The mainstream media love to play the centrist (which is to say, right-wing-in-disguise) game of pretending that Catholic teaching about doctrinal or moral issues cannot be revised and never has been changed. History notwithstanding: history and all it demonstrates to us about how, in fact, Catholic teaching has been changed in the past, and repeatedly so, notwithstanding . . . .
And so a constant theme in the mainstream media since Pope Francis came on the scene has been the theme, "He can't possibly change Catholic teaching about xyz (usually, this conversation is about homosexuality, women's ordination, sexual ethics including contraception, and abortion). He's a loyal son of the church."
I like how James Carroll pulls the rug out from under that mainstream media meme (which, I'll repeat, serves right-wing interests) in his recent New Yorker reflection on "a radical pope's first year":
Francis describes himself as a loyal "son of the Church," and has a record as a doctrinal conservative. Many observers insist that in a Church understood as semper idem—always the same—the most that even an apparently innovative figure like Francis can effect is "pastoral" adjustments in discipline or practice: a merciful easing up on rules without repealing them. Even if he wanted to, Pope Francis could not alter the basic beliefs of the Church.
But in fact the Church has made profound doctrinal changes in living memory. In 1964, the council repudiated a millennium-long tradition of "No Salvation Outside the Church." That formulation dates at least to the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, and was reiterated by councils and Popes through my youth. Vatican II overturned the doctrine by affirming the primacy of conscience—a teaching Francis has reiterated, applying it to atheists as well.
Still more momentous is the council’s rejection of the "Christ-killer" slander against Jews, which has its roots in the Gospels. The council even affirmed that the covenant which God made with Israel is full and permanent—a reversal of the "replacement" theology that had defined Catholic self-understanding from the time of the Church fathers. Francis affirmed the rupture that separates current attitudes from tradition when he said, "Through the awful trials of these last centuries, the Jews have preserved their faith in God. And for this, we, the Church and the whole human family, can never be sufficiently grateful to them." Jewish preservation of faith, of course, presumed an ongoing Jewish rejection of claims made for Christ. What Jews were condemned for across centuries, that is, they must be thanked for today. None of the potential changes to doctrine facing the contemporary Church compare with the depth of this revision.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, of New York, is typical of those conservatives who insist that Francis’s unprecedented "style" alters nothing of "substance," a position Dolan reiterated early this month. "A Pope, by his nature, can’t make doctrinal changes," Dolan said on NBC’s "Meet the Press." "He can make a lot of changes in the way, the style, the manner in which it’s presented."
Prediction #1 for 2014: we're going to hear the historically amnesiac, facile argument about how Catholic teaching can't possibly be changed with increasing insistence in 2014, as the media comment on Francis and the Francis effect. The meme is going to be directed in a quite specific way against women seeking ordination and gay folks seeking decent treatment from Catholic officials and institutions.
But its real intent is to undercut Francis's teaching about economic issues, and his attempt to move the issues of marginalization and exclusion to the center of the Catholic conversation about the socioeconomic sector. Women and gays are still handy utilitarian diversionary tools for those who intend to fight tooth and nail against Francis's economic teaching--notably, for the super-rich, for political parties that dance to the tune of the super-rich, and for the allies of the super-rich and their preferred political parties in the Catholic hierarchy.
And so prediction #2 for 2014: we're going to see more and more adroit (and downright cynical) attempts of these interest groups to seed in the mainstream media stories like the recent report by Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta that Pope Francis is "shocked" by the idea of gay adoption of children. The point of these stories is not so much to inform us that Francis abides by traditional Catholic teachings about homosexuality: it's to undercut Francis's effect as a teacher in the economic arena by dividing those inclined to welcome his socioeconomic teachings around issues of gender and sexual orientation.
As you assess the Scicluna report, keep in mind that Scicluna was a student of Cardinal Raymond Burke, who directed Scicluna's dissertation, and who was recently displaced by Francis from his kingmaking role in appointing new U.S. Catholic bishops. Cardinal Burke is, if anything at all, a creature of super-rich elites (and here) in the U.S. who have long intended to make the U.S. Catholic church into a bulwark against the kind of liberal values represented by progressive strands of the Democratic party. When you hear Scicluna inform the media that Pope Francis is stalwartly anti-gay, think Burke.
And then think Burke's handlers, the people who have flown him back and forth across the Atlantic for some years now, to speak at one right-wing Catholic event in the U.S. after another, to preach the Catholic Republican gospel. To say that these handlers are intently displeased that Burke no longer has kingmaking influence as U.S. bishops are named would be a colossal understatement.
To say that they are terrified and angry about the pope's socioeconomic teaching would be another tremendous understatement. To undercut Francis and his socioeconomic teaching, one of the most effective tools they now have at their disposal is a divide-and-conquer tactic focusing on gay issues and the purported inability of the church to revise its understanding of gay people. Look for much more of this kind of undercutting, using gay lives as pawns in a cynical political game, in 2014. And look for mainstream media complicity in this tactic. You heard it here . . . .