Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pope Francis and Kim Davis: Pretty Words in Absence of Practice Fail to Make the Case

In comments here yesterday, several of you (e.g., MagpieinMadrid, Jerry Slevin, and Chris Morley) point to Pope Francis's response to a question by Terry Moran of ABC News as Francis returned to the Vatican. Moran asked Francis whether he supports government officials who claim, on grounds of religious freedom, a right not to do their jobs and to deny rights to other citizens. Francis's response to this question was utterly unnuanced: it sets up the right to religious freedom as an unqualified right that appears not to be weighed against any other rights in conflict situations, including the rights of people denied goods and services by government officials citing religious freedom as their warrant for denying rights to others.

What to make of the fact that Francis delivered this observation aboard the plane heading back to Rome, while, when he was in the U.S., he appeared to want to avoid making pointed comments about hot-button issues including same-sex marriage, and while he spoke about the dangers that fanaticism and fundamentalism create in a well-ordered society? What to make of the fact that he delivered himself of this and his observation about how discussion of women's ordination was decisively closed by John Paul II only after he left the U.S.?

I've been reading quite a bit of commentary about both remarks, of course, and am not sure I have a great deal of importance to say about them that hasn't already been said better by others. In a previous posting, I've already discussed the statement about women's ordination.

About the statement regarding the Kim Davis situation (Francis did not mention Kim Davis by name, as Jack Jenkins, Michael O'Loughlin, and many others have noted): I'd point out, first of all, that Francis did appear to avoid hitting the hot-button issues when he might have been expected to do so on his papal visit, particularly at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. 

He did certainly state in D.C. that he regards religious freedom as an important value to be pursued in societies working to build the common good. And that has been interpreted as code-speak for his endorsement of the U.S. bishops' "religious freedom" crusade, which is and always has been decidedly about the hot-button culture-war issues they want to bring to the public square as "the" Catholic contribution to discussions of the common good. 

On the other hand, he told the bishops in Philadelphia that incessant harping on the need to explain doctrinal issues while those doing such explaining do little in practice is unbalanced and counterproductive — a comment that David Gibson and others have taken to be a rebuke of the bishops' culture-war stance with its obsessive focus on abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. As a theologian, I hear in Francis's use of the word "practice" a liberation theological formula which holds that praxis precedes theorizing.

I hear him saying that people will buy into (or perhaps not) all the theoretical "explaining" about why same-sex marriage is wrong only when and if the bishops themselves "practice" what they're explaining: when they practice the Christian virtues in a way that gives some stamp of legitimacy to their preaching. I hear Francis echoing the statement often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: he is said to have told his followers to preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.

The bishops have wanted to believe — and have told us lay members of the church over and over again — that the big problem with how the teaching on same-sex marriage is received (or not received is more accurate) is that they just haven't explained it well enough to us yet. We, poor feckless, stolid babes that we are, just haven't quite yet understood what the bishops, with their stellar theological minds and scintillating educational backgrounds, are telling us.

The reality is that we understand quite well, and that we reject the teaching, and part of the reason we do so is that the bishops have lost their credibility as moral teachers. We simply refuse to hear them teach us about the evil of marriage equality when they have, almost to a man, participated in an evil cover-up of child sexual abuse by clerics.

So it's possible to hear what Francis told the bishops in Philadelphia as a counter to their argument that the church needs more and better explanation of its teachings on family and sexual morality — a key argument of conservatives as the synod on the family prepares to get underway in the coming month.

If all this is true, why would Francis then take away with one hand what he had seemed to give with the other hand as he flew back to Rome? And why did he choose the papal trip back home as his occasion to make these particular remarks?

I'm far, far removed from the world of Vatican politics, and I have no inside knowledge at all — I want no inside knowledge about what's happening in the Vatican. But if I had to make an educated guess as someone who has worked in academic administration and has seen at close hand how the top leaders of academic institutions behave, how they bend the truth and spin reality for the purposes of image management, I'd be tempted to say that Francis (and the bishops) are playing politics here.

Francis's response to Terry Moran's question appears to imply that he has little knowledge at all of Kim Davis's case. I'm inclined to doubt that claim. I find it rather difficult to believe he wouldn't have been very well-briefed by advisors including top U.S. bishops about what's going on in the American political scene and church, before he set foot on U.S. soil.

I tend to think that he knows very well what the Kim Davis story is all about, and that he wanted, after he had done his church-of-mercy thing while in the U.S., to signal to the U.S. bishops as he flew back home that he has their back as they push their bogus "religious freedom" argument — an argument that in his own formulation ends up in the ludicrous position of legitimating any and all behavior on the part of public servants who cry religious freedom as their trump card when they deny goods and services to others.

I think that Francis knows full well that no well-governed, tolerant, pluralistic secular democracy could continue functioning for a moment, if it allowed people like Kim Davis to shout religious freedom as they refused to do their job as public servants and claimed the right to trample on the rights of other citizens because of their religious beliefs. I daresay that he knows full well that Kim Davis is not being criticized for what she chooses to believe, but because she is refusing to do her job, and is quite specifically refusing to respect the rights of a targeted minority group because she believes that her religious convictions must allow her to behave this way.

I suspect Pope Francis knows very well that Kim Davis is perfectly free, under American law, to believe whatever she chooses to believe about gay people and their lives, since the U.S. is a culture with a longstanding respect for religious freedom. And so I think he knows well that to cite religious freedom as a cover for the kind of anti-democratic, anti-civil behavior Ms. Davis is exhibiting is to abuse the concept of religious freedom, to use the concept as a smokescreen for the very kind of bigotry Francis appeared to claim to deplore in his statements in D.C.

I think Francis knows all of this, but I also think that he's locked into a political system (a political system of church governance, I mean) that requires him to lend his support to bishops who stand squarely behind Kim Davis — primarily because they fear that, coming down the pike as cultural norms shift, will be lawsuits challenging their discrminatory treatment of LGBT employees in Catholic institutions. If they do not fight for the bogus "religious freedom" of the Kim Davises of the world, money — their money, as in diocesan money and the money of Catholic institutions — will be on the line eventually.

And as always when money may be on the line, it's simply easier to talk in high-flown abstractions about love, mercy, and justice, and not to bother with pesky notions about "practice" of the pretty words. I see Francis as having just engaged in a big image-management exercise in the U.S., with the adroit help of many media managers, almost all of whom are male and heterosexual, and who have their own unacknowledged commitments and unexamined biases as questions like gay rights and women's rights are discussed. I think he recognizes the need for such image management in a church whose top leaders have — let's be realistic here — appalled and alienated millions of people, Catholics included, by their behavior in recent years, especially in the abuse crisis.

I think he and the bishops themselves know that they have lost the culture war on marriage equality, and so I think he's trying to craft a way to get the church out of the cul-de-sac into which its top leaders from Saint John Paul II to Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI to the sitting U.S. bishops have led it.

But I don't think he's anywhere near where he needs to be, in dismantling the corrupt system of clerical leadership that has led the church into this cul-de-sac. And so I think he's playing politics, and has the bishops' back. Because by training and instinct, he sides with his brother bishops, and he would not have been made pope otherwise . . . . And so I think the words he flung over his shoulder, from the safety of the airplane headed back to Rome, were signals to the U.S. bishops about where he really stands on these matters, regardless of the nice things he said otherwise in his papal visit to the U.S.

Those nice words, and also the flung-over-the-back zingers, leave us where we've always been, we who are lay Catholics in the U.S. They leave us with the obligation to carry on our spiritual and religious lives within the context of a real church that is a very mixed thing, when it comes to the practice of love, justice, and mercy. 

Francis was no sooner gone from the U.S., having said his pretty words, than a Catholic high school in Memphis, Christian Brothers, temporarily suspended one of its students, Lance Sanderson, after Sanderson made public the fact that he had been told he might bring his boyfriend to a homecoming dance, and then was told that this was impossible for "logistical" reasons. 

Christian Brothers has a publicly stated policy — pretty words — which says that the school does not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation. All the pretty words in the world continue not to change how Catholic institutions do business when it comes to dealing with LGBT human beings.

And as Francis DeBernardo has pointed out, if Francis is really committed to the kind of unnuanced, unchecked religious freedom he defends in the case of Kim Davis, then there's this:

If Pope Francis wants to honor conscientious objection, why doesn’t he reinstate Father Roy Bourgeois whose conscience required him to participate in the ordination of a Roman Catholic Woman Priest. If the pope honors conscientious objection, he should honor the consciences of all Catholics who support women’s ordination and provide entrance to the clergy for all women called to ordination.

We do, as Jamie Manson and Linda Pinto point out, have a conundrum with Francis and other top leaders of the Catholic church: they want to tell the rest of us to practice virtues they themselves appear unwilling to practice, when the church itself and its governance are at stake. And pretty words without practice just don't seem to be making these church leaders' point very convincingly, do they?

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