That very summer, I visited Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City. I stood inside that enormous space devoted to God moved by its grandeur and beauty. (I stood there, incidentally, also moved by a slight embarrassment. On the way in, I had been forced to buy in cheap, disposable pants for five Euros to cover my Vatican-unapproved shorts.) Saint Peter’s Cathedral testifies to a “bigger is better” church design where internal markers tell us the exact proportions by which this great cathedral—under the brilliant design of none other than Michelangelo—dwarfs all others. For example, having walked around two-thirds the length of the cathedral, I spotted the marker noting where Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London would end. To be honest, within those hallowed walls, my Protestant hackles were raised. The medieval Catholic Church persuaded its members with extravagant guilt to make contributions (“indulgences”) to the church—as signs of faith—so that their dead relatives left the sufferings of Purgatory more quickly. I almost heard Martin Luther’s outcry against indulgences in the 15th century. Luther “protested,” and thus raised a major cry of the Protestant Reformation. Nonetheless—and despite losing many faithful to these upstart Protestants—indulgences formed the means by which this awe-inspiring cathedral. Simply put, the Popes had found a fundraising scheme so flawless it would make Jimmy Swaggert jealous, and Saint Peter’s was built on the backs of the poor.
But before I continue, I’d like to counterpoint my criticism by affirming all the good the Roman Catholic Church has done—all the care for poor, all the lives given hope and meaning, all the great art and architecture, Mother Theresa, Michelangelo… even Notre Dame’s college football team. And yet that was the very summer a series of sexual misconduct cases rocked the very structure of the Vatican. Like many throughout the world, I felt horror at the abuse of children’s bodies and trust at the hands of religious leaders. (Something Protestant churches haven’t been immune from either.) Worst of all remains the cover-up based on the dread that “if people know, they won’t believe in the Holy Church anymore.”
At the same time, all this grandeur and opulence of Saint Peter’s Cathedral contrasted markedly with the simple Christianity of Saint Peter himself (on whose place of martyrdom the cathedral is built). It also diverged from the simple worship of early Christians in the tombs of ancient Rome, where these early worshippers sought refuge from the imperial harassment and persecution. It seems the simplicity and integrity of the Christian faith had been easily obscured by the Roman Catholic Church’s quest over the centuries for money and influence. To quote Jesus, who sounds entirely and appropriately prophetic: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”
There you have it. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.