Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Pope Francis and the Rebranding of Catholicism

As a Catholic who observed closely the resignation of the emeritus pope and the elevation of Jorge Bergoglio, in March of 2013, with hope and some suspicion, I find myself vexed by the profuse adulation Pope Francis I has received during his visit to the United States. The pope is a world leader and head of a sovereign state. Obviously news outlets should be covering his visit, but I find seeing secular media extolling Francis as the secular world's spiritual guide alarming. I've even heard talking heads compare the pope to Nelson Mandela, who spent his entire life danger and a third of it in prison;these strike me as almost obscene. But Francis does amaze and I am not immune to his graciousness. I love that we have a pope who unequivocally preaches that greed is a sin. Hell, I love that he's a Latino, that he's a cutie, that he has a twinkle in his eye. I believe I we have already seen him tweak, in subtle ways, the sex-negative message too often present (in my opinion) Roman Catholic education. The pope is indeed a charming man, but his charm is hardly accidental. Pope Francis was selected, in part, to stave off a schism in the church, to improve its complexion and to arrest the exodus of Catholics leaving the church in disgust. Pope Francis I is the face of the new brand.
I can not deny that there is a personal upside for me, in all the pope love. Most of my friends, colleagues are not Catholic or even religious. Many are intellectuals and feminists who may be too polite to say so, think my own Roman Catholic practice odd. It's nice to see all these people now regarding my devotion as a tad more legitimate. After all, what an amazing pope! Pope Francis may amaze, but he still believes married LGBTQ Catholics should not receive the sacraments. He still believes that terminating a pregnancy is murder. He still supports an all-male priesthood. Not only does he support an all-male priesthood, but also he continues to (to try, at least) uphold the prohibition (for priests and theologians in Catholic Universities) against discussing ordaining women--an injunction Pope Francis's predecessor put in place. Pope Francis continues to shelter a prelate who facilitated the rape of children. Priests who lost their frocks as a result of taking part in masses celebrated by women are still without frocks. I expect this failure to discern from chauvinistic "Father Says" Catholics, but it surprises me to see so many atheists, non-Catholics, progressives of all and no faiths, and progressive Catholics draining the chalice of papal Kool-Aid without giving a thought to all of this. 
Pope Francis won praise for quoting Martin Luther King Jr. in preaching against discrimination, yet he presides over a church currently engaged in unabashed discrimination. Let the religious leader who is not discriminating within his own church lecture Congress on that topic. Let the one without sin... A pope who will not ordain women has no standing when he preaches against discrimination. 50% of Roman Catholics are offered six sacraments; 50%, are offered seven. 
I am often asked whether the pope can decide to ordain women. "Yes and no" is the answer. The Canon Code spells out the requirement that only men may receive Holy Orders, but Canon Law can be changed and has been changed in the past. (Canon Law is complex.) An adequate discussion of would be too long for a short reflection such as this one. It is helpful to know that the Magisterium teaches that distinction between changing man-made laws and Divine Law is a critical one. The pope's Motu Propriomodification of in annulment proceedings is an example of amending the Canon Codeby changing a "man-made" law. How do we distinguish between man-made and Divine Laws? The Church fathers tell us which are which. On what bases have they decided? Sola Fide and revelation: faith and visions. Who can amend Canon Law? The Supreme Pontiff, of course. Is he willing to re-open the discussion of ordaining women? No. The door, he has said, is closed on that.
Everyone's favorite pope could open that door. He could invite the bishops and theologians to discuss the ordination of women, but Pope Francis does not much like the idea. He has said women must have a greater role in church leadership, but he has also said we are "the strawberry on the cake." (No, Your Holiness, we may be strawberries, but we are also very much cake.) Why such fear around discussion of the matter of ordaining women? The arguments are stronger, theologically on the pro-ordination side. Most of the clerics I know seem to think the Vatican will ordain women when doing so becomes an economic necessity--and not before.

I could not help thinking, as I looked at the photo of that precious child who provided Team Francis pope with a telegenic miracle of papal optics when she broke through the pontiff's security and handed the pope a card, of the children victimized by the cardinals and bishops the Vatican continues to protect. That little girl is growing up in a church that teaches her that she is unfit for priesthood. That is not a benign message. That is not a message that should be easily set aside by feminists, progressives, Catholics or parents of Catholic daughters for reasons of politeness or diplomacy. It is the promulgation of sexism which gives way to misogyny.

In recent years, I have had the honor serving as Confirmation sponsor to two intelligent and imaginative adolescent nieces. As exciting and spiritually powerful this was for me, I experienced disheartening moments-- and shame, really--when the topic of an all-male priesthood arose. The girls thought an all-male priesthood disgraceful and I agreed. I'm the progressive, artist, political-minded feminist aunt. How I could love a church that tolerates such sexism? The answer, to them and for myself, is that I love the church enough to imagine that it is capable of growth and change. 
The Supreme Pontiff's words are full of light, but, his having been "made to order" causes me to wonder whether the pope can will go beyond words. I pray he will put his money where his mouth is. We are the religion that celebrates the word made flesh. I pray his words will, in a sense, come to fruition. I love that he spoke out against capital punishment (as have his last few predecessors). I love that he, a man with some grasp of Science, warned the world (and forcefully) about climate change and the perils of greed. I love that he refrained from calling abortion "murder," that he militated for peace, highlighted the incarnation of Christ in the homeless and poor, and emphasized our obligation to welcome and honor immigrants. I am grateful for those words. I am waiting for more and hopeful that the Pope Francis I will go farther, but I want to see that more than the package has changed.

So shrewd is the pope's Public Relations campaign that he was able to slip into his itinerary the canonization of Junipero Serra a missionary sent by Spain in the mid-18th century to convert California's indigenous natives, by force if necessary. I suppose canonizing a saint sponsored by the Inquisition on Yom Kippur made sense to someone, but the timing struck me as hideous. There was an urgency, on the other hand, to add a to add an "Hispanic" saint to the beatific lineup. Serra fit the description. He converted a huge swath of indigenous California to Catholicism. Some of the churches he established are still in use. Anyone who has ever seen the film The Mission or read about Bartolome de las Casas, author of the Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies knows that the analysis of these men is rarely simple. Supporters of his canonization claim Serra developed a "love" for those he converted and that he protected his 'flock' against more violent Christians (than he). Serra was, no doubt brave and devout, and, of course, not, as canonizers like to say "a perfect man."

I read one defense of the the brutality of Serra in which the writer ignores the research on Serra's and defends the missionary's penchant for torturing those he aimed to convert by arguing that Brother Serra flogged indigenous Californians with loving intention and a mind on correction. Maybe there are two sides to the Junipero Serra story, (I don't think there are.), but whether Serra was more holy than demonic should not even pertain. Catholics need not look for perfection in saints, but we ought to at least exhibit restraint adequate to keep us from canonizing the monstrous. Furthermore, Christian feeling and a desire for repair should foreclose on any impulse to make saints of colonizing butchers dispatched the Inquisition.

California wanted its own "Hispanic" saint. Governor Jerry Brown, whose perspectives I generally I favor, likes Junipero Serra, but I think he is thinking more like a loving pol than like a Christian in this. I get that California Latinos want their own saint, but the Vatican should have looked further, and the multitudes of secular folk venerating Pope Francis should know that he just canonized a violent envoy of the Spanish Inquisition. Catholics should be making amends for the grave sins of the Inquisitions, not beatifying its perpetrators.

Never again should a Catholic associated with Spain's Inquisitions be canonized. 
While making his way home during the break in the day's Yom Kippur services, my Jewish spouse ran into a friend, a Catholic priest. The two men were chatting on the street when a Juan (not his real name) approached and began to complain about "los Judios," describing them as "malos." High Holy Day-parking rules had complicated trash pickup and in his frustration, Juan blamed it on the Jews. The priest pointed to my husband, perhaps hoping to enlighten Juan: "He's Jewish." Maybe Juan didn't know my husband is a Jew. Maybe Juan forgot that my husband understands Spanish. Maybe, like too many Roman Catholics, Juan is soft on anti-semitism. My husband, who is, himself, engaged in a profound spiritual transformation, let it go. Juan, he knows, is not well-educated, and has recently experienced great loss. It was, after all, Yom Kippur.

The following day I attended the 9:00 am mass. I shook his Juan's hand during the "sign of peace" moment, and stayed after mass to pray a rosary. As I left the church, I told Juan that I had included him in my rosary. He thanked me, and proceeded to tell me about his encounter with the priest and my husband. I was half-expecting an apology. Instead Juan embarked on disclaimer which took the form of a casual diatribe against Jews. They don't close their shops during "Semana Santa," he said. They and care only about "negocios y dinero." He used his hands to dramatize the greed. "But those days are not holy for Jews!" I explained in bad Spanish. He insisted Jews should then close their businesses out of respect. When I asked whether Christians should close their businesses for Yom Kippur, he laughed.

I am the mother of (Reform, non-Halakic) Jews. We celebrate Rosh Hashana. We observe Shabbos with some regularity. We atone and fast on Yom Kippur. Although I was hurt by his anti-semitic remarks, but I wasn't angry with Juan. He didn't know any better, and that sentiment came from somewhere. Not from the church he and I currently attend, but from the churches of his youth. I believe the Roman Catholic hierarchy still promulgates hatred of Jews from pulpits and in Catholic schools, subtlely, politely, and most of all in failing to push it away strenuously enough. I believe that canonizing men like Serra is one of many outward signs that the Church has yet to atone for of its own anti-Semitism. When intelligent, thoughtful people, downplay, or worse still, lend their support to this, they help perpetuate prejudice and bigotry.

I had the pleasure of reading Laudato Si while lying on a particularly exquisite beach on Cape Cod which was throbbing with beauty: flora, various sky, birds, cranberry plants and pines. The location pertains. Laudato Si a radical document, almost a poem in praise nature and the created world. As I read the encyclical, I kept noticing myself becoming hopeful. How moved I was by this work took my by surprise. I want very much to believe that Pope Francis is not just the new face of the Vatican brand redesigned to prevent schism and get tithing Catholics back in the pews.

I want to love the author of Laudato Si, but I will not downplay misogyny, and I will not say nothing while my church makes another Inquisition saint. I will continue to pray the rosary and hope to learn that the Holy Father is for real. I believe that opening the door to the conversation about ordaining women would be a good place for him to begin, because the leadership of our church, as the pope said, citing Martin Luther King Jr., in his address to congress, "defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it."                                

Michele Madigan Somerville
September 26, 2015 NYC

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