Cautious excitement and barely concealed twinges of hopeful, fragile giddiness arise now in the voices of the disaffected-, legacy-, and lapsed-Catholic refugees (like me). We wonder, is it Christmas morning? Is the gift we’ve wanted so much–yet dared not hope to ever really get–now nestled under the tree? Shall we go down to see or is it better to wait longer in bed relishing the hope and postponing the moment when we must confront whatever–probably disappointing–reality lies in wait?
So many hints of late: First the atmospherics of humility surrounding his installation (including his selection of the name Francis), then the bold pronouncements of his Evangelii Gaudium (“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality”…) And now this week’s concrete action to reorganize the Congregation of Bishops and clip the wings of the Church’s culture warrior stars from the Ratzinger-Benedict Studio system (including a very public and conspicuous decision not to retain the odious Raymond Burke. Even the Vatican press is overtly calling attention to Francis’s moves:
In a clear sign of renewal, Pope Francis has made significant changes in the membership of the Congregation for Bishops which oversees the process for the selection of bishops in Europe, the Americas and Oceania… In another very clear sign of renewal, Pope Francis has made highly significant changes in the membership of the Congregation for Bishops, demonstrating that he wants more pastorally-minded bishops involved in the selection process of new bishops.
I can’t help it. I feel encouraged. Literally en-couraged.
In February of 2011, after a dismaying encounter with a hundred or so Catholic School students, I wrote this:
In the savageness of its intolerance, the Church seems now to be drifting into the same wide lane bound for the same lost off-ramp as those fringe radical Islamic clerics (of both Shia and Sunni sects) who advocate a ‘return’ to a twisted version of Sharia Law, sharing with them the same particular and peculiar focus on matters of sexuality and women…The Vatican now chooses to use its moral authority to focus the attention of the faithful on the Gospels’ scant concerns regarding who sleeps with whom (and on what women do to deal with unwanted pregnancies)…the Vatican now flexes its considerable political clout to bring governments in the Christian world to heel on matters of sexuality and women—in the name of reestablishing a culture of life, you see—while expending not one lira of political capital for public responsibility for social justice (or what some folks would call the preferential option and basic Catholic Social Teaching).”
My conclusion was a kind of confession and admonition to myself:
And so I wonder: Is it finally time for me to stop fretting and hand-wringing about the direction of the Catholic Church, to grow up and stop flinging feces at the indifferent edifice of the Official Church and simply accept that it will not change course; it will not become the towering force for justice that it could be; it will not give its fullest cry to the state’s fundamental responsibilities for care and provision; it will not moderate and bring balance to its now obsessive concerns with human sex and sexuality…?
But now what?
Is it real? Are we now witnessing the first glimpses of a refocused moral attention?
Is Francis, as it begins to seem, really tending the garden of the faith’s public landscape to draw the attention of the world away from the strangling vines of culture war and toward the Gospels’ lush meadow of love, grace, and care. Already Francis takes the fragile moment of opportunity provided by the world’s curiosity about a new Pope to beckon our attention to Christ’s lavish mercy and to the Church’s long-since articulated but recently eclipsed teaching about the preferential option for the poor, to the demands of economic justice and to the responsibility of states to manifest justice, social inclusion, protection from exploitation and predation, and to provide care.
And now this week, he has made real changes that signal quite clearly that–while he will continue to uphold the Church’s commitments to what it deems “culture of life” issues–he intends to disentangle culture of life from cultural warfare. He is demoting the cultural warfare agenda pushed by the fanatics of intolerance and instead promoting the Church’s role in justice, care, and community.
As I read the text of Evangelii Gaudium, I find reason to hope that Francis may be clearing the Church’s throat so that it may indeed “give its fullest cry to the state’s fundamental responsibilities for care and provision.” How could we have expected this?
The very fact of the ferocious criticism (and often unhinged refutations) that Francis’s words and deeds have elicited from those non-Catholic christian conservatives that have become used to feeling a convenient alliance with the Church (the same Church whose “idolatrist” members’ children they would have not so long ago forbid their own children to invite home) tells us the Pope has become Catholic.
…some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. [Section 54]
Moreover, by framing the crisis as something transcending even exploitation–framing it as social exclusion–Francis may be creating the space for a reconsideration of the Church’s recent efforts to make a point of supporting policies that amount to systematic social exclusion of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered brothers and sisters. And even if this is not his intent, the logic of his concern for social inclusion does indeed create space for that critique.
It’s worth noting that a series of Popes have talked this talk before; the difference is, Francis seems to be intent on acting on the teachings.
All this sudden blossoming of Catholic Social Teaching on economic justice–this focus on the concrete implications of the Gospels–coupled, as Francis emphasizes, with a Church that he intends to lead away from what he sees as its “desk-bound theology”, focus on bureaucratic administration, and “ostentatious preoccupation for the liturgy, for doctrine and for the Church’s prestige” and toward full-blooded pastoral engagement in and with the lives of people– it is a breathtaking vision.
I cannot exactly say why I find this exciting. Afterall, I am no longer a Catholic.
And anyway, it’s just religion stuff…
 Burke being the cretinous pol-cleric who, in the midst of the 2004 presidential election, asserted with great fanfare that John Kerry and other Catholic politicians who publicly support legalized abortion should not be allowed to receive communion. (And conservative Catholics now cry “political” about Francis’s public statements about public responsibility for the poor…)
- Sr. Jeannine Gramick Comments on Pope Shaking Up Bishops (newwaysministryblog.wordpress.com)
- Pope Francis I Makes a Decision Regarding the Bishops That Begins to Replace the Old Guard on the advent of his 77th Birthday (peoplesadvocacycouncil.wordpress.com)