“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic” I was told by the Christian Brothers who taught me. Still, ever since concluding in my teens that the stuff I was required to believe just didn’t add up I’ve considered myself terminally lapsed. But this year I’ve been looking on wide-eyed as a former Buenos Aires bouncer rips up the pontiffs’ rule book and starts again, putting the “Christ” back into Christianity. It’s almost got me wishing I wasn’t an atheist.
For this Pope Francis has been named as Person of the Year by Time magazine. This is not necessarily a good thing: the award recognises impact, not ethics, and His Holiness joins a club that includes Hitler and Stalin; he shared this year’s shortlist with Bashar al-Assad. In fact so far, a cynic might observe, all the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio has done is mouth lofty sentiments and provide a few photo-opportunities. But for him to wash and kiss the feet of juvenile offenders and tell them to “help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us” is a truly powerful message. We need a voice reminding us that tenderness, mercy and compassion should be at the heart of our lives, societies and cultures. If the human race has just lost its spiritual leader, in South Africa, perhaps we shouldn’t despair: there’s a new kid on the block.
The only real naysayers this year have been people who signed up for a different version of Christianity, like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, who didn’t like his warnings about the free market – “kind of liberal”, muttered Palin, “pure Marxism,” growled Limbaugh. In fact it used to be a standing joke among lefties that Christ was the first communist, and it says much about how the good intentions of spiritual leaders become distorted that the likes of the American Right can possibly claim to follow his teachings (apart from that one about the need to be able to buy a gun without background checks, obviously). God-fearing? Possibly. Christian? Hardly. Liberal humanists like me are more Christian than someone like Palin or Limbaugh.
So might I be tempted back to Mass now the leader of my childhood religion is advocating a more inclusive and less condemning church? The big stumbling block, of course, is the not-believing-in-God thing – although there’s a philosophical position to be sketched out around the idea that Christ’s divinity, or lack of it, has no bearing on the validity or power of the things he’s supposed to have said. I could go to church as a celebration of the values symbolised by the idea of Jesus, as heralded by His representative on Earth. A few papal actions to back up the fine words wouldn’t do any harm. When I can go to my parish priest and discuss such matters with her, perhaps then I’ll call myself a Catholic again.