This week, Pope Francis took the extraordinary step of labeling capital punishment an attack on human dignity. In taking this stance on executions, the Pope changed the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, a formational document, which had previously accepted the death penalty as a means of saving lives. For many Catholic parents, the change will bring consistency to a doctrine of love that makes church teachings slightly easier to explain to children, who are naturally adept at ferreting out hypocrisy. By leaning into a theology of dignity for all and working to apply a consistent approach to earthly issues, Pope Francis continues to make it easier to raise Catholic kids by establishing and reiterating an overarching theme: God loves everyone. Period.
I am a “Cafeteria Catholic.” I have owned that supposedly derogatory term ever since my faith journey led to my middle-age conversion to Catholicism. By and large, my beliefs are consistent with church doctrine and with the views expressed by Pope Francis. Like the Pope, I believe in environmental stewardship, justice for the poor, support for immigrants and refugees, and the abolishment of the death penalty. Basically, I believe in fairness. So do my kids because that’s what kids understand.
A doctrine of fairness, which is to say a doctrine of consistency, is appealing to me as a Catholic parent because it allows me to use fewer words to build a stronger faith in my boys. The church can be confusing. (What is the communion of the saints? What is the Holy Ghost?) Everything gets easier when the religion becomes a vessel of love and forgiveness. A pro-death penalty stance simply didn’t track with that.
Faithless kids don’t fall into crevasses of doubt, they fall into caveats. They call bullshit. Pope Francis has consistently made that harder.
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One of my boys’ favorite catch-phrases is “But you said … ” I hear it all the time. It’s a dialectical gambit that never fails to catch me in my hypocrisy. It’s maddening. For instance, my 7-year-old might catch me cramming cheese crackers into my face moments after scolding him for doing the same thing so close to dinner. “But you said eating cheese crackers before dinner will ruin your appetite,” he’ll protest. My only possible retort? “I’m bigger than you.”
And that’s essentially how the church has historically responded when parishioners point to an inconsistency in doctrine and offer, “But Jesus said … ” Francis is taking great pains to fix those inconsistencies. He started doing so the second the miter was placed on his head. I still remember his first Holy-Thursday foot-washing rite based on Christ’s example of washing his disciple’s feet. Previous Popes had decided to wash the feet of priests. It was a nice gesture, though it really didn’t align with the supposed humility and service of the act. Francis changed that. He washed the feet of young inmates in a Rome reformatory, including two girls, which set many conservative Catholics on edge.
Through acts like washing the feet of prisoners, Francis is essentially doubling down on the fact that Christ gave his disciples two great commandments in addition to the original 10: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
The nice thing about those commandments is that they are simple enough for both me and my children to follow. I dig that.
Now, does that mean I agree with everything the Catholic church does since the papacy of Francis? No. I’m still very conflicted about abortion, for instance. And the church’s stance on homosexuality and women in the clergy remains backward, at best. But the church is a massive institution. It does not, and frankly cannot change directions quickly (the change to doctrine on the death penalty is basically a course correction). That said, I remain a Catholic because I have faith that, as time goes on, more doctrine will be aligned with scripture.
Does that mean I’m still a Cafeteria Catholic? Probably, but it also means my plate now spilleth over.
It also means I’m increasingly happy to raise my boys as Catholics. As Francis demonstrates, it is meant to be, above all, a religion of love. That’s incredibly easy to teach and defend. Perhaps more importantly, it’s easy to understand.