I can’t exactly recall the first time I heard the expression “kissing his ring” used to describe some act of subservience or homage to a superior. It may have been when the first of the Godfather trilogy came out in the early seventies. While I was too young at the time (about ten) to see the movie, I remember how culturally pervasive it was for a while, and sometime during its stretch of popularity, I learned that ring-kissing was part of the Mafia culture, or at least was according to the film; ring kissing represented the acknowledgement of where each party stood in hierarchy of power. Powerful bosses expected others to acknowledge them as such, and subordinates expected that they should; Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) would offer his hand to subordinates (i.e., everyone he met) for them to kiss.
As I wasn’t reared Catholic, and paid little attention to matters theological and spiritual as a child, it was much later, as a young adult that I found out that the whole kowtowing, ring-kissing thing originated with the Catholic Church, where deference to the quite stratified hierarchy demanded everyone who got the chance kissed the Pope’s ring; everyone but the Pope kissed the cardinal’s rings; everyone but the cardinals kissed the bishop’s rings, and so on. All as a show of respect and deference to the Catholic hierarchy through which one had to pass in order to get to the Pearly Gates.
My first impression was incredulity. Did the Catholics really believe there was a highly stratified bureaucracy of their own creation through which everyone had to pass before they had a chance at salvation, before God might hear their pleas? How absurd. What was the biblical foundation for the hierarchy? Well, of course, I couldn’t find one because there isn’t any. Jesus never mentioned anything about a Pope, let alone kissing his ring. He taught there was no earthly hierarchy at all, explaining to his followers that they needed only him—God’s Son—to gain salvation. Jesus railed so demonstrably and successfully against the Jewish hierarchy of the time that he had to repeatedly explain he wasn’t there to overthrow the law, but to fulfill it. That the hierarchically minded Jews didn’t fully accept his protestations ultimately resulted in his crucifixion.
Jesus washed his disciple’s feet as an expression of humility and servitude. Though proclaiming himself the Son of God, he never sought, nor accepted, genuflections to the power thereby implied. In fact, he actively shunned all the trappings of power, even allowing his own crucifixion, rendering a legitimacy to his message that no self-interested rabbi could ever hope to answer. How exactly did the humility and servitude of Christ get so contorted as to become the pomposity and hauteur of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy? It probably has something to do with the adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in around 312 ad. The Christian church grew quickly with the sanction of the Roman Empire (if in fits and starts with successive emperors sometimes more and sometimes less hospitable to the religion) to become something of an agency of the Empire; when the Western Empire (centered in Rome) fell in about 500 ad, the Catholic Church was left standing as the most powerful social institution in all of Europe, a condition that obtained for the next thousand or so years. The hierarchy, pomposity and grandeur of state so necessary to governance, which had, by the time of Rome’s fall, already been adopted by the Church, was tempered in the crucible of initial chaos and subsequent power accreted to the Church in the wake of Rome’s fall.
It wasn’t until the Renaissance and early Enlightenment that the Church’s hold on power, and with it, the ability to decree truth as it saw fit, finally started to wane. It was against a church hierarchy believing the conceit that it alone could divine the truths of the cosmos that Galileo allegedly whispered at his trial for heresy, “But it moves.” Over the course of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, it eventually became clear that the Catholic hierarchy had no particular insight into truth, and that its status for a thousand years as the omniscient, omnipotent arbiter of truth had rendered it utterly corrupt and ossified. The Protestant Reformation begun with Martin Luther, and the scientific discoveries of the age, from Galileo to Newton to Descartes, etc., finally broke the Church’s monopoly. But the governing hierarchy remained, fundamentally ignoring the tectonic shift in the Church’s status and role in society. There appeared to be no consideration along the way that the time might be ripe for the Church to reevaluate its fealty to the principles espoused by its founder, just as it had ignored and rejected the opportunity several centuries before.
St. Francis of Assisi (~1181-1226) was never ordained a priest. He never cared to make of his life a powerful career climbing the Church’s bureaucratic hierarchy. He never sought ring-kissing adoration. He simply tried to live, so far as such a thing is possible, as Jesus taught. He renounced the material ease of life as the son of wealthy merchant to wander the streets of Assisi in poverty, preaching the Gospel. He eventually gathered a flock of devoted followers, organizing an order (the Franciscan Order) of male believers that the Church, in the person of Pope Innocent III, was forced to recognize. He also founded an order for women (The Order of St. Claire), also officially recognized by the Church, and another order for ordinary folks who were unable to abandon their lives to wander the streets as itinerant preachers (the Third Order of Saint Francis).
It is a measure of how calcified and unresponsive the Church hierarchy had grown; of how poorly it was meeting the spiritual needs of the parishioners, and of how little regard it held for the teachings of Christ, that Francis was able to so heavily impact the Church by simply and humbly exemplifying Christ in the way he lived and ministered. Francis lived in the early thirteenth century. It might be imagined the Church would have learned from Francis’ example, yet almost three hundred years later, the Church hierarchy had grown even less responsive and more sclerotic and corrupt, prompting Martin Luther to pound his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg (in what is now Germany). Railing against the selling of indulgences to sin, the Church’s preferred means of raising money at the time, Martin Luther’s Theses swept like wildfire across Europe, instigating the Protestant Reformation and movement, ultimately rendering the Roman Church “catholic” (i.e., universal) in name only. (Whether or not Luther actually nailed his theses to the door of All Saints is disputed by historians; that the ideas contained in them quickly went “viral” is not disputed). Today, there are roughly two billion Christians across the globe, only half of whom call themselves Catholic.
Today’s Church is only a shell of its former self, and particularly so in Europe, where it first gained purchase and once reigned supreme. Of the many Europeans who self-identify as Catholic because of heritage or intermarriage, only a skeletal congregation of active participants remains. The age of reason obliterated Church authority on matters metaphysical; the rise of secular governments displaced the Church as the reigning social organization; the end result was little space left for a Church devoted to its own power and grandeur. Yet the hierarchy marched on. The modern Church has endured countless scandals, not least the epidemic of pedophilic priests taking advantage of young altar boys. Yet the hierarchy remained unbroken and unbowed, until, perhaps now.
With the election of the latest Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of Argentina, who took the name “Francis I” upon his ascension to the papacy in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the Catholic hierarchy may finally have begun to realize its fundamental bankruptcy of relevance.
Maybe the ascension of Pope Francis offers hope that the Church will set a course to become a more Christ-like organization, eschewing pomp and circumstance and self-aggrandizement for the humble and humane ways of its Christ. Maybe now the Church will concern itself more with Christian ethics and less with punitive distinctions, living up to the “catholic” in its name by recognizing that Christ welcomed one and all, from the tax collector to the whore. And maybe, just maybe, the Church will do away with the profane ring-kissing traditions. Or better, maybe the new Pope will do as Jesus did, and instead of having his ring kissed, wash the feet (at least metaphorically) of those who come to the Church seeking God’s love and presence in their lives.
St. Francis wasn’t an ordained priest, so couldn’t have offered a ring for kissing. He adopted an ascetic lifestyle, embracing the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Or, perhaps his asceticism reflected his embrace of Christ’s admonition that no man can serve two masters. Neither man nor social organization can simultaneously seek wealth and power and properly serve God. The Church must redirect its focus to serving God by becoming a living embodiment of Christ’s Greatest Commandment:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22: 37-39).
Ironically, doing so is also the Church’s only hope for reversing the diminishment in wealth, power and status it has suffered these last five hundred years. As Christ taught, to find one’s life, you must lose it. It is as true for the Church as it is for the individuals comprising it.
I am not a Catholic, nor would my beliefs even be considered Christian by most denominations. But I am catholic (little ‘c’) in the sense that I believe in one, universal God, reigning over all the universe, suffused in its every corner, animating its every living creature. And I am Christian in that I believe Christ’s teachings and example are all one needs in order to lead a fulfilled and satisfying life. I take great interest in the Catholic Church because people pay close attention to what it says and does, and when the Church can’t muster the will to behave as Christ might, it tends to invalidate Christ’s teachings and example. People reject the Christian ethic because of the bastardized manner with which it is often practiced in organized religion, particularly in the portion of it comprising Catholicism.
My best buddy from high school grew up Catholic. He recently told me he thinks he no longer believes—that the Church is just so much self-interested blarney. And it is, and has been. But that’s the Church behaving as a human organization. It is not a reflection of Christ’s teaching and example. My buddy is ready to throw out the baby with the bath water, and discard his faith altogether. I told him that would be a mistake. I told him not to hold it against Christ that a church is often the very last place to look when searching for God.
But things might be changing. A church headed by a guy paying homage to St. Francis, a man who lived as close to Christ’s ethic as is humanly possible, is a church that might soon be just the place to find Him.