Friday, September 27, 2013

Pope Francis and Changing the Catholic Conversation: More Recent Commentary

Now that I'm back home from my trip to testify, I'm still playing catch-up with articles I had bookmarked last week. I hope some of these may be of interest to readers. Here's a set that has to do with Pope Francis's recent conversation-shifting interview:

In the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Peter Wensierski employs that metaphor of shifting the conversation that I have just used and which I also used previously to frame what may be taking place with Francis's interview: Wensierski states, "In his interview with Civiltà Cattolica, published last week, Francis made it clear that he is fundamentally changing the nature of discourse in the Catholic Church."

And then he quotes Alois Glück, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, who notes that the Catholic conversation is shifting in precisely the following way with Pope Francis: noting that, on behalf of lay Catholics in Germany, Glück is "calling for more courage and an end to silence, especially 'on questions of sexual ethics,'" Wensierski observes that Glück finds "the overwhelming majority of Catholics strongly favor necessary changes" in this aspect of Catholic teaching.

And so:

No one can claim anymore that the pressing issues are merely of interest to fringe groups. They have arrived at the center of the church.

In the view of a leader of a group representing the voice of lay Catholics in a national church, Francis is opening the dialogic space of the center, which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had kept fast shut to the voice of the laity. He is opening that dialogical space to a voicing of concerns about magisterial teaching regarding sexuality. This brings what has been treated as a marginal and unimportant discussion (since it originates with the laity, who constitute, after all, 99%+ of the membership of the church) to the very center of the church.

In a series of soundbyte statements in the New York Times this past weekend, various lay Catholics (and other non-Catholic commentators like Rod Dreher) in the U.S. examine the effect of Francis's shifting of the conversation on American political life. For right-wing commentator Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, Francis's opening of the conversation will have no effect at all--since nothing new has really happened with Francis. Nothing to see here, move along; any impression that the conversation has opened or shifted is simply the hype of secular media out to get the Catholic church:

Pope Francis’s interview will have no effect on how American bishops engage in politics because the press has misrepresented what he said.

Rod Dreher offers a somewhat saner right-wing perspective, which entertains the possibility that Francis may, indeed, be saying something of importance--though Dreher laments a new pastoral direction that he personally finds "naïve and discouraging." He laments it because it allows American Catholics a "license" to think for themselves and to disagree that he fears:

Though surely he didn’t intend to, Francis has just given license to those Americans who devoutly wish the bishops would be quiet about Catholic truths they find inconvenient.

This question of license, of wayward children lay Catholics inclined to get badly out of hand without a stern papa figure at the top of the church wagging his finger in constant reproof of the unbridled licentiousness of the people of God: it occupies a central role in Dreher's imagination (and that of other right-wing men as they comment about the interface of religion and politics). Immediately after Francis's interview was released, Dreher informed American Conservative readers that the pope had been "very, very naive" in urging Catholics to shift their attention from the perennially preoccupying pelvic issues of abortion, contraception, and homosexuality to the gospels, because "[t]he world wants to be told, 'It’s okay, do what you like.'"

But where right-wing journalists like Dreher see the possibility of a naiveté-driven rush over cliffs of lay license, people like theologian Cecilia González-Andrieu hear echoes of the gospels--echoes of the "stories of radical reversal" for which the Jesus of the gospels is famous. In González-Andrieu's estimation, what is absolutely critical to note about Francis's remarks is precisely what Dreher laments and what Donohue wants to pretend has not taken place: they shift the Catholic conversation away from "small-minded rules" about ideological issues to the gospels and to what counts above all in the gospels:

Obsessing about "small minded rules" on ideological issues has to stop in favor of caring for the most urgent issues of human suffering and the most vulnerable among us. The pope makes it clear that the bishops have to listen (intently and with open hearts) to the very real pain in their communities, to "heal wounds."

Sister Simone Campbell agrees, and she thinks that this shift of the conversation will affect American public life: 

Now we have a breath of fresh air. This fresh air is disturbing to those who have engineered the narrow message. I can only imagine that those who have been focused on abortion and same sex marriage are angry at the sea change. Their crafty plans of using faith for a right-wing political agenda are crashing down around their ears. Pope Francis is saying that the Gospel cannot be used to benefit one political party.

As does Charles Rangel, who hears Pope Francis calling American Catholics "to be a compelling force on socioeconomic issues instead of obsessing over one's choices that should be left for only God to judge." 

What remains to be seen is whether the U.S. Catholic bishops, who are, after all, chiefly responsible for laying those "crafty plans" to use faith for a right-wing political agenda benefitting a single political party, will decide to get on board with the new agenda. For Frances Kissling, Francis at least offers the U.S. bishops a way out of the cul-de-sac they've worked hard to place themselves and their church in: 

Americans are so tired of the ugliness of the abortion debate -- and in fairness, there are examples of it on all sides. Ending that ugliness is essential to the restoration of our democracy. So far the bishops have been part of the problem; the pope offers a way out of marginalization. Let’s hope they take it.

Let's hope, indeed. But even as I hold an open space for hope in my heart, I remind myself of how seldom, over the course of my life, I've seen people who have become addicted to power and privilege (and the superficial moral analysis that bolsters power and privilege) willingly eschewing their power over others and the unjust privilege this power over others permits. Or, for that matter, willingly eschewing the superficial moral platitudes they use to justify their power and privilege and abuse of others . . . .

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