Like many workplaces around the world, productivity in the offices of the Death with Dignity National Center plummeted earlier this week, as our employees were engaged in the news coverage of the selection of the new pope. The selection and revealing of the new pontiff were the general topics of conversation throughout the day, and our work time together concluded with an energetic round of conclave trivia.
Interesting, I thought, for an organization whose main detractor is the Catholic Church; interesting for an organization whose main program over the past four years was derailed at the last minute by a spending spree by the Catholic Church and Catholic entities. Why were we captivated by the activities of those responsible for stamping out the reforms we’re trying so hard to achieve?
For me, the primary attraction was the ceremony and ritual of it all. Our society is nearly bereft of all ritual. Weddings and baby showers feel commercially-driven; funerals don’t have a ceremonial feel, even though they’re an important ritual for families. There are Quinceañeras and Confirmations and Bar Mitzvahs, all rituals, yes, but none with the pomp and circumstance of electing a new pope. Our presidential inauguration doesn’t even rise to the occasion—there are no red shoes, smoke, tiaras, mitres, chairs, seals, rings, cassocks, nor pectoral crosses.
Setting aside the regalia, I’m the first person to emphasize all the historic good work of the Roman Catholic Church—good work in feeding the hungry, of sheltering the homeless, of taking care of the sick. Yet, it seems this grand institution has gone wrong, and not the slightly-off-track wrong, but the completely derailed type of wrong which makes me question whether or not the Church should survive.
This is the space where my wonderment at all the trappings becomes more murky: how could those 117 men in the conclave take vows of poverty and chastity, committing their lives to caring for the most vulnerable members of society, while at the same time, using their power and prestige to launch a decades-long cover-up of one of the most troubling sex abuse scandals in history? How could the cardinals hide behind their gold crosses and their over-sized religious tomes, knowing they used their power to let down the faithful cheering for their newly-chosen pontiff?
As conversations about Pope Francis progressed among my friends, in the media, and in social media outlets, there was a sense of hope and an undercurrent of concern. Hope that the new pope would be more concerned about the poor, would be more open to the plight of those who are suffering; concern that nothing would change. The main question was whether or not the Church would remain inwardly focused on managing scandal rather than outwardly focused on the living conditions and well-being of individuals within the flock.
So, how does this relate to Death with Dignity? I’m not so naïve as to call for the Church, under new leadership, to change its position on assisted dying. However, I do hope this new pope will refocus the workings of the Church to the people within his own Church—those suffering and those in need. At the same time, it’s my hope that in refocusing on their own people, concerns, and activities, they’ll cease to expend precious resources on fighting end-of-life care reforms sought by individuals outside of their inner sanctum.
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