lose the hundreds of millions of customers who depend on them for a ticket to Heaven.
Still, as far as papal mistakes, this isn’t the worst. We’ve had organized crime popes, mass murderer popes, popes who started wars for their personal benefit, and even a pope who summoned and harnessed demons to do his will as Solomon did (at least that’s what he said he was doing behind closed doors for hours a day). The Church caved when it came to fascism. They gave the green light for slavery for two millenia.
My favorite pope was Stephen VI – sometimes referred to as Stephen VII because after a while whose counting? Stephen VI is famous for the Cadaver Synod. Having been elected with the help of the House of Spoleto of Italy, he owed this powerful medieval lobbying group and he repaid them (and some vague grudge of his own) by exhuming the body of Pope Formosus. Formosus had in fact raised Stephen VI to Bishop back in the day, but no good deed goes unpunished.
The Pope Formerly Known As Stephen VII put Formosus on trial for his crimes. His crime was that when he was young he tried to destroy the papacy and all things holy in the world. We all do crazy stuff when we’re young. In truth, no one is really sure if any of the items on the laundry list of charges against him were real. He was originally found innocent in the Synod by then Pope John VIII as long as he left Rome and stopped being a priest forever, which sounds suspiciously like a guilty verdict. Luckily for him, his predecessor pope would find him completely innocent and invite him back and he overcame all those stains on his early career to become pope.
So Stephen VI propped his body up on a chair in his full vestments and had a deacon stand by to speak for the dead man. As one might expect, he was found guilty. So they stripped off his vestments, cut off three of Formosus’ fingers (the ones used for giving blessings) and declared his entire papacy null and void. The body was briefly interred to be gawked at by tourists, so he could be thoroughly humiliated. For reasons unknown – perhaps too many tourists coming to see the deposed and decomposed Pope – the Vatican had his body dug up again and tossed into the Tiber river to get rid of it.
Afterward Pope Stephen VI’s approval rating plummeted, resulting in his being imprisoned and later strangled to death. Also, they finally put up some rules about trying cadavers. Hindsight is 20/20.
Was that the end of Pope Formosus? Hilariously, no. A monk who held him in a favorable light recovered him from the river and entombed his remains in a more respectful manner only to be declared double guilty by Pope Sergius III (whose own legacy involved having his two predecessors the Antipope Christopher and normal Pope Leo V strangled in prison after he took office because he was a good friend of Stephen VI and felt they were responsible for Stephen VI’s prison strangling.) According to legend, he had Formosus dug up again for the trial and beheaded him afterward. This is now believed to be a historian’s mistake. Still, who can blame them for getting confused about this macabre procession of events? Pope Sergius III also may have been the father John XI. It took me a minute to figure out why that would be a scandal. Apparently abstinence doesn’t even work for popes and they expect teenagers to keep their pants on.
I would say Catholicism was the religion I was most influenced by as a child. My maternal grandmother and her whole family were Catholic and through her so was the rest of my mom’s side of the family and it was with that side I had the most contact. My grandfather was an atheist Catholic. Not as uncommon as you would think. Much of my family saw God as unnecessary in their religion. As long as you felt really bad about everything and you punished yourself a lot for being so naughty (platonic BDSM), and you always remembered the words to the recitations, you were doing fine. Many of my friends are ex-Catholic or lapse Catholic too.
In contrast, my father’s side of the family were less dogmatic and more religious. They had been Jewish, but after the Holocaust they came to America, changed their names to blend in and became protestants to really blend in. I find it a little shameful in all honesty as how casually they threw away their religion because it was unpopular with Nazis, but considering the horrors of the time I can see how one could lose their faith. I actually don’t even know what denomination if any they had chosen. All I remember is lots of talk to my mother that if she didn’t baptize and convert me I would be damned, and regularly receiving Jesus statuettes in the mail. With Catholics the name is big. You aren’t Christian. You’re Catholic. Church > Pope > Jesus > Mother Mary > the Saints > God. In my family liquor is somewhere in the middle there. With most protestants I’ve met, they worry more about scripture than structure, belief over tradition.
That isn’t to say there aren’t tons of Catholic devout believers, it’s just there’s a lot of families like mine that I’ve met. Part of it is cultural of course. Family and tradition are the cornerstones of Irish and Italian culture, and the Church is family. They disapprove of how much you drink and party, but they pick you up out of the gutter and forgive you. For all your failings, you don’t lose your place. When you mess up, all you have to do is ask for forgiveness. Family is stability and stagnation, love and judgment, kindness and avarice, healing and pain. There’s duality in everything.
The modern Catholic may not have to put up with cadaver synods or papal wars, but like all the choices out there it’s still a rough road. People have trusted the clergy with their children and been repaid in the most heinous of acts, only to have the monster who did it protected and hidden. The modern Church is a charitable organization that’s also absurdly rich. The Old Testament, New Testament, holy doctrines and Catechism are hard to mesh. These are issues Catholics struggle with. And as this latest controversy has refreshed, how should the Church treat the children of the other one true gods or science? Modern enlightenment and liberalism is pushing hard to validate the beliefs of all people. If we were all created equal and we were all given free choice and then we make a different choice, does that mean it’s Providence or the wrong choice? Do good Muslims and Buddhists go to Heaven? What about lousy heathens like myself? Hard questions to answer.
Meanwhile, I get to sit the whole thing out and watch the debate over my unaffiliated soul. A Catholic nun/ex-nun/re-nun/protestant millenarian once told my mom that God would rather you hate Him than not believe in Him. Said in an attempt to get my mom back in the flock. The logical fallacy of using the threat of God’s potential anger to convert an atheist was lost on her. This whole idea is a tough sell. 1.2 billion people are Catholic. So what this really boils down to is: Are 6 billion people living right now doomed to have salvation allude them? If they aren’t, what’s the point of a church? Would it be so bad if everyone was free to believe whatever they wanted as long as they were good to their fellow humans?
I’ve seen good and bad in every religion and non-religion, so I’m siding with Pope Francis. Hopefully decades from now we aren’t digging him up to put him on trial for saying atheists could be good people.
The More You Know: If a pope and antipope ever came in contact with each other it would cause an explosion with hundreds of times the power of an atomic bomb.
Correction: Antipopes are not made of antimatter. Apparently, an antipope is what you call a pope who is in opposition to the legitimate pope, yet has enough papal support to not simply be considered a heretical pope. In the event of a tie, God casts the deciding vote in the form of one of the popes getting strangled in prison.
Additional Clarification: Prison stranglings have also fallen out of favor as a method of solving disputes in the Vatican. No wonder the Church can’t attract young people, they’ve lost their edge.