The Pope! The Pope! The Pope!

October 11, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, you have admit, Pope Francis is getting some serious media coverage.  As John Allen quips in the National Catholic Reporter today, “If a Las Vegas casino had opened a betting line eight months ago on the likelihood that within a year the most popular figure on the planet would be the pope, one has to imagine the odds would have been awfully long.” But here’s Francis, making headlines everywhere. In the latest  summary of articles on Christianity that I receive weekly from the New York Time, three of the pieces are about the new pope.  And there were two articles about him in the last issue of The Nation, that former hotbed of  anti-Catholicism.

This outpouring of interest in and enthusiasm for the pope inspires several thoughts in me. First of all, it suggests that the Catholics won the Reformation. Roman Catholicism is the biggest organized religion on earth, with 1.2 billion members. One journalist–don’t ask me which one– suggested recently that the pope is now  the global symbol not only of Christianity, but of religion. I can imagine a few Muslims taking issue with this. But as for Christianity, it’s hard to dispute. Part of the problem is the clothes—who wants to photograph the head of the World Council of Churches in a suit and tie when you can get these guys in archaic dresses and hats? The universal fixation on the pope also suggests that the Catholic emphasis on, not to say brutal enforcement of, unity does have its upside. Why talk to the 476 and counting heads of various Protestant denominations when you can just call Rome? Nearly a half a millennium after the posting of his ninety-five theses, Luther must be turning over in his grave.

But as Allen also mentions in his NCR article, despite the new pope’s enormous popularity, there are still a few sticking points. Allen calls them Francis’s “Older Son Problem,” referring to the elder sibling who got seriously pissed over his father’s ecstatic welcome of the returned prodigal brother. These include, according to Allen, some faithful Vatican personnel who were not pleased by the pope’s references to the “leprosy” of the Vatican court; some pro-life Catholics who feel less than appreciated by the pope’s suggestions that their efforts have been “over the top”; and some evangelical Catholics who have toiled heroically to defend and clarify orthodox Catholic identity and who suspect the pope is pulling the rug out from under them.

As for me, however, I’m with Nation columnist Katha Pollitt and University of Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting: it’s Francis’s support of church teaching on sexuality that renders problematic this great outpouring of enthusiasm.  As Pollitt wonders, is warm Pope Francis’s  acceptance of church teaching on contraception, abortion, and the exclusion of women from ordination  “Sexism with a Human Face”?  In his New York Times blogGutting answers the question unambiguously: “Unless the pope is prepared to reject the hierarchy’s absolute condemnation of these actions (any abortion, any homosexual act, any use of artificial contraceptives) and revise the official teaching, his comments reflect merely changes of style and tone.” Gutting finds a few glimmers of hope—references by Francis to the infallibility of the faithful in matters of belief and to the “uncertainty” that always accompanies spiritual discernment.  But Gutting does not expect Francis to change Catholic sexual teaching.

Pollitt’s and Gutting’s concerns call to mind the explanation of the ideology of the post Vatican II church in Gene Burns’s illuminating 1994 study, The Frontiers of Catholicism: The Politics of Ideology in a Liberal WorldBurns, a sociologist, argues convincingly that after Vatican II the hierarchy—the ranking—of the various Roman Catholic ideological positions underwent rearrangement. Before the Council, Catholic theological doctrine was the single most important part of Catholic thinking, with social and sexual teaching equally important but secondary. In the nineteenth century, for example, abortion and belief in the separation of church and state were equally gravely sinful, but heresy was worse.

With Vatican II, however, the church’s (belated) acceptance of the modern world undercut the primacy of Catholic doctrine per se. By admitting, for example, that a human being does not have to be Catholic—to believe in Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic Church—in order to be saved, the church undercut the absolute status of its theological doctrines.

But as Burns explains, no institution gives up its claim to absolute truth and power willingly. After the Council, then, the RCC replaced its claim to absolute doctrinal truth with a claim to the absolute truth of its sexual teaching, based not in the Catholic tradition, but in Natural Law. According to Natural Law, all human beings are forbidden to have abortions, to engage in homosexual acts, to divorce their spouses. The Catholic church became the keeper of this universally mandatory law. Thus in the ideological hierarchy, as defended and enforced by the Catholic Church,  universal (Catholic) sexual teaching is on the top, and mandatory for all; Catholic doctrine comes second, and is mandatory only for Catholics;  and Catholic social teaching comes third, and is optional, that is,  subject to individual “prudential judgments” (as the American bishops sometimes put it.)

It sometimes seems as if Pope Francis isn’t privy to this ideological hierarchy–or at least he doesn’t grasp that social justice is entirely optional. Who knows–under his leadership, the Catholic ideological hierarchy may be rearranged again; maybe all three kinds of teaching will get put on an equal level.  If the Catholic ideological hierarchy changed after Vatican II, it could, conceivably, change again.

But let’s not kid ourselves: such ideological reconfigurations don’t happen easily, or quickly, as the repression of liberation theology by John Paul II in the 1980s suggests. In the short-term, and for a good while thereafter, Pope Francis will be keeping sexual teaching on the top (and, to switch metaphors, women and gays on the bottom) no matter how warm and loving the style in which he does so.

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4 Comments »

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  1. Marian, this is so good. Send it to some publication. Regina

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  2. I fear you are right, Marian; we live in hope. A really good analysis!! Eileen

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  3. Really helpful. Thank you for interpreting all of this for us 476 kinds of protestants!

    Jeanette Stokes Durham, NC stokesnet@aol.com Blog: http://stokesnet.wordpress.com

    REPEAL Amendment One

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  4. There is just a lot of social justice left undone when the sexes are seen as “separate but equal.” I welcome the new tone. I don’t think “separate but equal” is changing anytime soon.

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