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.)

The Rupture of Inculturation?

March 9, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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In my last post, I held forth about a talk by Cardinal Rode, head of the Vatican office behind the current  investigations of American Catholic sisters.  I was struck by his use of the word “rupture” to describe the “wrong” interpretation of Vatican II. Never in my life have I heard anyone but Cardinal Rode (et al) describe Vatican II as a rupture. Event, yes. Paradigm shift, yes. Rupture? Never.

I am also struck by the conclusion of the cardinal’s talk, where, to explain what gives him hope for the future of religious life, he recounts the thunder of applause that greeted a talk he gave just after the election of John Paul II in 1978 in which he criticized the communist regime in Slovenia.  What gave Rode and his listeners courage to confront falsehood, we learn, was fidelity to the new pope. Just so, if we are to reform religious life, we must adhere to what John Paul II taught yesterday and what Benedict is teaching today. (p. 21).

Never mind the curiosity of using an event that occurred a third of a century ago under a regime that collapsed twenty years ago in a country most Americans couldn’t  find on the map if their lives depended on it to conclude a talk in Boston Massachusetts in 2008. Consider instead the spectacle of using such a Eurocentric story to illustrate fidelity to John Paul II.

I am not a big JPII fan. But one thing I do give John Paul credit for is his understanding of the critical place of the Global South in the future of the church. So if we’re confronting a rupture here, it’s one between this profound insight by John Paul II and  Benedict’s fixation on Europe, its secularization, its schisms, its ideal past.

One story about a talk in Slovenia in 1978 may seem like thin evidence on which to argue that the current papacy is oblivious to the future of the church. But to get the whole picture, shift your attention now to Vatican efforts to reform the liturgy. In an article in NCRonline, John L. Allen reports on comments by the papal liturgist, Msgr. Guido Marini. Msgr. Morini has said that the pope will be patient in reforming the liturgy; nothing will be forced on the church, at least not yet. At a conference in Rome, though, the pope’s liturgist did seem to call into question some Vatican II liturgical reforms,–among them, active participation by the laity in the liturgy (!!) and “greater ‘inculturation,’ meaning adjusting the church’s rites to reflect local cultures.”

Now you may have noticed that the word “inculturation” doesn’t figure massively in discussions of liturgy in the US. It is used frequently, however, in discussions of the church in the Global South. And when Catholics in Africa and Asia and Latin America use the term, they aren’t just referring to drumming and dancing at Mass. They’re talking about the reconfiguration of Catholicism by their cultures. For an especially compelling example of this,  see From Crisis to Kairos: The Mission of the Church in the Time of HIV/AIDS, Refugees, and Poverty by Nigerian Jesuit theologian A. E. Orobator (Paulines Publications Africa 2005).

The people Father Orobator writes about don’t seem awfully focused on   fidelity to the pope. For them, their faith in Jesus and the Gospel is what enables them to survive and keep their brothers and sisters alive in the face of war, destitution and epidemics. Let’s pray that the profound role the church plays in their survival doesn’t get ruptured anytime soon.


AIDS and the (Non?)-Issue of Catholic Women’s Ordination

September 18, 2009 at 11:29 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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I’ve been advocating for the ordination of women in the Catholic church for almost thirty-five years. I have gone to conferences, served on boards, picketed cathedrals, raised money, collected signatures, and ground my teeth over this issue for more than half my life.

I must confess, however, that in recent years, as I learned more about the situation of women–including Catholic women–in other parts of the world, I began to doubt that the ordination of Catholic women ought to be my primary concern.  As I said in a talk I gave to a Voice of the Faithful group up in Connecticut last week, most of the Catholic women in sub-Saharan Africa aren’t  excluded from ordination by the Vatican. They’re excluded by the fact that they spend so much time hauling water over long distances that they don’t have time to go to school and learn to read, which pretty much eliminates seminary. Catholic women’s ordination risks being an elite, primarily Euro-American issue.

In his book, From Crisis to Kairos: The Mission of the Church in the Time of HIV/AIDS, Refugees and Poverty (Paulines Africa 2005), the Nigerian Jesuit theologian Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator calls seriously into question the happy binary that I use to underpin this argument, however–the polarization of Catholic women in the US who are preoccupied with ordination from those in Africa who are preoccupied with poverty, lack of education, and disease.

Orobator’s book is a critique of theological understandings of the church (ecclesiologies) that fail to take contemporary social contexts into account. In particular, any acceptable African Catholic ecclesiology must be written in relation to the three issues designated in the book’s subtitle: AIDS/HIV, poverty, and widespread refugee crises. Orobator’s book examines, in particular, the reality of the church in East Africa–Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda–in light of these issues

Orobator’s chapter on the AIDS crisis is where I began to see the weakness in my north/south binary. Sub-Saharan Africa, as you may know, is afflicted by AIDS to a greater extent than any other region of the world.  In 2003, “3.2 million new infections were recorded there, bringing the total number of PWA (People with AIDS) and orphans in sub-Saharan Africa to almost 30 million and 11 million respectively,” with 2.3 million lives lost from AIDS in 2003 alone (86-88).  And though the situation has improved slightly since then, sub-Saharan Africa is still the most AIDS-afflicted region in the world.

Orobator makes clear that ministry to PWAs in East Africa is carried out almost exclusively by women. This is the case not only because of the shortage of priests there but also because of the stigma associated with AIDS that contributes to the neglect of AIDS victims.

Further, we are told, Catholic PWAs long for the sacraments, especially the sacrament of reconciliation, which, of course, the Catholic women who minister to them cannot provide. Orobator argues that women in AIDS ministry “need…to be empowered to function as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and to preside over liturgies of reconciliation and anointing of the sick,” but “ecclesiastical stumbling blocks ..deprive them of the ability to carry out basic pastoral care of the sick and dying.” This is all the more ironic and unjust, Orobator notes, because “not many priests are prepared to travel the same material, emotional, spiriutal and pastoral distance as women do in the name of the church to find, tend and console PWA” (137).

Interestingly enough, Orobator attempts to avoid “reducing” this problem to the issue of Catholic women’s ordination.  “In the Catholic church, orthodox opposition to the ordination of women appears radically uncompromising. This debate falls outside the scope of this book” (137).

Given the hsitory of Vatican retaliation against Jesuit theologians who think outside the box–Rahner before Vatican II, Roger Haight today, to name only two– Orobator is probably wise to limit himself to arguing for “extraordinary” sacramental powers for women in AIDS ministry.  He would surely not have become the head of the Jesuit seminary in Nairobi and more recently a Jesuit provincial if he had stuck his neck out here. But he also knows that African Catholic bishops even before Vatican II were begging the Vatican to allow the ordination of married men to plug the massive ministry gap in sub-Saharan Africa. The need is enormous.

And just because the question of women’s ordination “falls outside the scope of (Orobator’s) book” doesn’t mean that his readers can’t see the connections for themselves.

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