Some months ago, a large part of the World’s population turned their attention to Rome. One Pope was dead, another was to be chosen, and people came together before St Peter’s, waiting to hear if the conclave had made a decision.
Even today, in this world of tweets and texts, immediate connectivity and all that, the conclave does things the old way. They use smoke. It’s sort of reassuring, isn’t it, that this bastion of faith, the Catholic Church, sticks to their traditions. The cardinals enter, are locked in, debate and vote. Once one of their number has been elected, up goes the white smoke and the populace in the huge square before the cathedral cheer. “Habemus Papam!” they call – well, the more traditionalist among them do. Others just yell “we have a new pope!”
It used to be cardinals would bribe their colleagues to become Pope. For men who entered the church more out of duty than vocation, the career ladder held a lot of appeal. Let’s face it; very, very many of those who took holy orders in the past did so not because they wanted to but because it was demanded of them. By their fathers and their overlords so as to ensure spiritual and temporal powers marched arm in arm… Besides, for an ambitious and talented young man, the Church was an attractive option. Very. Not so any longer, right? Hmm. Anyway; back to the present.
Since some months, the Catholic Church has a charismatic new leader. Pope Francis. I rather like this new Pope. He’s like a breath of fresh air, a surprisingly vibrant Pope that reminds me of John Paul II when he was recently elected. That Pope bounded about as if he’d found the spring of eternal youth – well, initially, at least. Pope Francis has the same air of buzzing energy around him, add to this a marked lack of interest in the material trappings that go with his position and a seemingly genuine interest in helping the poor and needy, and Francis comes across as being likeable. I wouldn’t know of course. I’ve never met the man, chances are I never will, but from what I’ve heard he has good taste in literature too, which sort of puts him in the “people I like” category.
I am, however, somewhat confused by his recent statements: you see, dear all, I am glad to announce we can all relax. Okay, maybe not all, but the majority of us can stop worrying about hell everlasting. As per the new pope, anyone who follows their conscience need not worry about being consumed in eternal flames, no matter if they profess belief in God or not. Now that is a nice and generous approach to non-believers – well to humanity as a whole. It does, however, raise some issues. “Follow your conscience,” the pope says, going on to add that if you do, you are at least trying to be good. Well, that would depend on what my conscience tells me to do, doesn’t it?
Take the 7th commandment “Thou shalt not steal”. That’s pretty straightforward. It doesn’t leave room for moral ambiguity, it doesn’t indicate that the ends may justify the means. In essence, it tells us to keep our hands off stuff that doesn’t belong to us. Over the centuries, stealing has been perceived as a most heinous crime by those that have. People could be hanged for horse theft. So even if you were stealing from the rich man to share with your poorer brethren, you were breaking one of God’s commands. Sin = lost soul = hell. Back in the good old days, the church threw its might behind the laws that hanged for theft but did nothing when the lord of the manor allowed his serfs to starve. Irritating people such as John Ball (read more here) or that little pest Francis of Assisi argued that the church should use its considerable power to protect the weak and needy instead. Some churchmen definitely did. Many more didn’t, seduced by the power that beckoned by sitting at the right-hand side of the temporal lords.
Going back to Pope Francis, his comment would give me leeway to interpret “Thou shalt not steal”. Gone is the black and white, instead we’ve ended up in a grey zone. If I see one man rolling around in mounds of riches while children starve at his gates, I would probably consider myself justified in stealing from him to feed the ragged urchins. The rich man in question would not be pleased. Our consciences would, so to speak, be out of sync.
This is a very simplistic example. Most of us would consider compassion a mitigating circumstance for certain crimes. My intention is rather to highlight the fact that if we leave it up to each and every one of us to define what is “good” and what is “bad”, we will find ourselves with a very broad spectrum. Human societies require some sort of normative framework – which is what laws and moral codes give us, which is what the Church – albeit not always to the benefit of all – has done for centuries.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Pope Francis’ attempts to make his beliefs more inclusive are commendable. I have no problem with encouraging people to follow their conscience – the world would be a better place if more of us did. But let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page here, okay? The pope’s statement could lead us to conclude that being good is relative rather than absolute. That, I think, could lead to some pretty scary consequences.
Most of us know good from evil. Most of us listen to that voice of conscience that stops us from doing really bad stuff. But some of us don’t, and I for one don’t want them to join me in the hereafter, smirking contentedly as they snap their fingers to a passing angel to order a re-fill of their nectar-and-honey cocktail.
“Hey, I was only following my conscience,” this redeemed sinner might say. “It told me to ravage them and kill them, they were sort of asking for it.” Huh. I sure hope there’s a well-placed trapdoor up there in heaven, a narrow chute that will transport such slime balls to where they belong; in hell everlasting.