Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Papal Visit Wrap-Up, Or Unwrapping Media Spin Along with Women, Abuse Survivors, and LGBT Catholics

Not a wrap-up of the papal visit, but an attempt to unwrap the neatly wrapped package that has just been delivered to us vis the media (i.e., via the self-appointed official mediators of reality for the rest of us) in the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S.:

Heidi Schlumpf reminding us to pay attention just who those mediators are:

And most commentators were ordained, or at least men. It would be interesting to analyze the tens of thousands of news article and clips produced throughout the weeklong trip. I have not completed such a comprehensive study, but my initial impression is that the coverage--and definitely the commentary--was male dominated. Part of this imbalance stems from the tendency of media to rely on "experts," who in the case of this story are assumed to be clergy. For example, I thought Charlie Rose could have done better than two priests and two laymen for his in-depth discussion of the pope’s visit.

What was it I was saying only yesterday about the imperative need to challenge the dead hand of control of the centrist gatekeepers of the Catholic media, in particular, where a mostly heterosexual, mostly white old boys' network that is shamelessly unapologetic about its unmerited privilege continues to claim the right to mediate news about God, the church, the pope to the rest of us?

Maureen Fiedler on how, once away from the U.S. and aboard the plane taking him back to the Vatican, Francis delivered himself of two rather stinky observations he had refrained from making explicitly within the U.S. — one about women's ordination, the other about religious freedom and the right of public officials to deny rights to others in the name of conscience (à la Kim Davis):

But this pope — however great on other issues — just does not "get it" when it comes to women. And it's not just women’s ordination, where his theology and thinking are way off base. 
It's his whole to approach to women. When he appointed five women to the International Theological Commission recently, he said they were like "strawberries on a cake." Really? That sounds like something that may have been seen as a compliment in the 1940s or 1950s, but today, it's an insult because of its triviality. But Francis apparently does not know that.

As Maureen Fiedler notes, when a reporter asked him on the plane whether women's ordination might ever be a possibility in the Roman Catholic church, Francis replied,

[O]n women priests, that cannot be done. Pope St. John Paul II after long, long intense discussions, long reflection said so clearly. Not because women don't have the capacity.   

To anyone who was alive and sentient when Pope St. John Paul II delivered himself of the decisive "that cannot be done" Francis is citing here, his recounting of how Pope St. John Paul II arrived at his decisive no is grimly hilarious. The "long, long intense discussions" and "long reflection" to which Francis points did not involve Pope St. John Paul II. Not as someone doing the discussing and thinking alongside other members of the church, that is to say . . . .

Pope St. John Paul II did not discuss. Period. Pope St. John Paull II declared. And he ordered. He certainly did appoint a theological commission to discuss the question of women's ordination, and that commission certainly did talk long and hard about the issue, and advised the pope that there was no sound theological reason for the church to keep denying ordination to women.

And those long, intense discussions were followed by Pope St. John Paul II's response to them: a peremptory no, an imperial declaration that the matter was closed and no such discussion could take place ever again. That imperial no has been the basis for the silencing of one theologian after another (my friend and classmate Sister Carmel McEnroy lost her tenured position at St. Meinrad seminary because of this, for instance) who dared to keep talking about the need of continued discussion of this issue, and it has been the basis of the removal of priests like Father Roy Bourgeois from the priesthood, and the removal of bishops like Bishop Bill Morris in Australia from their positions as bishops.

To his great discredit, Pope Francis seems to be affirming this dictatorial approach to discussion of an important theological issue, an approach that has had enormously baleful effects on the vitality of the church at this point in history. Calling the pope who pioneered this approach holy, a saint, does not make his dictatorial approach to church governance holy by a long shot, however.

And so Jamie Manson is absolutely correct to conclude, along with Linda Pinto, that "[e]ven after his remarkable visit, Pope Francis remains (in the words of Linda Pinto) a 'holy conundrum.' " Why a conundrum? As she also notes,

For all his beautiful words about equality, dignity, and not being "afraid to do new things," Francis still cannot seem to connect his ideals with the church's perpetuation of inequality, disempowerment, and sexism.

And then there's the abuse situation in the U.S. Catholic church, where, as Esquire columnist Charles Pierce, who is generally a strong supporter of Pope Francis, notes, the rubber of the papal visit finally met the road of reality on Francis's final day in the U.S., and the response was not nearly enough. Pierce's assessment:

In Philadelphia, by all accounts, the pope was gentle and understanding, but he also apparently remains stuck in an unhelpful and truthless paradigm regarding the offenses against God and man that were committed within the Church.​​

Pierce's link points to critically important commentary by David Clohessy of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests to NBC news about why Pope Francis's pretty words about sorrowing for the abuse crisis won't make a single child safer. 

Or, as Kristine Ward put the point yesterday in an editorial for the National Survivor Advocates Coalition newsletter, 

UFO sightings are more credible than the papal holding to account bishops, cardinals, chancellery and curia officials for the cover-up of the crisis.

And, finally, there's the pope's response to a question he was asked aboard the plane back to Rome about the Kim Davis situation — that is, about the right of a public official to claim religious freedom as a warrant for refusing to do her job and refusing to respect the rights of citizens she serves. I'll deal with that story in another separate posting. 

Here, I'd like to conclude by citing Armando Carmona's wrap-up of the papal visit to the U.S.,  which points to the same "holy conundrum" thing discussed by Linda Pinto and Jamie Manson: Carmona notes that the media representation of Francis as the "people's pope" only sharpens our perceptions of the "emerging contradictions" within the church — the contradiction between what is proclaimed (e.g., about human rights, the equality of all human beings before God, the need for justice for all, the need for the church to be ab out mercy) and what is actually practiced (e.g., in the case of women, LGBT people, and abuse survivors). 

Carmona writes, 

How should we situate the current pope in the context of a historically conservative institution and an evolving narrative about social change? While some attempt to categorize him as a progressive or even a feminist due to his discourse on women and the poor, others understand him to be a political actor who represents a highly hierarchical and patriarchal organization that affects nearly 1.2 billion people. Regardless of our personal feelings toward the pope, we must analyze his actions in the context of his position and the institution he represents.

And he concludes, 

Pope Francis poses a series of challenges to the world. As the head of the Catholic Church, he addressed a joint meeting of Congress asking US representatives and senators to show more compassion for immigrants, to abolish the death penalty and give mercy to criminals or those that have broken the law, to take care of the poor and address cycles of poverty, to protect the climate, to encourage youth to seek new opportunities and to end the global arms trade. These are historic interventions that challenge the stagnation in global politics. However, his progressive and moral discourse in the current moment must be understood in the context of an institution that for hundreds of years has been complicit with and often active in the marginalization of women and indigenous people.

I applaud this analysis, because it asks that we subject media spin about the Francis effect to the reality of the church's actual life, beyond the mediating framework of the mostly white, mostly heterosexual men who frame the pope for us. Viewed against the real, actual life of the church, the holy conundrum that is Francis is decidedly a mixed bag, one that brings into sharper focus than ever the emerging contradictions within a church that proclaims love, justice, and mercy as ideals for the rest of us, while its leaders often do not themselves embody such ideals in their behavior towards some of those on the margins of church and society.

And this conundrum raises the question with greater acuity than ever: can a church whose leaders do not themselves practice and embody the virtues they proclaim to the rest of us really be an effective agent of social change, one that effectively calls people to address a culture of greed that places power, profit, and property above people and their needs?

The photo is from the Holidays for Less blog, which credits the Style Me Pretty site as its source.

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