03/12/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated May 12, 2013

The Most Important Catholic Is.. Not the Pope

The intense media coverage of the papal conclave reminds us yet again of the pontiff''s preeminent role in this church of 1 billion souls. Most people have even heard about the Catholic doctrine positing the pope as the successor to Saint Peter and thus considered able to issue infallible pronouncements. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church teaches that the most important person is...

Someone else.

And who might that be? Well, that most important person is the one labeled "the least" -- the marginal, the oppressed, the despised, the poor, the powerless. I'm no theologian, but I have heard for a lifetime, from Catholic preachers and teachers of all stripes, that "the least" matter the most in the eyes of God.

But how does this square with an institution that is so famously -- and, in many ways, scandalously -- hierarchical, from the criminal cover-up of pedophile priests and questionable policies at the Vatican bank to gender discrimination to Vatican pomp and pomposity? And what if Catholic intellectual Garry Wills is correct when he writes that the very notion of clerical authority based on Petrine succession is a fallacious one?

Complicating the picture is the fact that the Vatican seems content to let the media grossly exaggerate the extent of the infallibility doctrine and, at the same time, present coverage of the Church that virtually ignores the doctrine requiring Catholics to follow their consciences. As for current policy debates, while the Vatican trumpets loudly its Right-wing views on sex/gender issues -- indeed sometimes turning them into litmus tests -- official Church teaching in fact stands opposed to the right on everything else, from climate change to peace to the rights of workers.

More, one could say that what matters above all in Catholic teaching is love: again, especially, love for "the least." But how do we avoid having this concept become a mere platitude, or sound patronizing? How do we begin to live up to its radical call?

"Oh Lord God, I have no idea where I am going," a Catholic might be tempted to say, invoking these opening words from the prayer by Thomas Merton. And in my anguish I recall that "love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams," as Dorothy Day used to say, quoting Dostoevsky. No wonder a conference on "The Legacies of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day" took as its theme, "What Then Must We Do?" -- or that my Day/Merton book project also speaks of questions: "Ultimate Questions: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and the Search for Compassion, Faith and Justice."

Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day is being unanimously supported for canonization by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, while the monk/writer Thomas Merton has been eliminated from the Catholic Encyclopedia. In their lifetimes, however, she was the one under suspicion by many Catholic clerics, while he was the best-selling author and monastic whose good word sometimes lent an air of respectability to her publications at the height of the Cold War.

Such are the vagaries of this 1,000-year-old Church. I bet neither Day nor Merton would be particularly surprised, even as both thought of themselves as all-too-fallible human beings: trying, in their halting ways, and by the grace of God, to live out the dictum "Of faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love."

Whatever may result from the conclave, let us seek to abide in love, especially for and with the least among us, for that is what matters above all.