Pope Francis

December 12, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, with Time magazine naming Pope Francis its “Person of the Year” for 2013, what John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter calls “pope-mania” has reached a new high.

And it’s hard to disagree with Time‘s selection, as we read through their many examples of Francis’s hope-inspiring behavior. To highlight a few:

  • Francis’s challenge to the church to shift its energies to the poor. 
  • His “Who am I to judge?” regarding homosexuals 
  • His abolition of the honorific title “monsignor.” 
  • His appointment of a council of cardinals for “real consultation.” 
  • His challenge to the church to end its fixation on culture-war issues. 
  •  His openness to Jews, Muslims, and evangelical Protestants.
  • His enthusiastic, unscripted Wednesday audiences, including his call-and-response interactions with the crowds.
  • His humility. 

And yet I am still keeping my distance. For one thing, those of us beyond a certain age have been disappointed before, with the papacy of John XXIII and his Council, which we believed would change the church. Believed it, that is, until his successor ignored the conclusions of another “consultative body,” the Papal Birth Control Commission, and issued  Humanae Vitae. The next two popes went on to undercut many of the changes called for by “good Pope John” and his Council.

The sad truth is that the Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy. Monarchs may consult all kinds of people, but they hold the power. And as amusing as it may be, in a body given to saying over and over “As the Church has always taught,” the absolute monarch who succeeds the current one can and may well reverse any number of his initiatives. Witness the way in which Francis himself is undermining John Paul II’s repression of liberation theology. No wonder the conservatives are upset.

Another aspect of Time’s encomium to the new pope also gives me pause–its trivialization of Francis’s rejection of women’s ordination. By Time‘s  telling of it, the ordination of women is the least of the problems most of the world’s Catholic women face. The authors quote the Archbishop of Addis Ababa regarding Pope Francis’s position on  women: “’It could help a lot,’ he says, ‘because he is saying women have a great role in the church and in society.’” Some commentators even speak of the possibility of women cardinals. But will unordained women cardinals be made heads of dioceses? Will they be elected pope?

Not all churchmen in the Global South trivialize women’s ordination. The Nigerian theologian A.E. Orobator, himself a Jesuit provincial as Pope Francis once was, notes in his East African ecclesiology that the greatest desire of people in East Africa who suffer from AIDS is to receive the last sacraments before they die. But since only women minister to people with AIDS–priests don’t go near them–most AIDS victims die unanointed. Those who say that genital mutilation and education are vastly more important than women’s ordination downplay the fact that the Catholic Church owes its members spiritual as well as practical ministry. The exclusion of women from ordination denies men, women and children the sacraments, and not just in the North.

In his brilliant study of the post-Vatican II church, The Frontiers of Catholicismhistorical sociologist Gene Burns explains that the Catholic church did not give up its claim to absolute truth  when Vatican II recognized the rights of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Instead, it shifted its claims of absolute truth from doctrine to moral teaching–sexuality and gender–which, because it is based in “natural law,” is binding for all, not just Catholics. Thus the ideological hierarchy that had operated in the Catholic church for centuries was reconstructed, with sex/gender teaching on the top and most important; doctrine at the middle level, and somewhat important, but less so than sex and gender; and social teaching at the lowest level and optional. If you have some doubts about this explanation, try to remember the last time a U.S. bishop excluded a politician from communion for supporting legislation that harmed the poor.

Pope Francis is trying to change this ideological hierarchy, trying to move social teaching up somewhat. Conservatives have taken to reminding us that not everything the pope says is infallible–only “faith and morals”–precisely to prevent such a reconfiguration. But as for knocking “morals” off the top of the hierarchy, Francis isn’t so silly as to try. Women, I fear, will continue to be described in terms of our receptivity and complementarity, that is, our beautiful passivity. Christ will continue to be the “bridegroom” whom women can’t represent for the crudest of reasons. And women’s ordination will be the sop good Pope Francis throws to the conservatives to keep them from opposing him outright.

(All right, all right! It’s more than 500 words.)

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4 Comments »

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  1. Another great one, Marian. And I suggest everyone reading it answer the survey about family policies prepared by church reform organizations. Here are the links: https://surveymonkey.com/s/SynodOnFamilyUS and https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/sinodoESP. Remember what Marian says about “natural law.”

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  2. YUP!

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  3. Thanks, Marian, for such a care-full response. Maybe one of the better and more hidden things that happened to progressive Catholics in the long mourning after V2 was bounding into highly imaginative realms and un-sanctioned initiatives, that the structures of RC could not keep up with, Francis or no. The survey on family policies was astonishing. I filled it out and could not believe how many qs there were on “natural law.” My sis 13 years younger started it and bailed–she didn’t know what they were talking about and had no interest in finding out.

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    • I agree completely, Julie. Just sitting through most sermons is more than I can bear, and I am a few years (!) older than your sister. And is not the whole discourse of natural law utterly soporific? Such stuff may have been groundbreaking in Aristotles time, but a few years have passed since then.

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