It is impossible to ignore the impact of Pope Francisco, a modern-day pope who operates with humility and directness, who lives simply, who prefers to spend his time with the poor and the marginalised, and who sees his role as pastor, compassionate friend, and fellow sinner on the Christian journey. The photos of Pope Francisco embracing a man disfigured by neurofibromatosis and the scene of the little boy on the stage in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican as Francisco addressed pilgrims tell us all we need to know about the humanity and accessibility of our new pope. Some bishops are desperately trying to reassure their followers that nothing’s changing. Nevertheless, that’s a tough sell when the head of the Roman Catholic Church tells his bishops that they’re obsessed with abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, and when he says he doesn’t judge gays and lesbians. Something’s changing. However, is this change simply one of tone?
Francisco’s comments on the appointment of bishops suggest that his criteria have less to do with loyalty and orthodoxy and more to do with pastoral experience and compassion. All the same, in his first American appointment, one that wasn’t in the pipeline before his papal election, he named Bishop Leonard Blair as the new archbishop of Hartford CT. Blair’s a true believer culture warrior and former Vatican official who led the charge against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious last year and earlier joined in the condemnation of Notre Dame University for having President Barack Obama as a speaker. In light of Francisco closing the door on female priests, many women theologians and lay leaders are wondering about his emphasis on a new role for women in the church.
Jamie Manson, a Yale-trained theologian and a writer for National Catholic Reporter, suggested that we shouldn’t get too excited. For her, the bottom line is that, in spite of the warmth and sincerity of the Pope’s words, he isn’t indicating any change in church teaching. She points up that the pope said that the church doesn’t want to wound gays and lesbians, but “Francisco doesn’t seem to understand that it’s precisely the teaching of the church that’s doing the wounding”. Manson asks a broader question, “What good is a more pastoral church when, ultimately, gays and lesbians are still told their relationships are sinful, women are still barred from answering God’s call to ordained ministry, African-American women and men routinely affected by HIV/AIDS can’t get access to condoms, women in need of lifesaving abortions are forced to die, and starving families in countries like the Philippines are denied access to condoms?” Manson has a point. It’s possible that the most that Francisco’s words would accomplish would be to neutralise those bishops who lean whichever way the papal wind blows. Worse, the pope’s comments would provide protective cover for the more outspoken orthodox bishops. They might tone down their comments, but they’d not change their attitudes or their policies.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York may praise Francisco, but Dolan compared same-sex marriage to incest and declared that gays and lesbians “don’t have the right stuff”. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, the American church’s cheerleader against same-sex marriage, hasn’t let Francis’ softer tone slow down his continued negative crusade. Cordileone and others like him are young enough to wait out Francis, organise before the next papal conclave, and put a true believer back in place. Pope Francisco might be a bridge builder, but, for now, no bridge is long enough to span the dichotomy between the church’s expression of love for gays and lesbians and the simultaneous condemnation of them when they act consistent with their nature. I’m a 73-year-old, white, heterosexual male, and I haven’t been on the receiving end of the ignorance, hate, and narrow orthodoxy that religious belief can still stir up. Yet, Jamie Manson and her partner have been. My son and his partner have been… and thousands like them, all made in the image and likeness of God, were on the receiving end of hate and ignorance, and in the context of our church, the maddening, wounding, mixed message of love and condemnation.
Until there’s an openness to new interpretations of Scripture regarding homosexuality, until the new thinking on natural law is accepted that sexual orientation isn’t a choice but part of the nature of the person, and until the growing number of moral theologians who offer compelling arguments that sexual acts should be seen in terms of harm or good to individuals rather than in terms of offending God, there’s no lasting change and the wounds remain open. What’s more, our new pope, unintentionally, might seduce many into thinking that things are getting better and provide cover for the Cordileones of our church to continue their campaign of condemnation and exclusion. On the other hand, I’ve learned from my own recent life experiences that God’s grace can mysteriously arise out of excruciating pain, so I don’t give up hope. Nor would I want to underestimate the potential grace of a modern-day pope who prioritises Jesus’ message of love and inclusiveness over doctrine and orthodoxy.
8 November 2013
Brian Cahill is the retired executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities. He’s a volunteer suicide prevention trainer with the San Francisco Police Department. He writes occasionally for the San Francisco Chronicle and the National Catholic Reporter.
I agree with Mr Cahill:
I’ve learned from my own recent life experiences that God’s grace can mysteriously arise out of excruciating pain, so I don’t give up hope. Nor would I want to underestimate the potential grace of a modern-day pope who prioritises Jesus’ message of love and inclusiveness over doctrine and orthodoxy.
Pope Francisco Bergoglio is a sincere straight human being, with correct impulses as far as social justice and politics go. In fact, he’s in total agreement with HH on such matters. I’ve praised that, I praise it now, and I’ll continue to praise it. On the other hand, Francisco’s the “same old salesman with the same old shop-worn goods”. That is, in terms of Church doctrine and dogma, he’s still “Frankie Bag o’ Donuts” (as one of the Cabinet put it), with no new items to put on the table. In short, there’s no breakthrough in the offing… not now, not soon, not later… no way, no how. No Orthodox Christian wants a Unia… that’s all that Francisco has on offer concerning us.
I wish Francisco well and at least ten more years of active life to put some parts of the Vatican to rights. However, there’s no prospect of any healing of the Great Latin Schism… they haven’t repented of 1054, nor shall they. Ergo, “send us letters of friendship, only”… that’s the only thing graspable by human hands. God willing, we can do that, at least…