By Rudy Barnes, Jr., January 7, 2023
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died last week at age 95. He was a conservative Pope who opposed change in the world’s largest church. His successor, Pope Francis, represents change in an institutional church that has been resistant to change, and has had difficulty promoting progressive change in ancient Catholic doctrines that have not kept pace with the times.
Religions, like politics, evolve with the times. The 17th century Enlightenment brought major changes in politics and religion in the Western world based on reason and advances in knowledge. Thomas Jefferson promoted democracy and a progressive form of Christianity that considered the moral teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.”
Thomas Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment who recognized that “as new truths are disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.” That’s true for political, legal and religious institutions; but change in religion has been slower than in other institutions.
The Catholic Church has long been the world’s largest religious institution with a massive bureaucracy that stifles change. While churches welcomed democracy to replace authoritarian regimes based on the divine right to rule, even in Protestant churches the Enlightenment sparked a fundamentalist backlash to any progressive changes in their exclusivist doctrines.
After centuries of progressive change in politics, there has been little change in Catholic doctrines like the celibacy of priests that defy reason and common sense, and in other church doctrines that assert the divinity of Jesus as a requirement of salvation--even if they were man-made to promote the popularity of Christianity, and were never taught by Jesus.
In a post-Christian era, exclusivist church doctrines that begin with belief in Jesus Christ as a Trinitarian form of God and the only means of salvation have rarely been questioned. Jesus was a Jew who taught that the spiritual power of God’s love could transform people into children of God; but he never suggested that he was divine, or advocated a new religion.
Christians have long confused God’s message with the messenger. Paul initiated the holy confusion with his doctrine of atonement (see Romans 3:25). The teachings of Jesus were summarized in the the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves, and to seek to be reconciled with each other.
Jesus was a maverick Jewish rabbi who taught a radical message of love over law. Jewish leaders of his day taught that Mosaic Law was God’s standard of righteousness. They were so offended by the teachings of Jesus that they collaborated with Roman authorities to crucify Jesus. Today only a few maverick progressive Christians challenge traditional church doctrines that defy reason, and they are considered pariahs by the mainstream church.
On the conflicts between the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the more progressive Pope Francis, see How Benedict, first German pope in centuries, lost sway with the German church. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/. See also, Pope Benedict XVI, defender of orthodoxy defined by historic resignation, dies at 95 at https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/12/31/pope-benedict-xvi-death-obituary-225610?utm_source=piano&utm_medium=email&utm.
On celibacy, there’s a story of a monk in an ancient monastery making copies of the Gospel accounts who went running to his Abbot, exclaiming: “the word is celebrate not celibate!” While intended only to be humorous and not historical, it’s not hard to imagine that ancient misunderstandings were made that produced anachronisms made sacred in ancient Scripture.
Thomas Jefferson was a deist who held the teachings of Jesus in high regard while he detested church doctrines. In 1804 he wrote: “I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in utmost profound detestation and execration, the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man.” Jefferson assembled The Jefferson Bible on the moral teachings of Jesus, and many biblical scholars consider Jefferson prescient in separating the actual teachings of Jesus from what the gospel writers had likely put on his lips. Robin Meyers echoed Jefferson’s criticism in Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus. See Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/jeffersons-jesus-and-moral-standards-in.html. Also
Musings on the Evolution of Christianity into the American Civil Religion (December 10, 2022)
On the mixed messages of God in the atonement doctrine and the greatest commandment, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2021/07/musings-on-mixed-messages-of-god-in.html.
On the Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism, see http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/08/the-universalist-teachings-of-jesus-as.html
On love over law, see Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Love Over Law and Social Justice at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2019/07/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on-love.html.
The core values of progressive Christianity express a modern version of Christianity that is not exclusivist and hostile to Judaism and Islam. See https://progressivechristianity.org/.