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Trouble at the Vatican

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A story, still building, reports that secrets from the Vatican have been leaked with the help of the papal butler and, perhaps, a high Vatican official. The Vatican denies the latter. Nonetheless it is the latest in a round of troubling events at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church including the cover up of untold numbers of events of sexual misconduct by priests and more recently, the marginalization of nuns who have devoted their lives to social justice. What is going on?

It would be wrong to assume that this article is an attack on the Vatican. It would be wrong because what is happening at the Vatican is a particular instance of a universal that affects every human being. It has to do with the meaning and purpose of institutions.

When my interfaith colleagues, Rabbi Ted Falcon and Imam Jamal Rahman, and I make a presentation, we distinguish between religion as an institution and spirituality as the substance of the wisdom teachings relating to humanity and the divine.

Religions as institutions were created to be the holders and conveyors of spirituality, and in the case of Christianity, the spiritual message of Jesus of Nazareth. But religion is not the only institution. Governments are institutions, communities are institutions, colleges are institutions, families are institutions, marriages and partnerships are institutions and our egos are our own personal institutions. The reality, we believe, is that as soon as an institution is created, it begins to leak its substance, the purpose for which it was created. It begins to leak because it requires maintenance, and maintenance is easier and more tangible than a disciplined life of spiritual practices. All institutions need to be monitored to ask whether or not the institution is fulfilling its purpose. Spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, fasting and other centering exercises are especially useful for us as individuals. But institutions involving more than one person also need an intentional system of monitoring. Otherwise, institutions become emptied of their substance and cease to fulfill their purpose.

What is happening at the Vatican is an illustration of the problem of balancing maintenance and attention to substance. But those who are involved at the levels of decision making in Vatican City are not evil people. They, like us, experience the reality that as Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. Protestants have their own share of institutional emptying, as do all religions, all institutions and each one of us. The trouble at the Vatican is making news because it is so large, so powerful, so wealthy and so visible.

Secrets are antithetical to the substance of Jesus's teachings. They suggest an inequality among people that is inconsistent with the fundamental dignity of every human being and the belief that each person is created in the image of God. Our beings have a value that is inviolable and exists apart from our "doings" and our "havings." But the power of many institutions rests on investments in "doings" and "havings" and neglects the sacredness of our beings. The Catholic Church has no corner on this market.

My prayer for the Catholic Church and for all of creation is that underneath this crisis something new is being born, something that will help us to stay aware of the need for spiritual growth, no matter our particular paths. In this I include atheists and agnostics. We all seek meaning and purpose in life. My prayer is that someday all Christians will be Catholics in that larger sense of catholic as universal. Such a reality would support the need for unity in diversity -- not to be all alike, but so we could, by acknowledging and learning from our differences, see creative and imaginative responses to conflict instead of violence and hatred. That would be truly in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus and in keeping with the substance of all spiritual paths concerned with the common good.