Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Pope Francis, Man of the Year? Not Yet




Within the past week or two we have seen the pope make the covers of TimeThe New Yorker and The AdvocateTime and The Advocate have designated Pope Francis as their publications' "person of the year." As a progressive Roman Catholic who is active in ministry, I find it pleasant to have a pope who does not come off as the kind of spiritual batterer Benedict XVI was. It's nice not having to constantly defend my choice to be a practicing Catholic. Atheist progressive friends who have never quite understood my peculiar willingness to worship in what one or two have called "a hate group" now make laudatory remarks about Pope Francis. My fellow Roman Catholic LGBT ministry members are delighted with our new pontiff. I imagine I might speak for many when I say that being a Roman Catholic is a tad easier now that our public relations has been so well-improved by Francis I. But man of the year? As Saint Augustine might say, "not yet."
Pope Francis may well be what he seems but it can not be denied that this pope is made-to-order. It is only by cutting through the "spin" that we can know how genuine Francis and the change with which he being credited actually are. A look at what was wrong with Ratzinger from a public relations standpoint reveals much. As a Catholic who has been watching the exodus of Roman Catholics from the church for years while chronicling developments in the church, I find taking this new pontifical upgrade at face value difficult. And facile!
Progressive Roman Catholics did not much like Joseph Ratzinger, but then again, neither did the traditionalist Roman Catholic fringe. Progressives objected to Ratzinger's anti-gay, anti-woman disposition, while ultra-conservative Catholics held against Ratzinger both his prominent role in Vatican II and his (later) failure to go far enough once he did become more conservative. Ratzinger resigned from a church that was lousy with financial and sexual scandals (I am one of those who believe we have yet to see the full impact of the Vatican sexual abuse scandal/crisis in the developing world.) and possibly on the verge of an all-out schism. The situation called for a man like Francis who could keep Catholics in the pews without amending teaching, a pontiff who could avert a schism and arrest the exodus of Catholics leaving the church in disgust. It's no accident that an Italian-Latino replaced the German; a warmer-blooded pope was called for, a pope with a glint in his eye, a pontiff more charming and less conspicuously royal than Josef Ratzinger. The church hierarchs knew that if they wanted LGBT Catholics and women sickened by the Magisterium's misogyny to remain in the church, they would have to elevate a cardinal capable of stepping away from dogma and doctrine both--but without challenging either outright. Pope Francis has been expert in finessing this.
In a December 2, 2013 piece that appeared (in translation) in National Catholic Reporter, Roman Catholic priest Hans Kung, a renowned theologian and former friend of Josef Ratzinger, included this observation in his discussion of Francis's pontificate: 
And worried observers are already asking whether Pope Emeritus Ratzinger is in fact operating as a kind of "shadow Pope" behind the scenes through Müller and Georg Gänswein, [Benedict's] secretary and Prefect of the Papal Household, whom he also promoted to archbishop.

Kung reminded of us the possibility that Joseph Ratzinger who continues to reside in the Vatican, may still, to some extent. run things. This is not a preposterous notion. Ratzinger's was one of the strong voices of the Second Vatican Council. He has been in the College of Cardinals since 1977 and is one of the world's most accomplished Roman Catholic theologians. The Emeritus Pope, who has wielded immense influence in the Vatican for half-a-century, could still be calling a few of its shots. 

While it is true Ratzinger wore more bling and fancier shoes than does the current Holy Father, Ratzinger steadfastly characterized greed and warfare as sinful. Under Ratzinger, cardinals in dioceses that desired it were invited to minister to LGBT Catholics in their parishes. Under John Paul II and Ratzinger, at the parish level, movement in the direction of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments was made. Under John Paul II and Ratzinger, we saw more and more women in pastoral ministry and working on altars, and the College of Cardinals was discussing an exemption to the prohibition of artificial contraception to arrest the spread of HIV/AIDS. Ratzinger made many horrendous remarks about "homosexuality" but when he did so he cited the very same doctrine (Roman Catholic Catechism) Pope Francis has yet to challenge, revise or update explicitly. (Francis has aimed to reframe some teaching in an implicit way.) Ratzinger did classify being homosexual as a "disorder," but--not nearly so often or strenuously as he ought to have--he also condemned homophobic abuse.

My aim here is not to suggest that Benedict XVI was a fine pope and that Francis I is not, but to notice, as a member of the church, that if any part of the elevation of Jorge Bergoglio were part of a Machiavellian strategy to improve Vatican public relations, it certainly is working.
What has really changed under Pope Francis beyond tone? Not much. Has Pope Francis formally challenged the Roman Catholic Catechism's characterization of homosexuality as "disordered"? He could. He has not.
Perhaps nothing so much suggests a disinclination to make real change in teaching as the pope's remarks on the matter of the ordaining women? On the well-publicized July 2013 interview on the airplane, Francis said the following about the possibility of conventionally ordained Roman Catholic women priests: 
The church says no. That door is closed.

Pope Francis extolls the importance of dialogue ("words which set hearts on fire") throughout In his recent (November 2013) encyclical Evangelii Gaudium<, yet reinforces his hierarchy's misogynistic ordination policy thus: 

...The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion...

The implication therein is that Catholics should discuss everything but ordaining women. I find this disgraceful.

Evangelii Gaudium is warm and lyrical. The author of Evangelii Gaudium firmly declares his disdain for greed, his ardent regard for the poor and the document boasts a conspicuous absence of homophobic rhetoric; all of that is good. Its focus, however, is evangelization--in 'Catholicspeak,' "evangelization" means "growth." Ratzinger was often accused of wanting a smaller, purer church. His successor appears to love his messier church, a church he describes (in Evangelii Gaudium) as 
bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined...


By elevating Jorge Bergoglio to the throne of Peter, the cardinals may have prevented an all out schism. The novel pope-love at hand, the likes of which the church has not seen since John XXIII, foreclosed on a schism and now seems substantive and powerful enough to keep the pews and Vatican coffers full. Who but an ultra-charismatic leader determined to preach on the divine character of humility could have pulled this off?

What kind of pope might have any chance at all of keeping the next generation of women in the pews without changing misogynist anti-woman's ordination doctrine? One who has won the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The big losers in this are Catholic women and their daughters. 

I like the pope too, and I remain hopeful about his ability to steer the worlds' Catholics toward greater peace and increased justice. I understand that Rome was not built in a day and that the Roman Catholicism Church will not be healed in a day, but the truth is that while the tone of Pope Francis's message regarding LGBT Roman Catholics and women is gentler, the message has not essentially changed. The bigotry remains. Strip away the tone shift and the message under Francis, as conservative Catholic observers have been saying, is the same message that Ratzinger, Timothy Dolan et al have been promulgating all along. The bigotry persists.
The Magisterium continues to prohibit divorced and remarried Catholics and all Catholics who are sexually active (regardless of their sexual orientation) from receiving the Eucharist; that has not changed. Pope Francis has made clear his disinterest in even discussing the ordination of women; that has not changed. Dogma and doctrine on contraception has not changed, and while Francis has been bold on the avarice front, he has been relatively reticent in his response to those who have been sexually abused, as children, by Catholic priests. The looking the other way on this count has not changed enough.
Given the incredible damage done by the Vatican sex scandal and banking scandals; the continued support the Vatican offers to organizations that use collection dollars to make the world a bit less safe for women, LGBT people, and those who have been victimized by priests; given the sitting pope's disinterest in challenging his hierarchy's flimsy, self-serving and fallacious arguments against ordination of women; I believe it is way too early to take Pope Francis as an unadulterated, full-on breath of fresh air.
I will pray for Pope Francis, but this Catholic woman is not drinking from the papal Kool-Aid chalice. Not yet.

1 comment:

  1. This is the first article I've read on Pope Francis that says exactly what I've been thinking! Why was he made Person of the Year by Time and the Advocate? Because some people are more willing to take words as proof rather than action.
    Bravo Michele. I will be awaiting your next column. And by the way thanks for including the ordination of women in your commentary. Door closed my Aunt Fanny!

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