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 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.

Response to Brendan Foley

March 21, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Since I don’t get too many comments about my blog posts, I thought I would express my appreciation to Brendan Foley for his response to my March 9 entry, “The Rupture of Inculturation?” by writing back. 

Brendan suggests that I don’t seem to know very much about Vatican II, and mentions that he himself took a course on Vatican II with Joseph Komonchak. Komonchak, as I mentioned in an even earlier blog, co-edited the great five-volume history of Vatican II, along with Giuseppe Alberigo.  Since I certainly did not take such a course, it seems likely that Brendan knows more, perhaps even a good deal more, about Vatican II than I do.

Brendan, as I read him,  doesn’t understand my criticism of a talk given at the 2008 Stonehill Conference on Religious Life in which Franc Cardinal Rode,  the prefect of the Vatican congregation on religious life, argues that there is a right and wrong interpretation of Vatican II.  Why, Brendan wonders, do I think that Rode’s condemnation of the “wrong” hermeneutic  is aimed at Komonchak’s reading of Vatican II as an event. Komonchak himself would say that some readings of Vatican II are wrong–those of the Lefebrvists, for example. I must admit, I hadn’t thought of the Lefebrvists. Brendan has a point here. I should have said I’d never heard any of the progressive Catholics I hang out with use the word “rupture” to characterize the Council.

All that notwithstanding, I want to assure Brendan that it isn’t the Lefebrvists that Cardinal Rode is addressing in his Stonehill talk. It’s the “Bologna school” historians who advanced the interpretation of Vatican II as an event (and US women religious).  John W. O’Malley SJ introduces his chapter in Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?  (Continuum 2008) with the details of a presentation by another Vatican official, Camillo Cardinal Ruino. In this presentation Ruino welcomed a new book on the Council as a counterpoint to–“indeed, the polar opposite”–of the interpretation that had previously monopolized conciliar historiography. As such, the new book would move the church on to a “correct” interpretation of the Council. In this presentation the Cardinal singled out the Bologna school as the principal and most influential creator of this incorrect understanding (52-53). O’Malley continues:  

“…the Bologna school and especially Alberigo are being singled out as the great propagators of a history of the council that badly distorts it and that must be opposed. Other scholars are being criticized for a similar approach, but Alberigo and his colleagues are the ones most often mentioned by name…

O’Malley then elaborates on these attacks:

“I do not see that Alberigo and others who have used ‘event’ as an instrument to interpret the council have given it the radical meaning that their critics attribute to them…Nowhere in the Alberigo volumes is there the slightest suggestion that “new beginning” meant in any way a rupture in the faith of the Church or a diminution of any dogma” (54-55).

And while O’Malley does not mention Komonchak by name at this point, the volume begins with Komonchak’s Henri de Lubac lecture given at St. Louis University in 1997, “Vatican II as an Event.” Komonchak knows that since he is Alberigo’s co-editor, the “wrong” interpretation of Vatican II–Vatican II as rupture– is being projected onto his work.

Lastly, let me respond to Brendan’s observation that if I were to learn more about Greek philosophy, I would realize that some things really are either right or wrong. Perhaps, Brendan; perhaps. On the other hand, pre-Enlightenment philosophy may not provide the most effective tools for understanding as massive and complex an event as the Second Vatican Council. Almost twenty years ago the historical sociologist Gene Burns published a penetrating study of Vatican II, The Frontiers of Catholicism (Princeton 1992). In it he argues compellingly that the legacy of Vatican II is  ambiguous. And indeed, here we are, still fighting about what it means, almost half a century after it ended. Perhaps while I’m boning up on the Greeks you should take a look at Frontiers.

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