The Catholic Church, the BBC and the new Pope – a Buddhist view

The appointment last week of a new pope has made me think and chant lots about my Catholic upbringing. And it has stirred in me a mix of emotions. At first I felt really angry that my favourite BBC radio station (5 Live) dropped all their other news and sports stories to broadcast almost non-stop speculation for 45 minutes about what colour puff of smoke would emerge from the Vatican (who, it has to be said, do theatre incredibly well.)

Pope Francis

The reporter’s tone was one of excitement and hushed reverence, of the sort we normally hear during coverage of a British royal wedding. I felt this was inappropriate, for an organisation whose treatment of women, homosexuals and sexually abused children leaves a lot to be desired. And also because I reckon only 20,000 of the programme’s 1 million UK listeners actually attend Catholic mass on a Sunday. I argued that there were probably more ex-Catholics than practising Catholics listening to the broadcast. I shared this view on a BBC blog, but it was deleted by the BBC for being too provocative. It was then allowed to appear after all when I emailed them to appeal against their censorship.

I spent some time last week chanting about all this media coverage, partly because I felt angrier than was good for me. I realised that I have mixed feelings about the Church. In my 20s it took me two whole years to wrestle myself away from Catholicism and to become a Buddhist, partly through a fear of God striking me down. In the end, my growing courage and Nichiren Buddhism’s emphasis on humanity’s inherent magnificence appealed to me more than the Catholic emphasis on our innate sin and guilt. Likewise I prefer Buddhism’s focus on challenging rather than coping and on winning over our weaknesses rather than on consolation. And yet I am grateful for being brought up in the church as it gave me a benchmark to compare other religions with and the Christian ideals of Love, Charity and Peace are still values that I hold dear. And as a Buddhist I believe that karmically I ‘chose’ to be born in a Catholic family anyway. But I am still a Buddhist after 28 years because I feel that chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is a more powerful tool to use than any kind of prayer I was taught as a Catholic.

Due to my family heritage I have been to more Catholic weddings and funerals than Buddhist ones. I still find some hymns very moving and powerful. A particular favourite is Allegri’s Miserere, inspired by Psalm 51, I would actually like that one played at my own (Buddhist) funeral. Yet I cringe when I hear members of a congregation saying: “I am not worthy to receive you,” (where ‘you’ = Jesus) because in Buddhism this represents deep self-slander. And I have always wondered, how can you “love thy neighbour as thyself” if you do not love yourself in the first place?

Then again I like the sense of mystery, theatre and belonging you can get in a church service. And we had some very charismatic priests when I was growing up. But we had some not so great ones as well and I grew disillusioned with the way that the spiritual experience depended on the personality of the priest and the fact that there seemed to be a ‘middle-man’ between me and the divine power of the Universe. Then again, in terms of his behaviour as a human being, Jesus was an incredible example of the Compassion and Justice that Buddhism also teaches.

And I have also had the privilege of knowing some quite extraordinary Catholics. One of them was a Dominican monk called John Orme Mills OP (1930-2010) whom I met on a train 25 years ago. John was a very intelligent but also enlightened man (with a high SQ as well as EQ and IQ) and I always felt his wisdom, courage, joy and compassion – the qualities of Buddhahood – shining from his life. He found Buddhist teachings very intriguing and I used to joke that he would chant in his next lifetime… (and incidentally he would have made a lovely Pope 🙂 ).

... a great friend, would have been a lovely Pope
John Orme Mills OP… a great friend, would have been a lovely Pope

I know very little about this new pope. It is highly unlikely I will ever meet him in person. But I will chant about him as I would anyone else, with a determination to see his innate Buddhahood and to feel deep respect towards him, even if I disagree with much of what he says and much of what the church represents. I will celebrate and feel grateful for the Catholic teachings that I find valuable, argue against the teachings I find damaging and maintain unconditional positive regard for anyone who practises their faith with sincerity and a seeking heart

As French philosopher Joseph Joubert said: “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress.” When we find this idea difficult, it is often because we are trapped in a narrow and damaging ‘tribal’ mindset.

Commenting on his approach to dialogues with people of different faiths, SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says: “Choosing dialogue is the key to building peace and achieving a victory of our inner humanity. The greater the differences between us, the more I concentrate on trying to understand as deeply as possible the other person’s thoughts and feelings.” 


PS.  A Catholic monk from New Zealand recently contacted me on Facebook, suggesting a Buddhist-Catholic dialogue. Unfortunately his message disappeared from my FB account before I had a chance to note down his email address and reply. So if you are that monk and are reading this, please contact me again by leaving a comment below. I think your name might be Graham, but I cannot be sure… I would love to hear from you.

45 Replies to “The Catholic Church, the BBC and the new Pope – a Buddhist view”

  1. It’s always nice to read your posts. They set me thinking and deepen my belief in the faith. Thank you.

  2. Lynette Hare says:

    An excellent, well balanced and thought-provoking article.

    1. Thanks Mum! D 🙂 x

  3. suekingtonsmith says:

    Your article is terrific. I wish I could express myself half as well as you! Thank you for this.

    1. Thank you Sue for your kind comment. Very best wishes, David

  4. Sam Tharby says:

    is great to read your Spoon stuff Dave , i like to here some genuine thoughts about the pope christianity church , , last week was at catholic funeral
    very moving church sevice and two songs i really loved were Lord of the Dance and Hossanna somthing like that
    i remember these songs from childhood and was really moved

    1. Christine Conlon says:

      Hello Sam (your message 18th March)
      All Christian churches benefit from a rich source of prayer, which is reflected in the vast number of hymns available, both old and new. There are many kinds of such prayer to be found in the Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Evangelical Churches; in Taizé chants, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and Neo-Catechumenate worship, all of which sustain, give hope, strengthen faith and defeat the enemy. I agree that ‘’Give me joy (peace, love) in my heart, keep me praising’’ and ‘’Lord of the Dance’’ are beautiful. The lyrıcs of these and many more can be found on the Internet.

  5. karen dobres says:

    Yes, I really enjoyed that, and the whole concept of thanking the spoon. I’ve been practising this Buddhism for over 20 years now, and was also brought up Catholic. I agree with your comments and am also glad to have been brought up Catholic. I have difficulty with the way the media portray the Pope as being a moral leader for everyone, given the terrible things his religious organisation has tried to cover up. What’s more I feel that Catholicism cannot lead the way on anything, it rather has some catching up to do on soooo many issues. Thanks for a sensitive and thought-provoking read.

    1. Hi Karen, many thanks for your kind comments and I think we are just two of many thousands of ex-Catholics attracted to Nichiren Buddhism! The issue of ‘moral leadership’ that you mention is an interesting one and I am beginning to feel that the very notion of ‘morality’ is past its sell-by-date… I will write about this another time. Take care, Dx

  6. bearprint says:

    It is difficult to view him as anything other than a villain. He took over after his predecessor stepped down for health issues (but coincidentally was also personally responsible for the cover up of over 2000 cases of child abuse) and still espouses the same backwards, bigoted views. If the media is going to cover the choosing of a new pope, they should approach it as what it is: a new leader in the world’s most dangerous, sexist, homophobic and wealthy cult – and one with a solid history of hiding pedophiles. Is there really a Buddhist dialogue to be had with such a group or leader?

    1. Mike, understand your anger & my post on the BBC blog was not dissimilar in parts. But I also feel it’s important to distinguish between the ‘group’ and individuals, as Mel T does in his comment on this post. And I am reminded of SGI President Daisaku Ikeda’s response when his fellow Japanese criticised him for opening dialogues with Communist leaders in USSR & China in the 1970s – when asked why he was visiting those controversial regimes, he simply said: “Because there are human beings there.” I also like Gandhi’s comment: “An eye for an eye and the whole world will be blind.”
      Best, David

  7. Michael Bowie says:

    This is the best way to open up dialogue, especially since we live in a Christian country. In the Gosho, “Selection of the Times” & “The Time, Country, Teaching, and Capacity of the People” I am doing the same thing…The new Pope is Jesuit…this is very big constrast to the norm of Popes being elected, because the Jesuits, through Saint Ignatius, rejected the idea of a Pope separate from the People and all desires equal education regardless of their economic status or station in life.

    1. Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. Could you please tell me more about what you mean when referring to the gosho you mention, especially for non-Buddhist readers of this site? Thnx, David

  8. Mel Turcanik says:

    Hi David,
    Thank you for this heartfelt article. It resonates deeply with me since I’ve had some very similar experiences. I had much, and to some degree still carry some anger for the guilt and fear promoted by the church. But when I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism, my one reservation about receiving the Gohonzon was that I was taught that if I did so, I would burn in hell forever. The person introducing me to the practice simply asked me, “Do you really believe that?” Of course, I didn’t and 44 years later I still chant “Nam myoho renge kyo.” But another friend and mentor in faith pointed out to me that much of what enabled me to accept the practices of Nichiren Buddhism came from my Catholic upbringing. I used to enjoy going with my father to novenas. The meaningless hours of recitation of hail Marys then make my determined chanting now easy. Just to be comfortable with the idea of prayer is a powerful gift.

    Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with Catholic nuns and priests and found them to be very open to dialogue about a wide range of subjects. I believe that the Catholic church, like any organization, has a wide variety of points of view held by it’s members, not all line up perfectly with the leadership. Sometimes perspectives from a different faith help me clarify and strengthen my own.

    1. “Just to be comfortable with the idea of prayer is a wonderful gift,” hadn’t thought of that, so true, like it, thanks Mel.

    2. Christine Conlon says:

      Hello Mel,
      I agree that being comfortable with prayer is a gift but it’s a gift that we can constantly develop. Like you, for most of my life I’ve found reciting novenas and the Rosary repetitive and boring (compulsory family Rosary on our knees as children during the month of October!). The prayers that followed, such as the De Profundis I found beautiful and have never forgotten.

      I have a very bad temper at times, can be judgmental (used to be more so), have patience with strangers but am impatient with my husband (especially) and family members. I can be demanding and controlling, in short, not very kind to those closest to me. I struggle every day but I believe that a rich prayer life (also supported by Taizé chants, St Louis Jesuits, Songs of Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Neo-Catechumenate songs, traditıonal and new hymns, and some pop music) can lead to spiritual growth and renewal and, by examining our consciences at the end of each day we can reflect on how we stand before God and aim to do better the next day.

      Temporarily living in Turkey I’m not able to join in prayer groups or meetings about faith in English, so I welcome this blog by my nephew David.

      1. graywills says:

        Hi Christine,
        I am constantly reminded that through the mystery of prayer we are never alone but meeting, with and through the Holy Trinity, the entire Communion of Saints in heaven and in earth.
        Yes, David has some wonderful insights and beautiful thoughts to share.

  9. lourd says:

    love your post…you took 2 whole years before you decide to embrace Buddhist teachings…It took 9 years for me to decide to embrace Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism….I was born as a Catholic and also practice being born again christian and preach the bible…learned a little bit from Koran…after reading an article about Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin…I find myself reading more books about Buddhism, monthly magazines…after I understand, and with no hesitation, i took faith in 1996 after 9 long years…i understand now the significance of chanting Nam myoho renge kyo in one’s life…

  10. Nisha says:

    A superb article! We are all so fortunate to be a part of the SGI and this philosophy that helps us break the shackles of the lesser self. I truly enjoy reading your posts and share many of them. Thank you

    1. Thank you for your kind comments and also for spreading the love. Best, Dx

  11. tan thomas says:

    It is always very rewarding to read your post. In fact, practically every day looking through my email I hope there is an articles from you, Thank you David for all the hard work

    1. Pleasure Treasure! I am aiming to do a post once every 5 days – when work, family and SGI activities permit. Thank you for your positive comments. Best, David

  12. Nalini says:

    Enjoyed reading your comments. Very interesting

  13. Christine says:

    Thank you David for what you have shared here. It did my heart good—-made me feel happy; yet made it race too as I was taken back to the “Christian” Cult–“the Bruderhof” which I was brought up in. The Catholic Church appears to me as a Cult.. (On the side, the whole election of a Pope is a “monkeys theatre”, as my husband puts it, as far as I am concerned. How can a single man be so exalted above others when we know that we can go straight to and are part of Source rather than through a “special” person first) I have a profound dislike of all that is religion and see spirit and spirituality as very different. Religion seems like a man-made Institution to me, whereas Spirit is purely unconditional love. I find myself very happy with Buddhism as it is not religion and I gather so much Truth from readings and sayings there of.In my experience the most deeply hurt and confused clients seem to come from a Religious background and in so far the mind contradicts the heart, their mind battling for what they SHOULD be, and think, sometimes being unable to hear their own heart/truth and who they really are. We all are inclined this way, however, religious people seem to struggle more to overcome and love themselves.
    It is refreshing to hear you and all others’ comments. Thanks

    1. Thank you Christine for your detailed and very interesting comments. I had never heard of Bruderhof and you are right, some people call RC church a cult – child abuse, worship of a man bleeding to death on a cross, threat of damnation, people being baptised 18 years earlier than necessary and so on… All of that can look culty from the outside. One of the things I love about Nichiren Buddhism is that it encourages the blossoming of your individual personality, gifts, talents and True Identity. I would call it a religion though, or definitely a ‘practice’ – I chant for 1.5 hours a day and this gives direct connection to what you call ‘Source’ and Buddhists call the Mystic Law of Universe. Also because I am part of a Buddhist organisation (SGI) though I prefer to call it a movement (with world peace as its goal) and find that I do much more ‘human revolution’ with other people than I would just practising on my own. In fact, world peace is only possible if enough people transform their personal sufferings. And of course there are no rules or SHOULDS in this Buddhism, though because of the Law of cause and effect it is of course the strictest teaching of all in terms of personal accountability – the ‘ultimate adult position’ as a Buddhist counsellor once described it to me. Look forward to reading more of your insights. Dx

  14. Christine says:

    Hi again! great to hear what you have said; gives me more to digest and think about. I love your words “world peace is only possible if enough people TRANSFORM THEIR PERSONAL SUFFERINGS” That makes my heart sing; and yes, its needed that we are on course together; the more people, the more Light energy and Love energy out there. This is bound to bring peace. Our sufferings enable us to know Love so much more intimately.I have much to learn about Buddhism. I thought that there was no “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” type of flavour put into it from the Buddha, but rather pearls of wisdom that anyone can either take or leave?That to me would not be religion?Maybe when we make vows we start to become religious?I fall shy of Vows, especially to groups—I like yes as yes, and no as no, with no added fancy frills. 🙂
    Thank you for your answer and I look forward to more pearls of wisdom, and anything else thrown in!

    1. Hi again,
      It is hard to generalise about Buddhism as there are so many different “flavours” that evolved after the Buddha’s passing, adopting elements from different cultural traditions in different countries. The Nichiren school that I follow is very different to most other types in having no rules or ‘shoulds’ about life choices such as alcohol, meat, sexuality etc… In fact academics studying SGI are always surprised by the ethnic, class & educational diversity of our movement, compared say, to Zen which is seen as mostly white middle class intellectual. Nichiren was a radical who emphasised everyone’s potential for Buddhahood in this lifetime, even women, who are seen by most Buddhist schools as needing to be reborn as a man to become a Buddha! In one letter to a lady disciple, written in 1279 feudal Japan, he reassured her that her enlightenment was: “as certain as the fact that the moon is reflected in clear waters.”
      May your heart always sing 🙂
      Best, David

  15. simon spence says:

    David Hare for Pope!

  16. Gabriel says:

    Hi David,
    I respect your article. I am a buddhist living in Australia. I became a member of SGI in 1986 in Argentina at the age of 12. Most of my family are SGI members. I was roman catholic before (same as all my family who are French-Italian origin).

    When it comes to this gentleman who became pope, my father used to employ one of his brothers (who has since passed away) and had the opportunity to know Pope Francis from late 80’s when he was a simple priest who used to take the bus to go and do his job (helping people). He still took the bus until less than 1 month ago before his trip to Italy to become pope. All I can see is that he is genuine and as a human being, he has done many things for the poor people and he is very humble. I really hope many people in our society do the same for others. When I see his attitude he actually reminds me of SGI concepts of being compassionate to others. He is now the pope, but very tactful he is showing already a change on where he is not wearing pope attire all the time, takes the bus with the rest of the priests within the vatican, along with other humble approaches (which other popes will never allow). I heard that he wants to change the church for something more actual but in the end changes can’t be from one day to another (specially for one of the oldest churches in the world). He will have a lot to deal with (specially when it comes to those grey or dark stories surrounding the vatican and some priests around the world) but in the end, that is his mission. He is not perfect as he is still another human being (same as Sensei, Greg, you or me).

    Anyway, just thought to write to you about him. Glad to read you.


    Gabriel – SGIA WA

    1. Hi Gabriel, many thanks for sharing your experience and it was fascinating to hear about your father and the pope.I have heard from another blogger that the Women’s Division Leader of SGI has already met with Pope Francis and brought a message from Sensei – how wonderful to see all this dialogue! I look forward to hearing from you again. Best, David

  17. Beth Virani says:

    David, Great perspective! Having been steeped in Catholic devotion and heritage since birth, and becoming dissolusioned with it as a teen, I found Buddhism to be as you have so aptly put it. As others have commented, it does give you a reference point.

    I was also glad to see the following news item this week. Not sure if this is totally accurate, but HERE IS ONE TRANSLATION FROM AN ARTICLE IN AN ITALIAN NEWSPAPER:

    21/03/2013: The Institute of Buddhist Italian Soka Gakkai was officially invited to the Vatican to hold an audience with the new Pope Francis, for a meeting between the Holy Father and the religions recognized in our country. At the end of the speeches there was the ritual greeting of the Bishop of Rome. During the event was a brief meeting was held between the Head of the SGI-Italy’s National Women’s Division, Mrs. Asa Nakajima and His Holiness Pope Francis. Ms. Nakajima brought greetings from the SGI President, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda and the Soka Gakkai Buddhist community as a whole along with some gifts. His Holiness, returned her smile affectionately. In the picture he is focused on the Juzu given to him from President Ikeda via Mrs. Nakajima as a symbol of prayer and as a basis of faith.

    On the day of the Pope’s installation ceremonies, how refreshing to see the new pope already reaching out to connect with the leaders of other world religious organizations. I am so happy that our SGI world-wide Buddhist organization was included, because as you say it is the all-important dialogue that is key.

    All the best, Beth Virani, SGI Member in Los Angeles

    1. Hi Beth, many thanks for this, I had no idea that an SGI leader had already met the Pope – great news and very interesting indeed that Sensei sent juzu beads. Warmest wishes, NMHRK, David

  18. Trish says:

    Thank you all for your insights on this new Pope, on being raised as a Roman Catholic and your perspectives on our Buddhist practice. This is the first I’ve seen this blog and I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated it!

    1. My pleasure Trish, look forward to seeing more of your comments. Warmest wishes, David

  19. Di8anne says:

    OMG, your experience and take on Catholic upbringing and Buddhist total conversion resonates COMPLETELY with me. Mom –total
    Catholic (Dad total artist Norwegian). I attended 16 years of Catholic education, last 4 in Jesuit college which thrust me into eastern philosophy through enlightened thinkers. I too am appreciative of my Catholic early influence and regard Jesus as a Bodhisattva and treasure the words from the new testament that are deeply
    Buddhistic. It has taken me years to overcome my “anger”/ridicule of Catholicism and feel appreciation to my mother for doing her best to give me solid moral values and great discipline for my academic career. (I teach theatre to lausd elementary kids!) keep on keepin’ on David.
    dianne bye
    [email protected]

    1. Gr8 story Dianne, thnx 4 sharing. Dx

  20. marga says:

    Thank you David! Thank you dan for your post !

  21. graywills says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful and precious thoughts. Indeed, there is real hope for the Latin Catholic church – it would also appear that Pope Francis intends to enlarge on the already good inter-faith dialogue. Incidentally, “I am not worthy to receive you,” is not part of the Creed, and, I notice fewer and fewer people saying this pre-Communion prayer. Bless you for your insightful writings on this blog.

    1. Many thanks for your kind comments, this whole blogging thing is so much more powerful for interfaith dialogue than I realised. Didn’t know about the change to the Creed, that is very encouraging :-). Best, David

  22. Christine Conlon says:

    Hello David, I was trying to send you an email and happened on this interesting and well written blog. I will get back to you some time, but I wanted to ask:
    What does Buddhism say about same sex marriage and abortion? Would be grateful if you could reply fairly quickly, though I know you are very busy.
    Christine xx

    1. Hi Christine
      I have replied to you by email on the ttconlon address. D x

  23. shirleytan says:

    Hi David. I met christian friend today she ask me do I believe theres god. I told her im buddhist I want to share buddhism with her

  24. Brandon says:

    I appreciate how you are not bashing and/or affirming the bashing of Catholicism. It really is important to separate the things that certain Catholics have done from Catholicism itself. Much like Islam. Muslims who do acts of evil do not represent ALL Muslims as not all Muslims are evil. If it were the case, we would really be in big trouble because Muslims make up a large majority. I think refraining from painting with a broad stroke brush also helps to see things with clarity. Certainly there are people throughout Catholic history who have done wrong and many often claim that THAT is Catholicism when in fact, it isn’t. Catholicism teaches that sin is the culprit and people do bad and good all of the time. Obviously the good is encouraged and the bad is not but, we all have free will. So Catholicism isn’t the problem really. It’s the fact that we live in a world of brokenness and sometimes people do bad things. It’s horrible to think that anyone could ever hurt a child. It saddens me that any of this has happened, no matter the religion. I’m sure Buddhism has it’s scandals too but you don’t see the same stigma attached to Buddhism, which I believe is a bit biased and unfair. Nevertheless, thank you for your insights.

    1. davidhare3000 says:

      Thank you Brandon for your wise and insightful comments. Very interesting philosophical point about separating the practitioner from the teaching – you could write a whole post on that! All best wishes, David

Leave a Reply