Religion, the pope, and the summer of discontent

Religion, the pope, and the summer of discontent

Word on the street is that the bomb placed in Times Square, near the headquarters of Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, may be in response to a South Park episode that portrayed the prophet Muhammad in a bear costume. If true, and some fanatical Muslims believe that people ought to die because of a couple of jokes on a TV show, then it’s another nail in the coffin of the public’s respect for the usefulness of religion.

Truth regardless of consequences Indeed, this is religion’s summer of discontent. Humankind’s most powerful impulse, to approach the divine, is being undermined by the directionlessness of today’s great faiths. From ongoing violence in the name of Islam, which is the most serious of all modern religious sins, to priestly pedophilia, to the evangelical fixation on gay marriage to the near exclusion of everything else, to Judaism’s impotence in purging materialism from its community, mainstream religion is being discredited, becoming increasingly irrelevant to the lives of modern men and women.

The main reason for the deterioration of modern faith is not its sins of commission but its sins of omission. People can forgive scandal in religion so long as, the rest of the time, religion guides and inspires them. But secular people see religion’s main goal today as self-perpetuation, more concerned with its timeless institutions than with the pressing needs of its flock.

Last week I met with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome after his Wednesday audience. The substance of the meeting, arranged by Gary Krupp of the Pave the Way Foundation, received significant media play because of what I asked of the pope. In essence, I pressed the pontiff, who graciously received me, to join in creating a global family dinner night on Fridays, something we have already begun with our “Turn Friday Night Into Family Night” initiative. I presented the pope with a dual-time Phillip Stein watch and told him it was set to the time zones of Rome and Jerusalem, signifying my desire to have him focus on Israel and the threat the Jewish people face from Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who openly seeks to wipe Israel off the map. And second, the dual clock-face is symbolic of my request that he take the lead in our global campaign by calling upon all the world’s parents to give their children two uninterrupted hours every Friday night, inviting two guests, and discussing two important subjects with their children.

He nodded his assent and said twice, “We will work together.”

When the papal meeting was over we met with Walter Cardinal Casper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. I continued my pitch, now with the cardinal, for the importance of the worldwide Church partnering with us to create an international family dinner night. The cardinal, a close friend of Pope Benedict for more than 40 years, strongly endorsed the idea and related his memories of family dinners with his own parents.

I made the case to the cardinal that the pedophile priest scandal had significantly undermined the Church’s standing as a champion of family. Many influential American commentators were now skewering the Church for being an all-boys club, run by men who do not marry and who had, in the imagination of some, been prepared to sacrifice the welfare of children in order to protect the reputation of the Church. What better way to reverse this perception than to use the full power and reputation of the Church to address children’s core needs, namely, receiving the love and attention of parents?

Would this not be a new and positive narrative of the Catholic Church as a champion of family, giving productive and useful advice as to how to reinvigorate the parent-child bond?

There are two kinds of children: one who receives time and love from a parent as a gift and the other who receives it, if at all, as something that must be earned. The former grows up steady and sturdy like a cedar, fortified by the ongoing validation given to him by doting parents. The other becomes a crowd-pleaser, riddled with insecurities, always feeling that there is nothing especially worthy about him and that he needs to perform and produce in order to become special. I asked the cardinal to help us populate the world with the first kind of child.

Within the Vatican hierarchy I encountered priests who were all too eager to discuss the current controversies facing the Church and who understood the need for the Church to re-emerge as a global champion of family. With the Church operating the world’s largest network of schools, hospitals, and orphanages, it is crucial that it also reach everyday mothers and fathers who are struggling to raise purposeful children in a world that celebrates narcissism and fame.

For many people, religion offers ritual but no wisdom, dogma but practically no self-help. And all the splendors of the Vatican will not save the Church from being anything other than a wonderful tourist destination if it doesn’t take the initiative and teach people to master life.

The irrelevance of modern religion is being felt worldwide. Europeans, especially, have no time for religion. Secular Israelis feel the same. Religion for them is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, forever concerned with meaningless minutiae while life’s larger issues remain unaddressed. In Israel religion is viewed as a parasite, living off the hard work of the secular people who built the state. Religion is the yeshiva that teaches meaningless texts while refusing to serve in the army.

But if religion is inevitably destined to be consigned by modern Westerners to the ranks of the useless, then why are sophisticated and highly educated people turning in their tens of millions to the Dalai Lama as their hero? It remains a striking phenomenon that people who work on Wall Street and go to Harvard believe in a man who dresses in a sheet and believes he is the incarnation of earlier spiritual teachers. The reason: The Dalai Lama addresses modernity’s greatest problem. We’re sinking in a morass of materialism that is suffocating our spirit, and he shows you the way out.

The pope has the largest microphone to the world, and with it the greatest opportunity to heal marriages that are struggling to remain intact and children who are in pain over lovelessness and neglect. An international family dinner night would be a huge step toward religion’s becoming vital again and toward the Catholic Church being seen in its true light, as a faith that is focused on protecting children and cherishing family.

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