Originally posted at Talk to Action.
The recent dust-up over the meeting between Pope Francis and culture warrior Kim Davis has caused the Pontiff’s stock to fall somewhat among liberals. Many of us felt let down by the pope’s opposition to marriage equality after his uplifting talk and formal declarations about confronting the causes of both global warming and economic inequality.
But with that said, it is for wiser to look at the Pope’s actions as opposed to individual statements. And for that reason he has put the Catholic Church on the trajectory for positive change.
As a liberal Catholic I can fully understand this disappointment many progressives felt when they learned that the pope and met with Kentucky marriage license clerk Kim Davis. On issues such as birth control, choice, and embryonic stem cell research I am in disagreement with the current pontiff. Those differences of theological opinion also extend to marriage equality.
Yet, I am not about to call it quits on this pope. His leadership on economics and the environment are historic and possibly world changing (That is certainly his goal). That is why I reject the recent claim of MSNBC host, Christopher Hayes that, “The Pope does not have your politics.”
And as a liberal and a cradle Catholic, I have learned to how to listen to the sometime esoteric meanings in discussions by Catholic clergy including those in the hierarchy as well as the many private conversations I have had with priests and nuns. And I combine that experience with the concept of trajectory: in politics or religion very few persons remain static; their ideas are almost always subject to change. What is indeed actually extremely difficult is effecting change within a 2000-year-old institution that tends to move very slowly, even glacially.
Pope Francis, at least officially, toes the Catholic Church’s teachings against marriage equality. Critics often point to his vehement exchanges while serving as a Cardinal with Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner over his opposition to gay marriage. But I suspect that he may be evolving, (albeit on a distinctly Catholic trajectory) just as politicians from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton have evolved.
Consider for example, where Abraham Lincoln stood on African-American citizenship before the Civil War and the very different place he stood at the time of his death. Think about where Lyndon Johnson stood on civil rights when he was a U.S. senator from the state of Texas and what he did as president of the United States. In Lincoln’s case he was on a progressive trajectory from seeing African-Americans as people to be liberated from slavery and then colonized overseas to the point where he understood their right to American citizenship. In Johnson’s case we see a man who went from being a supporter of segregation to being perhaps the single most effective president on civil rights. As a life-long Catholic I sense that something similar is happening with Pope Francis.
Many of us grew who grew up Catholic during the late 1960s and 1970s remember the priest who would not talk harshly about birth control or the divorced Catholics who received communion. The same sort of priest would often give, at best, only lip service to the Church position on choice. And when you would talk privately to such a priest he would advise you to simply “follow your conscience.” I detect the same qualities in Francis.
What separates Francis from his two immediate predecessors is that he is calling for discussion and debate on certain hot-button issues (at least those for Church conservatives) such as streamlining annulments and being more gracious to gay and lesbian Catholics. And to this certain gestures such as Francis’s recently memorialized meeting with a former student of his and his homosexual partner. All this leads me to conclude that Francis is internally wrestling with the issue of greater inclusion much in the same way Lincoln wrestled with the issue of ending slavery in the middle of the Civil War. I sense that even though he won’t (or seemingly cannot at the risk of schism) openly admit to this possibility he is trying to find a way to reconcile Church teaching to what he may believe in his soul is truly just.
The current pope is in charge of the Catholic Church that has been wandering in the wilderness the last 50 years. After the brief but enlightening papacy of Pope John XXIII, which ended in 1963, we experienced the sometimes progressive but often indecisive Pope Paul VI. It was under Paul where reactionaries could claim their first major victory in 10 years with the anti-birth control encyclical, Humanae Vitae — this despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of clergy, theologians, and medical experts brought in by the Vatican to consult on the issue concluded that birth-control was not in conflict with principles of natural law. Then, after the all too brief reign of Pope John Paul I came the rule of more than 35 years of two conservative popes — John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
As a heterosexual Catholic I understand that I cannot fully appreciate the frustration that my fellow gay and lesbian co-religionists experience at this point. It is far too easy for me to plead patience when I am not rejected as much as they are rejected. But with that said, I do see reason for hope.
If I am indeed correct about Francis’s inner intentions, then he is going to need a lot of help. It will require the kind of external pressure that only groups such as DignityUSA can organize and bring to bear. But to bring about fuller inclusiveness a lot of the rest of us rank and file will have to play our part. We will have to voice our support for LGBT Catholics. This will help and encourage those in the hierarchy similarly wrestling with this issue will have the strength and support to speak their conscience with less fear of retribution.
In those 35-plus years many regressive things occurred. We saw the rise of Opus Dei within the church. American Catholic neoconservatives wielded too much power and influence in Rome. Hardliners such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, Archbishop Charles Chaput and others were elevated to positions of power. The American hierarchy in particular became saturated with Neo-conservatives and cultural warriors. Not surprisingly, many prominent members of the hierarchy serve as the Catholic auxiliary of the Republican Party. It will take time to refresh the Church with a distinctly Catholic identity again.
Francis has many enemies, both within and without the Catholic Church. He elicits edginess, defiance and sometimes rage from Church traditionalists and über-conservatives. But most of all he elicits fear from them. Why is that so? Simply because they understand the concept of trajectory.
As I have written before, Pope Francis is a Jesuit. Unlike many of the more reactionary forces within the Catholic Church the Jesuits thrive on open discussion. This terrifies many on the Catholic Right. From their own experience they know full well that ideas once considered radical can become mainstream. In our own American experience consider the trajectory of support for gay marriage. Only a generation ago many Americans rejected the idea. Now that it has been openly broached and discussed, marriage equality has progressed quickly from widespread acceptance to being held as a right by the highest court in the land.
The Catholic Right and their allies clearly recognize that Francis is not the culture warrior that his two immediate predecessors were. They fear that Francis will bring back the moderates and liberals who left the Church. They can see the more tolerant, more open-minded clergy that he is elevating into the hierarchy; clergy such as Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich who has called for more out reach to LGBT and divorced Catholics. This is their worst nightmare. As I have written here before it is their goal to make the church smaller and for more reactionary. Movement conservatives such as Opus Dei priest C. John McCloskey openly dream of a Catholic church where moderate and liberals are replaced by conservative evangelical members. The papacy of Pope Francis threatens this dystopian goal.
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