Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Monday, July 29, 2013

Popacabana: New Tone, Old Message



Pope Francis gave an impromptu interview on the plane as he returned from from his celebrated Brasil tour, a trip so lively and successful it earned the name "Popacabana." Popacabana was well-covered by news agency and from the standpoint of the pontiff's handlers, very well spun.
Each time I read about this pope I marvel at how much I like the guy and fear his "body people"/publicity team. I often think the playbook for packaging this pope emerged from the sweet 2011 film Habemus Papam . In Nanni Moretti's film, a pious and unassuming cardinal is elevated reluctantly to the papal throne, the chief irony being that the very aspects of his nature which make him such a fine and gentle servant of Christ, render him less a than than ideal papabile.
So Pope Francis has said "yes" today, to inclusion of LGBT people in Roman Catholic worship, and "no" to the ordination of women.
Rome stoops to divide and conquer.
Some of this reporting misleads. Pope Francis does not as much depart from Ratzinger on the matter of LGBT Catholics as it would seem. Yes, debunking the Ratzinger's belief that all gay people are intrinsically disordered constitutes a dramatic shift, but according to doctrine, all Catholics are asked to abstain from sex outside of marriage and from the sacraments if such abstaining proves impossible. That has changed. The rules for same-sex couples have not changed. Pope Francis merely stresses that gay people should not be scorned when they show up at mass. Far be it from me to throw a compliment Ratzinger's way, but that was actually his position as well. Ratzinger and Francis appear on the face to part on the matter of gay priests. My team of experts leads me to believe that by conservative estimates half the Roman Catholic priests in the world may be gay.
I believe Ratzinger, were he still pope, would have come around on the matter of gay priests as a means of ensuring that a paucity of priests would not create a more urgent need for female priests. Ratzinger wanted to impose a don't ask don't tell policy in the seminaries; Francis has no problems with gay priests as long as they remain celibate--which, let us not forget, does not mean "chaste," but unmarried. I, like so many others, find Pope Francis refreshing, but the conservative church would collapse without gay clerics and it's probable that a significant proportion of cardinals are gay. The pope is certainly taking a more congenial approach--but the Vatican is sticking with "hate the sin; love the sinner" on the matter of gay Catholics.
Ironically enough, the mainstream, conservative Roman Catholic Church would collapse without the work of women. Pope Francis offered some attractive rhetoric on the matter of women. The logic he espouses is familiar to anyone who practices any religion whose orthodoxy prohibits women from being clerics. The argument goes like this; women enjoy not a second class status, but its opposite, a more essentially exalted status; women are hearth-keepers and mothers. According to a July 29 NPR report, the pope expressed the following thoughts on women in the Church.
"It is not enough to have altar girls, women readers or women as the president of Caritas," he said, according to the Catholic Herald. "Women in the church are more important than bishops and priests," he said, in the same way that "Mary is more important than the apostles."

Thus the pope basically argues that 1) women should get more to do and 2) that Mary is more important that the apostles.

I once heard a theologian priest told this joke from the pulpit: An elderly lady stayed after mass and prayed the rosary in the pews. With each "Hail Mary" her voice got louder and louder and somehow more urgent. The priest, hearing this, quietly interjected. "Jesus hears your prayer," he said. The woman prayed louder and in a more desperate tone. Again the priest spoke. "He hears you. Don't give up." One more time the woman increased her volume and the priest intervened. "Christ hears you."
"Will you keep it down, Father? I'm not looking for Jesus. I'm looking for his mother."
Women like my very devout Irish grandmother never exactly called it that, but they felt the divinity of Mary with an intensity that rivaled that of their feelings for God. Pope Francis knows--especially as a Latin American--that for much of the Roman Catholic world Mary is already way more powerful than the apostles. She was, after all, conceived without sin. She is the apostle who didn't run away from the foot of the cross. For relatively uneducated, but devout Roman Catholics, Mary is a virtual divinity. That an inclination to see her as such is high blasphemy hardly matters to those who do not know better. To say that Mary is more important than the apostles is something not at all radical dressed up to appear somewhat radically feminist. Francis recognizes the need to appease women.
When it comes to the position of each on LGBT Catholics and the role of women in the church, the only substantive difference, thus far, between Pope Francis and his predecessor is tone.
Another aspect of these reports that warrants parsing is the use of the term "the Church"--as in "'the Church' will not ordain female priests, saying that the stance was 'definitive.'" The Church does not really ordain anyone. The Vatican ordains. It is erroneous to use the terms "the Church" and "the Vatican" as if they were synonyms. The part of "the Church" that is the Vatican does not ordain women, but a small part of "the Church" which is comprised of men and women ordained in the apostolic succession, refuse to accept the prohibition against ordaining women and are for reasons of conscience, ordaining women.
And the Women's Ordination Movement is burgeoning at present. But there are Roman Catholic women priests. These are women who engage in divinity training and prepare for the priesthood, usually under the tutelage of conventionally ordained male Roman Catholic priests. I was talking with a Roman Catholic friend the other day who just has just begun to go to church. He has an adolescent step-daughter and the couple wants to raise her in a church. I casually mentioned to this man, an Italian-American with a Ph.d. raised Catholic in New York City, that there was a whole underground Roman Catholic priesthood. He was surprised. And interested.
Of course conservative Roman Catholics do not like this phenomenon much. Female Catholic priests endure much name-calling: They're called "fake priests," "pretend priests," and of course "apostates," "heretics" and "blasphemers" by people who seem almost to believe St. Peter lived in a Gothic cathedral and wore satin and bling. How easily they forget that what they see as conventional Roman Catholic priesthood began as a weird, rag-tag orthodoxy-flouting, rapidly expanding "cult."
The women priests I know are at least as well-trained in divinity, theology and church history as the male priests I know; they benefit from having strong spiritual mentors (conventionally ordained male priests usually), and act as shepherds in small communities supported in great measure by people like me who have decided they could no longer contribute financially to a parish that funnels money to the Vatican. I am active in the parish in which I live, but contribute financially to other Roman Catholic communities, because I can not in good conscience kick back to a Vatican that does not ordain women.
If you think that because you have an open-minded priest and a progressive parish and that none of the money you place in that basket goes to the Vatican, you are mistaken. Parishes kick back to their dioceses and dioceses to Rome, and your fine priest loses his parish if he fails to comply. If you put money in the basket in the Archdiocese of New York, for example, some of your money may already have paid legal fees for priests accused of violating children. If you put money in the basket in Milwaukee ten years ago, you might have paid for a detective to dig up dirt to discredit a plaintiff in a case against a predator priest. Your priest may have voted for Obama, but he still has to kick back to your diocese. My diocese is led by a bishop who was 'thisclose' with Vito ("Feel my tumor") Lopez "Gropez." My bishop took to the radio airwaves to compare same-sex marriage to marriage between human beings and their domestic animals. If I put money in my basket next Sunday, this bishop gets a cut. And bishops kick back to Rome.
If you think you can sit in church and not kick back to Rome, consider this; your church is a tax exempt organization. Even our beloved atheists help to defray the costs of sending Roman Catholic missionaries to sub-Saharan Africa to remind people in regions ravaged by heterosexually transmitted HIV/AIDS that using a condom is a sin.
I have written elsewhere about the institutional patriarchy and misogyny of the Vatican. My own response thus far has been to limit my contributions to my parish to non-financial ones. I give a great deal of time and talent to my church/conventional parish, but I don't give my parish money! I wish I could--but it seems...well... somehow sinful.
The awareness that so much of the work done in Roman Catholic churches is done by women has given me great pause today as I read Pope Francis's words on women's ordination. We all learned much about nuns when news of the Apostolic Visitations (Inquisitions) broke in 2009 and even more, later, via "the Nuns on the Bus." At the masses I attend, even at the most conservative parishes, most of the people distributing Holy Communion, proclaiming scripture and presiding over catechesis of children are women. This disappointing sound-bite today causes me to question my choice to work in my parish. 
Perhaps all women who work for the Roman Catholic Church should examine whether they wish to enable a church that accepts our labor but uses a tired, transparent, specious and well-refuted (by its own theologians) argument against the ordination of women to keep us out of the conventional priesthood. It is interesting to imagine what might happen if between now and Christmas, women and men who view the Vatican's case for barring women from conventional ordination as inconsistent with Jesus's teaching--were to refuse to work in and contribute financially to Roman Catholic churches.
In the developing world, such a "faith action" (I might call it) would never work. The Vatican has long pinned its hopes for growth on the poor of India, sub-Saharan Africa and South America where obedience among Roman Catholics is the norm. But what if Western European and North American Roman Catholic women were to say "no mas?" ("No mass.") Just a thought.



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