On the Priest of St. John’s

Ah, Rome! The Eternal City. I’ve been there twice but only went to the Vatican and the Vatican Museum one of those times. It’s an amazing city for art, architecture, and history. You can’t spit for a ruin, or a church, or a ruined church. And to walk out of the Rome subway system and see the majesty of the Colosseum rise before you…it’s magic. But I want to talk about a church building and the priest of that church that does not lie within the borders of the Vatican City.

While we all know about St. Peter’s, the church I want to introduce most of you to is called St. John Lateran. It’s named for two of the Johns from the Bible–John the Baptist and John the “beloved” Apostle of Jesus. It’s located almost 3 miles of the Vatican, and, having been consecrated in the 300s, it boasts of being the oldest public Christian church still in existence in Rome and the oldest in Western Christianity (those Eastern Orthodoxers have older ones).

The priest of St. John’s at the moment has been the head of that church for the past 10 years, and he is quite an amazing fellow as those fellows go. He’s an older guy (83) who was born Mario Bergoglio. He became a Jesuit in the late 1950s and taught in seminary before becoming an ordained priest in the late 1960s. What makes him special, at least in my mind, is that for a guy who comes from such a traditional Catholic background, he’s pretty progressive when it comes to seeing his work as being one of service to others.

Let’s not debate the abuses of religion in general and Catholicism specifically in this format. Allow me to tell you what I really admire about this simple priest of St. John’s church. Here’s an example of what I mean. During August, most of Europe goes on holiday–everybody. That includes people who work in the Catholic church. That sounds reasonable until you consider that a lot of beggars come to Rome in the summers to make money off the tourists who flock there. Those people who are mostly homeless rely on the largesse of the Catholic Church for food often and even for a place to shower or to stay the night in a shelter. What Father Bergoglio did was tell his staff that they had to take their August vacations in shifts so as to not shut down the mechanisms that helped the homeless population of Rome. In other words, he argued that the Church couldn’t simply walk away and leave people without resources for a whole month. In my mind, that’s pretty noble of him. In fact, Bergoglio himself still takes some shifts in the soup kitchens during the month, even at his age. It’s the rare priest or minister who practices what he preaches.

Here’s another example. As the priest of St. John’s, Bergoglio has as one of his perks a luxurious apartment where he could live–if he so chose. However, he does not live there. Instead, he chooses to live in the much smaller and much simpler guest house. His argument is that all he needs is a bed.

These and other stances have gotten him into trouble with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He is against capital punishment. He is for a more tolerant stance regarding same-sex relationships. He has spoken out against the excesses of capitalism and has advocated for laws addressing climate change. You can see that these stances might ruffle some feathers in the Vatican, and, indeed, they have. The Catholic Church has maintained its power for hundreds of years by being traditional and unchanging, and here is one of its most high-profile priests speaking like a modern radical practically.

You might think the Pope would step in and address some of these actions and positions taken by Bergoglio. Would it surprise you to learn that the Pope actually hasn’t spoken out against what the priest of St. John’s Lateran says and does?

You shouldn’t be surprised. Pope Francis isn’t the priest of St. Peter’s Basilica, after all.

And Francis is the name Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose when he was made Pope and became the priest of St. John’s ten years ago.

On a Heresy

The issue with using religion as a base to write and enforce laws is that religion is man-made and subjective. Your religious beliefs, even if they are different from mine, are no more or less right or good. And the same is true for my religious beliefs. Two people can look at the same thing or idea or work of “scripture,” express our individual interpretations about it, and suddenly my orthodoxy becomes your heresy. And so laws based on these opinions–and that’s all that they are–are not only wrong on their faces, but they also go against basic human freedoms of liberty, justice, and equality (none of which are so-called Biblical principles, by the way).

And all of that that takes us to a case of heresy that was brought against a man in the 17th Century. At this time in what is now Italy, the Catholic Church held political as well as religious power. They prosecuted and persecuted people who did not follow the letter of the Catholic ordinances and beliefs to their interpretation of religious perfection. In this particular situation, a man simply did not agree with the church that the earth was the center of the universe, that all objects circled around our globe.

Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish astronomer and thinker, had posited a different idea, that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the Catholic model of the opposite. Now, Copernicus wasn’t the first to hold this belief; Greek astronomers and others had made the same claims centuries earlier including the concept that the earth rotated on its axis. Islamic astronomers confirmed these Greek ideas. However, it was the Copernicus proposal that this man had espoused, and it’s what the Catholic church prosecuted him for. One major reason for their prosecution at this time was because Copernicus had published his findings a century before; he drew the known planets in correct order radiating out from the heliocentric system. Many people began listening to the theory, and the Catholic Church saw this as a threat to their ways of belief and their control over what people believed.

So, they put this poor man on trial for agreeing with Copernicus. During his cross examination by the Church’s prosecutor, the man walked back his belief out of a sense that he knew the punishment for his “crime” could be severe. He said that, after careful consideration, that rather than a “belief” in the heliocentric idea, he wanted merely to use that concept as merely a starting point for scientific discussion.

We must remember that this period saw the Catholic Church under attack from the surging Protestant movement. Printing presses published ideas that countered the Church. The Renaissance and the early beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment further challenged the orthodox and monolithic Catholic faith and power. That is why trials such as this one, while seemingly over a trivial matter, were so important to the Catholic hierarchy. While this doesn’t excuse the severe abuses the Catholic Church committed during this period of the rise of heterodoxy in Europe, it does help to explain it. Sadly, similar behavior is occurring across the globe as extremists in all nations are demanding that laws be passed that match their beliefs and not that protect basic freedom of thought and belief.

The argument of the man that he didn’t actually believe Copernicus but only wanted to use his ideas as discussion points did not sway the Catholic court. They found him guilty of crimes against the Church and against God. His sentence was to be under house arrest for the remainder of his life. And that’s what happened to him.

It would take the Catholic Church 300 years before it admitted it was wrong and exonerated Galileo for his “crime.”