Friday, January 10, 2014

As New Year Is Underway, Media Meme Emerging: Is Francis Fever Breaking?

As this first full week of the new year ends, an interesting meme I see emerging in the media: Francis fever may be breaking. At least, a little bit.

At Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner asks bluntly this week whether Francis's media honeymoon is perhaps now over. She points to two articles I had already queued up to cite here as examples of the apparent cooling of the media's Francis fever--Luke Coppen's recent rebuke (in The SpectatorI) of liberals who imagine Francis is one of us (well, I prefer the term "progressive" as my own self-designation), and David Gibson's recent Religion News Service article in the same vein.

Posner points specifically to the . . . nothing at all . . . Francis has done up to now to address magisterial teaching about homosexuality, nothing that indicates he would ever envisage open, honest critical reassessment of magisterial sexual teaching in general. She recommends Mary Hunt's recent essay at Religion Dispatches about three things regarding Francis that worry her as a feminist theologian--an essay I discussed here earlier this week. As that essay notes, nothing at all that Francis has said up to this point suggests that he would envisage open, critical reassessment of the magisterial position about homosexuality.

Jamie Manson* echoes and reiterates the preceding cautions in a piece published yesterday by National Catholic Reporter about the firing of Mark Zmuda by Eastside Catholic school in Seattle, after he married his longtime same-sex partner. Whereas, earlier in the week, I held out the possibility that the pope may be playing a good-cop, bad-cop game as spokesmen like Father Antonio Spadaro of Civiltà Cattolica or Vatican press guru Father Federico Lombardi parse his pastoral-seeming utterances about gay people, Jamie Manson insists,

Spadaro, who is rumored to be the Vatican's next chief spokesman, clarifies a point that has caused much confusion in the general perception of Francis' understanding of same-sex relationships. Francis believes gays and lesbians should be treated with compassion and welcome, but he will continue to insist that same-sex relationships are sinful. 
Spadaro's rendering of Francis' beliefs is right on target, and LGBT Catholics and those who support them would be wise to hear Spadaro's words as if they'd come from Francis himself.

Further evidence of the cooling of Francis fever is to be found in a posting Andrew Sullivan made yesterday at his Dish site, in which he provides excerpts of readers' responses to his recent article on Francis as the "untier of knots." A number of these statements flatly dissent from the glowing assessment of Francis many media interpreters have offered up to now. 

I'm especially interested in this response:

He’s moving away from the disaster of the conservative agenda of the last 30 years. It remains to be seen if he goes the distance. He’s made a good start with removing a theocon or two, but it remains to be seen if he addresses the institutional cover up of child abuse that has been Benedict's Legacy. And he seems to be going forward with the instant canonization of JPII. I’m not a Catholic, so I’m not as involved in hoping there's a home for gay people in the church. But in my judgment he's only gotten "sucks a lot less than the last few" to his credit. Don’t canonize him at the beginning of his reign.

I tend to concur. "Sucks a lot less than the last few" is hardly a recipe for the kind of wide-reaching, root-and-branch reform an institution sick unto death really needs in order to realign itself again with the core teachings and ideals it has conspicuously betrayed in many of its recent practices and teachings. I also agree, of course, with the sound and important point that until Francis addresses the abuse situation proactively, there is no reason at all to hope that the church is being reformed.

I remain cautious about the possibility that Pope Francis can and will begin the much-needed reform process in my church for a number of reasons, which I've set forth here in the past: 

1. I simply haven't seen any really new conversation opening within Catholic media circles after Francis has been elected. I hear the same voices functioning as official mediators and interpreters of papal statements, providing official parsing of papal statements, that I've heard for some years now. And so, when those very voices tell me that Francis stands for something very new, for reform, I am unmoved.

2. Many of these are the voices of cleric-journalists who benefit from the clerical system as much as do any other clerics--but who often seem unwilling to entertain really incisive analysis of the clericalism that has caused such deep sickness in our church. Many of these voices are also the voices of heterosexual (or, in some cases, heterosexual-posturing) men whose access to the mainstream media has everything in the world to do with their gender and sexual orientation--but who appear equally unwilling ever to assess the unmerited power and privilege they possess as heterosexual men (or men perceived to be heterosexual when they're not).

3. When tired old voices keep assuring me that something new is on the horizon, I find it hard to listen--especially when I don't see these voices bringing news of reform, of the breakthrough of the new into the church. When I don't seem them doing anything at all to bring much-needed new voices from the margins into the official conversations that make Catholic identity . . . .

I will admit, however, that I'm refractory and stubborn enough to want to keep contesting the claim of these voices of the old to own Catholic teaching in some official and exclusive way. I do continue to push back against that claim because I simply don't accept it--and I'm therefore highly suspicious when these same voices that have been telling me Francis is worth watching as a bearer of good news now suddenly inform me that, well, after all, Catholic teaching is set in stone and Francis can't, of course, possibly change it.

Because my field of study as a Catholic doctoral theology student was the history of Christian thought, I'm aware of how ill-grounded are almost all claims that historically conditioned teachings and practices are set in stone. The teachings and practices of the Catholic church have always changed. They have changed much over the course of Catholic history.

And they'll continue to change, no matter how much those who have everything invested in announcing that it's impossible to change church teaching try to reassure us that they're fixed for all eternity. (And as long as I'm confessing that I'm refractory and stubborn, I'll also confess that I do enjoy the discomfiture of many of those on the political and religious right, who have long thought they own papal statements, obviously display when the new pope opens his mouth and says what they do not intend for him to say about socioeconomic issues--or even compassion for those who are gay.)

P.S. See also the latest of Peter Montgomery's new weekly global recaps of LGBT religion news for another brief discussion of Francis's remarks about compassion for children of same-sex couples, and the question of whether those remarks really do indicate any new opening to gay couples in the Catholic church.

* I have just realized that in comments here in the past few days, and perhaps in postings, too, I've misspelled Jamie's given name. My apologies for that--and I'll try to review my previous postings and comments to see where I've used a misspelling, and to correct it.

Later: ✓ done. I did find I've misspelled Jamie Manson's name a number of times in previous postings, and hope I've now corrected each instance, with apologies to Jamie for the misspellings.

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