Saturday, March 16, 2013

Tim Padgett for Time: Hope Muted by Reality in Case of Pope Francis

In an essay at Time, journalist Tim Padgett expresses both hope that Pope Francis will be a significant reformer of Padgett's Catholic church, and doubt about whether he can achieve the kind of reform many Catholics envisage, given some strong aspects of his history. There is, for instance, Padgett notes, the matter of Francis's response to proposals for marriage equality in Argentina, which in his view, went beyond pro forma denunciations and were "especially hateful."

And so, while Padgett finds Francis's advocacy for the downtrodden refreshing and a retrieval of an aspect of Catholic identity that has been obscured of late, he asks bluntly who the downtrodden are for the new pope, and whether his conspicuous blind spot when it comes to his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will significantly undermine his appeal to Catholics to make common cause with those on the margins:

It’s refreshing, at a time when so many in the Catholic hierarchy stand accused of covering up clerical sexual abuse in order to protect their ecclesiastical fraternity, to see a prince of the church defending the underdogs of the world. 
And yet, in 2010, we found out that Bergoglio’s attitude toward other underdogs can be remarkably cruel. When Argentina legalized gay marriage that summer, the objection of the Catholic hierarchy, which considers homosexuality a sin, wasn’t surprising. But it wasn’t enough for Bergoglio to criticize the law; he felt compelled to demonize homosexuals in the process—calling gay unions “a scheme to destroy God’s plan” and “a dire anthropological throwback.”

And so as a Catholic who believes in hope and who wants the best for his church, Padgett finds himself caught now, between the promise of hope that the new pope seems to hold out, and the reality of what the pope appears to stand for in some areas in which the members of his own church see things quite differently than Francis himself does:

And As a Catholic, let me first follow my religion’s tenets before those of my profession and indulge in some fides, spes et caritas (faith, hope and charity). I want to give Francis, even if he is 76 and set in his dogma, the benefit of the doubt. (This despite questions about whether, when he was leader of Argentina’s Jesuit priests in the 1970s, he ever denounced the sadistic right-wing military junta of that era, which tortured and killed some 30,000 suspected leftists.) I want to believe that his history as an advocate for the poor will bring him to see that today’s church is spending an inordinate amount of time, energy and ultimately moral credibility persecuting homosexuals, feminists and other “heretics” while it’s de-prioritizing, at least in the public’s eye, its core Christian (and human) mission of compassion and redemption. 
What I and millions of other Catholics hope most is that Francis, once he’s set up on the Tiber instead of the Rio de la Plata, will transcend the Latin American church that formed him. During the Cold War, papal predecessors like John Paul II were spooked by clerical movements in Latin America such as liberation theology, which prodded the church toward a “preferential option for the poor” but often naively embraced Marxism. But the truth is that the Latin American church is one of the world’s most reactionary. Its anti-gay crusade (Argentina’s gay marriage law is a decided exception in the region) in fact feels mild compared to its rigidity on women’s issues. Thanks to the Catholic hierarchy’s hardline political power, no region has as many countries (five) that ban abortion in all cases, even rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk. At the same time, few regions have such draconian restrictions on access to birth control

I don't look for change now in any of these areas. Not change, as in substantive change in what the leaders of my church choose to say or do about these issues.

Where I'd hope for signs of change with this new pope is in the area of style rather than substance. It would be a hugely welcome departure from how my church leaders have been doing business under the last two popes if said leaders chose to listen before they pontificate now.

In fact, it would be a hugely welcome departure if they'd simply forego the pontificating for a while and place the accent on consulting and listening. It's not as if we don't already know what they intend to say anyway, is it?

(I'm grateful to Crystal Watson for bringing this essay to my attention.)

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