Today was Pope Benedict’s last day in office.  So clearly what was called for today was the same thing that was called for a couple of weeks ago when Benedict announced his retirement:

Hilarious Pope-related snark!

Everyone propose some absolutely preposterous candidate for Pope!  Don’t be the last one to make some reference to moving to Miami and/or working as a Wal-Mart greeter!  And by all means make full use of that revolutionary innovation in the comedic arts, the Facebook meme!  Who needs Mark Twain or Richard Pryor when you can slap some Shoebox-greeting-card-level witticism on a picture of Batman slapping Robin or Gene Wilder from the original Willy Wonka movie and watch the LOLs roll in?  Oh and if you disagree with any Church doctrine, be sure to express that in some zany way!  If my recent experience of Pope humor has taught me anything, it’s that the odds are overwhelmingly good that your satire will not only be a laugh riot, it will be completely original and entirely fair-minded!  Oh and be sure to say something about how you just know that all Catholics think you’re going to hell– nothing teaches us papists to stop being so judgmental like judging us!

I know.  I’m as surprised as you are.

As a practicing Catholic, I suppose I had several different emotional reactions I could have had to the news that Pope Benedict XVI would soon revert back to being Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.  I experienced the last one in the world I would have expected:  defensiveness.

It was unexpected because frankly I was never inclined to defend Joseph Ratzinger.  I knew his well-earned reputation for advocating an ultraconservative brand of Catholicism when he was in charge of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith which oversees Catholic doctrine.  I knew he condemned liberation theology.  I knew that he and I were watching different ballgames when it came to which version of the Catholic Church we each thought our Catholic Church should be.  Father James Martin, author and editor at large for the Jesuit magazine America, pretty well spoke for me when he said that when he saw Joseph Ratzinger first emerge as Benedict XVI on to the balcony above St. Peter’s Square, he wanted to find a balcony of his own so he could jump. 

And this isn’t even Benedict XVI we’re talking about here, just Joseph Ratzinger.

The events of the last eleven years or so have made suspicious of  all bishops, even if one of them becomes the Bishop of Rome.   That is not to in any way say that  I think Benedict has at any time been guilty of the kind of unconscionable malpractice that someone like a Bernard Law has on his rap sheet.  I will nevertheless admit that when non-Catholics and Catholics alike jumped to conspiracy theory conclusions about why the Pope was resigning,  I couldn’t blame them too much.  There’s no evidence to suggest that Benedict’s resignation was part of some weird nefarious plot hatched in the dark corners of the Vatican.  There is manifest evidence to support the explanation Benedict gave for his resignation:  this is an incredibly hard job and I’m a year older than the last Pope was when he died and I just can’t hack it anymore.  All the same, given that no pope has resigned in six centuries, and given the way sex abuse scandal after sex abuse scandal has detonated time and again since 2002, and given how when it all began we all thought there was no way it could be true, how can I look at anyone and say they’re crazy to even think there was something fishy going on?  Benedict made some effort to make that whole sorry sinful situation better.  He’s spoken out and he’s written and he’s disciplined and he’s met with victims.  Well and good, but not nearly enough.

Yet with all that, after he announced that he was stepping down and everyone with a talk show or a Twitter account picked on the guy, I found myself becoming offended.  What is that about?

To be perfectly honest, a lot of it just wasn’t that funny.  Stephen Colbert did a nice job of course.  Father Martin made me laugh.  Everyone else’s efforts were one step up from jokes about Bingo.   Nothing funny, nothing insightful.  You can be as biting and as critical as you want if you’re funny.  Otherwise, you’re just going to irritate me.

That’s the urbane sophisticated part of why I was bothered.  The other part is perhaps as parochial as the schools I attended, but nevertheless true.

That is still my Pope and this is still my Church.  By zinging this Pope, it felt  like my Church was being zinged and zinged in really tired, almost cliched ways.   That bothered me.  And it bothered me that no one seemed to understand why it would bother me.

I don’t love everything this Pope did.  When was the last time you loved everything a President did (and if you have an answer other than “never”, I think you need more democracy practice)?  You can be critical of a President and still have the decency to wish him well when he ends his term in office honorably.    I don’t love everything my Church does.  I know there’s plenty in its past and its present for which it can and should be held accountable.  I can say the exact same for the United States.  For all the evils the United States has to answer for, I love being American, I’m proud of the good this country has done and still does, and have no plans to leave.  There’s nothing heroic in this.  I’m hardly unique as patriots go.  In my experience, the overwhelming majority of people who love this country can still give you a list as long as your arm of everything that’s wrong with it.   Moreover, most people I know find this to be perfectly reasonable:  loving an institution, wanting to be part of an institution, while still being frequently and even harshly critical of it.

On the other hand, apply the same approach to being a Catholic and people don’t believe you.

If you’re a Catholic, you’re supposed to agree with everything the Catholic Church has ever done and is doing right?  You’re all supposed to have the same opinions on absolutely everything under the sun.  You all think exactly alike.  Isn’t that how it works?

No.  That’s how the stereotype works.

We Catholics aren’t of one mind any more than any other huge affiliation of people   are.  Remember we had two Catholic candidates for Vice President– Paul Ryan and Joe Biden.    We argue and fight and generally carry on like lunatics in the fashion of most of the rest of the world.

What keeps us together?  Frankly, we love being Catholic.

We love the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We love the Blessed Mother.   We love that the Word Incarnate was an itinerant preacher in Israel who taught us loving your neighbor as yourself was all God ever wanted from any of us.  We love that God loves us all so much that even if I were all that  was of humanity and acted like total scum, Christ still would have died on the cross for me.

We also love the Sacraments.  We love Mass, Baptism, First Communion.

And not for nothing, but we also love First Communion parties with cross-shaped sheet cake, those stupid felt banners from the 70s, the  St. Patrick’s Day dinner dance, the parish bazaar, and the St. Vincent De Paul Society giving tree at Christmas.   And by God, some of us even love a little Bingo now and then, you got a problem with that?

We love all that stuff because that’s the stuff (even the cross-shaped sheet cake) that makes you Catholic.

These last couple of weeks, I discovered we love the Pope too.  Even when we don’t.  In fact, especially when we don’t.

If you’re not Catholic, I don’t expect you to understand.  Just lay off Cardinal Ratzinger.  Unless you’re going to be funny about it.

In the meantime…God bless, Holy Father emeritus.