January 6, 2014
Trouble With Francis: Three Things That Worry Me
By Mary Hunt
Francis be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated engaging
in "spiritual exercises" in next month's issue?
spate of media attention he has received in the U.S. market, I
will not be surprised by anything. Just to head off distractions,
let me stipulate that I do have a heart, and approve of the personal
direction of this pope: a simple lifestyle, a commitment to the
poor, a soft touch with those who are young or ill, all indicate
a fine human being, indeed what Christianity would hold up as
I note only
that his predecessor popes and some of their episcopal sycophants
gave the job such a bad name that the bar is low. Undoing their
structures and policies, especially regarding criminal sexual
scandals and Vatican finances, will take longer than these first
nine months of the Francis papacy.
of a pope becoming a pop culture icon is fascinating, troubling,
and not a little confusing. Here are a few of the puzzles I'm
struggling with as I try to make sense of the current Catholic
All of the
enthusiasm about Francis style does not change the fact
that the institutional Roman Catholic Church is a rigid hierarchy
led by a popethe warm feelings in response to Francis shore
up that model of church by making the papacy itself look good.
To my mind, this is a serious danger.
I agree with his statements about eradicating poverty, becoming
friends with our enemies, and the like, I have scruples about
giving the new pope too much praiseas if other people have
not said the same things and more for eons.
is the ultimate bully pulpit, but it works both wayson things
that are progressive and things that are conservative. It is risky
to embrace papal remarks when one agrees, only to live long enough
to have another pope undo them. Conservatives are living that
reality as I write. The point is to be mature enough to set our
own moral trajectories and decenter papal authority.
All of the
efforts at church reformwhether the ordination of women,
married clergy, acceptance of divorced and/or LGBTIQ persons as
full members of the community, and many othersare based
on the assumption of widespread lay participation in an increasingly
democratic church. From that perspective, it does not make sense
to ordain more people to a closed clerical caste headed by the
Bishop of Rome, however socially progressive he may be.
all of these movements for change has been the working assumption
that a new participatory, democratic administrative model must
evolve. Key to that model is a deeply diminished authority role
for the pope and a much stronger emphasis on the popes function
as a symbol of the unity of the whole church. That is not something
that anyone accomplishes by kind deeds, but by structural change.
that neither Time nor The Advocates editors worry about
theological problems. Their task is to move magazines. But as
a theologian, I must point out how difficult their choice of cover
matter makes my job of institutional change. If I say something
negative about the current pope, then I am a wet blanket who cannot
embrace the good when I see it. If I say something positive about
Francis, then I am reinforcing and reinscribing the very power
structures that I think are deeply problematic for a healthy,
functional, and inviting church. This is a conundrum.
there is a difference between a person and a role. But in this
case, I daresay most people outside of Argentina would never have
heard of a certain Jorge Mario Bergoglio if he had not been elected
pope. It is the person in the role that matters.
To say it
baldly, the nicer the pope the stronger the papacy, and the harsher
the pope the stronger the papacy. The Roman Catholic Church has
been around for two thousand years for a reason. They always win,
or so it seems.
is that this spate of marvelous press renders it harder, not easier,
to make a case for a horizontal model of church. If such a wonderful
man is doing such a wonderful job in such a wonderful church,
who am I to judge?
of former Catholics why they now constitute the second largest
denomination (the Roman Catholic Church remains the biggest one)
in the United States. My only answer is that at the level of teaching
and structure nothingbut nothinghas changed this year.
A second difficulty
flows from the first, in that nothing has changed for women or
LGBTIQ people with regard to Catholicism during the early months
of this papacy. Nor is there much prospect on either issue given
what the pope has said publicly.
womens ordination, Francis has been clear: On the
ordination of women, the Church has spoken and said no. Pope John
Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed.
Just what is it that the media see as so promising here? Or, is
it the case that what happens to Catholic women does not really
more than half the worlds poor people are women and children,
this gives me pause about praising too soon. If one cannot act
justly toward those nearby and similar, why would one act justly
to those at a distance who are very different? I admit to confusion
that borders on incredulity
was the speculation that if Francis really wants to include women
in decision-making he could do so without much fanfare by adding
a few to the College of Cardinals that will elect his successor.
His reply was telling: Women in the Church must be valued,
not clericalized. Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers
a bit from clericalism. Whatever could he mean?
be tempted to think that he was dissing cardinals. But on closer
inspection, it is clear that women ought not to book tickets to
Rome just yet. Juxtaposing valued and clericalized
is odd at best, pernicious at worst. In a church in which ordained
male clergy have jurisdiction that is, authority to make
decisions about things that matterto claim that women who
cannot be ordained are valued is a hard case to make. Valued for
what and how?
We have heard
from Francis all about womens superior qualities, and how
Mary trumped the apostles in importance. But who is naïve
enough to believe that without any say in how the church operates
locally or globally Catholic women are valued? To say that to
think about women cardinals is a species of clericalism is beyond
The same goes
for the now-famous Who am I to judge? line about same-sex
love that won Francis such favor in both mainstream and gay press.
Two intertwined issues emerge. One is that every human being is
called to judge what is good, to recognize love when they see
it, and to acknowledge the value of committed relationships as
part of what constitutes a strong social foundation. To assume
that judge always means something negative, punitive,
rejecting is simply to fall into the Catholic trap that has ensnared
so many for centuries.
So my response
to this question is to say, You must judge, not because
you are the pope, but because you are a human being whose support
for what is good is useful and expected.
that many people, especially LGBTIQ people, have been hurt by
the judgmental (in the negative) teachings and practices of the
Roman Catholic Church. But I respectfully suggest that we keep
some perspective. We expect that human beings will affirm what
is good, not abdicate their responsibly to do so in the public
forum, even if they are the pope, for fear that they will offend
those who do not affirm the same goodness.
the very phrasing of the popes seemingly revolutionary comment
as a rhetorical question stands in sharp contrast to his usual
blunt, declarative approach to economic issues, for example. The
turn of phrase piqued my curiosity, aroused my suspicion about
what he really thinks about same-sex love. I want him and everyone
else to judge love positively where and when they find it.
A second critical
issue raises my suspicion even higher. Auxiliary Bishop Charles
Scicluna of Malta alleged that Pope Francis said that he was shocked
by the notion of same-sex adoption as part of a move toward civil
unions in Malta. He claimed that the Pope encouraged me
to speak out against it. Mr. Scicluna has done just that,
though it is not clear that other bishops of one of the most Catholic
countries in the world (also one of the smallest) agree.
pope doth protest too much. His native Argentina has same-sex
adoption. But perhaps he thinks that Malta is simply too fragile
to withstand the earthshattering impact of two people of the same
gender loving and caring for the same child for a lifetime.
It is perplexing
this papal doublespeak.
3. PR and
A third conundrum
of contemporary Catholicism is the remarkable, even enviable public
relations success, not to say coup, that the papacy of Pope Francis
I am not suggesting
that there is no substance to Francis agenda, that change
does not underlie it. Conservatives would not be so hot under
their collective collars if that were not the case. But I am cognizant
of the very powerful public relations machine that has turned
an ecclesial ocean liner on a dime, transformed an all but written-off
patriarchy into one of the most inviting, benevolent monarchies
the world has seen in modern times.
structural and doctrinal issues do not evaporate just because
the pope does not wear Prada.
of the credit for this PR blitz goes to former Fox
News and Time writer, Opus Dei member and Midwestern Catholic,
Greg Burke. He became senior communications advisor to the Vaticans
Secretariat of State in June 2012, well before the new pope took
over. Mr. Burke is commonly associated with moving the papacy
toward a more hip, social-media savvy approach to getting out
its word. It works. Papal tweets are new. But more important than
140 characters at a time are the remarkable visuals, photo ops
that dont quit, moving gestures of a humble, caring man
projected for the world to see and imitate. Only a craven critic
would pass over these as trivial.
Still, I am
left with a feminist theologians duty to think about (perhaps
overthink) the scenes. Is this the stuff of real change or is
it a way of shoring up a model of church that has endured for
centuries? Are those who reject the kyriarchal model as I do simply
to be told like other protesters before us that we can go elsewhere
when we are as Catholic as the Pope?
the women theologians called in to consult, the young people invited
to discuss their lives and choices? Where are the lay people who
might preach at the popes daily mass so he would listen
instead of speak sometimes? Where are the lesbian and gay seminarians
to explain the facts of life to an old Jesuit who entered the
Society of Jesus before gay was gay? Where are the survivors of
sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops to whom the institutional
church, beginning in Rome, owes reparations? I do not see signs
of them anywhere, nor do I expect to any time soon. Opus Dei is
not a clothing line, but a deeply ideological Catholic group that
stands for very conservative religious values. Rachel Maddow was
not tapped for the media job for a reason.
months is a short gestation even for a newbie pope. But waiting
quickly becomes complicity when there is so much at stakeso
many lives to be enhanced and spirits to be warmed, so much damage
to be undone and suffering to be prevented.
As we saw
with the rapid exit of Pope Benedict XVI, popes come and go. Older
people do not live and cannot work forever. So, while I wish Francis
multos annos, I am realistic enough to know that what
he does to bring about change in the Roman Catholic Church and
in the world he had better do now while the window is still open
and he can still see out of it.
Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D., is a feminist theologian who is co-founder
and co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and
Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic
active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on
theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.
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