I’m sure that most if not all of you have at some time heard the phrase, “Is the Pope Catholic?” As far as I’m aware it is in no way intended to be disrespectful to the Pope or to Catholicism & Catholics, it’s usually used to imply that someone has asked a daft question or one to which the answer is so obvious that it needn’t have been asked. For example on a Friday evening my dear husband might say to me “Dearest, would you like to go to the pub?” to which the answer is usually “of course, are you kidding, why do you need to ask???” This may similarly be applied to offers of chips or cake, but enough of my vices. The reason I wanted to mention this phrase, “Is the Pope Catholic?” is because of a little anecdote my sister shared with me a couple of weeks ago which at first made me laugh and then it made me think.
A friend of hers was at work among a group of women and someone asked a question, I can’t remember what it was, but the reply was “is the Pope Catholic?” A few seconds later a younger member of the team piped up “I’ve Googled him and yes he is. Why did you want to know? This made everyone laugh including me when my sister told me about it. Then I thought “Oh dear, religion really is in rather more trouble than we thought”. This young woman genuinely had no idea who the Pope is and I rather suspect that she is not on her own and that ignorance about religion and religious culture, customs and practices is getting more common, at least in this part of the world.
Now some might say “So what? Who cares? Why should it matter when so many people no longer regard themselves as religious in any way and many of those who do have some degree of belief don’t necessarily know much about religion and don’t think it’s important enough to pay any attention to? It’s a fair question. In my opinion it needs a meaningful and thought provoking answer because it does matter to all of us, the religious and non-religious alike.
It can be tempting to some to regard religion as out-dated and irrelevant because so often it seems to be about church that is constantly fighting with itself, a God they don’t believe in, reading bibles that they don’t understand, following rules that are inconvenient and putting up with rituals that often seem meaningless. What they fail to appreciate is that religion, or should I say religions, have been a very important part of our cultures for centuries and have been very instrumental in shaping the peoples we became and the ways and values we have lived by. While these have often been far from perfect they have to a large extent provided a framework that has enabled us to live and work together as societies far better than if everyone had been left to fend for themselves.
If we are getting it even vaguely right, faith in God forces us to look at ourselves critically and ask whether we are putting into practice in our daily lives the values we say we believe in and hopefully this makes us better people and collectively a better society. That’s what has been going on for hundreds of years and in so many ways most of us have largely benefitted from that culture.
However, for the past century, probably since the end of the First World War and largely because of it, increasing numbers of people have struggled with religious faith and left the church. They found it hard to reconcile the existence of a loving & all powerful God with the slaughter and cruelty of that war. I think it was from the 1950’s onward that this disconnect from church-going accelerated and in the last few decades, in this part of the world it has become very marked and worrying, for those of us who care.
Again it’s reasonable to ask why this matters because to a large extent the same standards that we value have been maintained. But again those who ask “Why does it matter?” fail to recognise that the generations from the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, whether religiously observant or not, grew up in a society that was still strongly influenced by the values of the faith based culture that still existed. However, this can no longer be relied on. If you have not read Alan Billings excellent book “Lost Church” I would thoroughly recommend that you do so because he explains this process far more eloquently than I ever could.
I would never for one moment suggest that religions have a monopoly on good morals and values because they don’t but at their best, and I would stress at their best, they have played a big part in instilling and nurturing these. This brings me back to our young lady who didn’t know who the Pope is. As more people grow up without any exposure to or appreciation of religious faith I wonder where that leaves them when science and reason and hard evidence don’t provide all the answers. In a world where we seem to be being pushed to be more self-centred, self-absorbed, self-indulgent and self-important, without a strong moral compass what is there to encourage us to look beyond ourselves and our own wants and needs and to make us question what we think or believe? Why should we not be selfish when that’s how the world around us seems to be and the rewards for selfishness so plentiful? As I said, religions don’t have a monopoly on goodness but it’s a tall order for any parent to instil good values like humility, unselfishness & compassion when they are not a strong or valued part of the prevailing culture. Yes we need to be aware and savvy and streetwise in order to survive and get on in today’s busy world. We have to know how to develop and promote ourselves in our careers or in our day to day dealings with the many people and institutions we encounter or we will just get left behind or over-looked or worse still not even noticed and it isn’t good to be naïve about this but being all about the self isn’t enough.
Contrary to what some people think, being a person of faith doesn’t mean you have to be bland or a door mat. There is nothing wrong with having a healthy degree of self-worth, especially if you believe that God made you and values you. But hopefully our faith also encourages us to value others and their needs too including those we will never meet, never know and some we might not particularly like or agree with. I find it truly frightening how increasing numbers of people think it’s OK to attack and vilify and bully and intimidate those who don’t share their views and beliefs. Sadly we are all too familiar with this from extremists and fundamentalists of all shades but now it seems to be becoming more common in everyday matters such as gender, sport or politics and for some it’s become an acceptable form of behaviour. Well it isn’t acceptable, it never has been and we need to make sure we don’t get sucked into it or just as importantly, silenced by it. We need to hold onto our values and to valuing each other.
In our Gospel reading from St Matthew we hear how once again the chief priests and the elders try to trap Jesus and prevent him from teaching. They want to tie him and everyone else up with rules and laws of which they are the judges in order to keep them in line. They won’t tolerate anyone doing anything without their approval and they can’t bear it when Jesus ties them in knots with their own rules and won’t be cowed into silence. Humility, even after being proved wrong doesn’t seem to be on their radar. We can all make mistakes or misunderstand and get things wrong but lacking the humility to admit it and make amends is not good. How much trouble and grief is caused because people can’t say “I was wrong”. Why do we seem so incapable or unwilling to learn from the mistakes of the past but just go on repeating them because we can’t be seen to lose face? The chief priests and elders had evolved a very precisely prescribed regime which they used to retain a tight control of the people they tended to regard as lesser than themselves. They did this in the name of religion but somewhere along the line, because they lacked humility they ended up effectively cutting God out of the process and making themselves important. I fear that in our modern world the same sort of thing is happening but the ones doing the silencing and trying to enforce their own ideas of conformity are many and varied from the individuals who troll on the internet to the biggest organisations who sometimes abuse their power.
What does religious faith have to offer in the face of all this you may wonder? As ever, Jesus is our example. He had both strength and humility and used them to good effect. He stood against the prevailing culture and challenged what was wrong. St Paul encourages us to do likewise and I think it’s worth repeating what he says,
“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus.”
Let us pray that God will give us the humility, strength and courage to do this in our lives. Amen.
Reader Kath Boyd