Monday, September 23, 2013

What is Pope Francis up to?

(The post I promised on The Wonder Years and the meaning of nostalgia will be up tomorrow.)

I don't know. I should admit that upfront. I'm just going to ramble on here.

Here are some things I am pretty sure Pope Francis is NOT
  • He isn't humble. He is making a show of humility and that is a very different thing from actually being humble.
  • He isn't a throwback to Leo XIII or any of the social policy popes.
 Here is what I think he is:
  • I think he is a hard man, as tough as steel.
There is some good stuff in his interview. The best part was when he talked about the church as a field hospital. At first it was kind of ominous because it seemed to smack of the worst of the Catholic socialism of the 1960s and 1970s.
You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.
The lefty priests who nearly destroyed the church back in the day used to talk like this but they used it as an excuse to ignore , you know, Jesus. Their next move was usually to say we needed to to forget about all this humans are sinners in need of redemption stuff and deal with poverty and hunger first.

Francis doesn't do that. His next move is to deal with sin.
And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.
That could have come straight out of Saint Alphonsus Ligouri. It's also a very high stakes move on Francis's part.

It's primarily a swipe at Humanae Vitae Catholics. He makes a bit of an Obama move here in that he seems to be taking a swipe in the other direction too in mentioning the loose minister but that is just for decoration. The real problem with loose ministers is not that they are too lenient in the confessional. The problem is that they don't encourage anyone to go to the confessional in the first place. Francis has said nothing to them here.

What is a Humanae Vitae Catholic? These are Catholics who define themselves primarily around a series of rules about sexual conduct. Humane Vitae produced two strong responses. One just about everyone knows about and another that only  a few do. Everyone knows about the opposition. Less well known was the reaction of millions of Catholics for whom the encyclical became their anchor in the storm. In the 1960s when the church was changing seemingly every week and in the 1970s when it became obvious that those changes had not revitalized the church and had probably made things worse, they sought something solid to cling to and church teaching about birth control became that thing.

You hear a lot about abortion but that is the outward cover. The real issue  for Humane Vitae traditionalists is contraception and, because it is firmly tied to it, the moral purpose of sex. It's one of the odd things about this kind of Catholic thinking that it respects the dignity of all human beings but simply takes for granted that lots of people who have made no vow of celibacy will be celibate.

It's important to state this because it so rarely is stated. The church teaches that gay men, widows, divorced persons, single persons are all to refrain from sex and masturbation. The woman or man whose spouse leaves them , for example, is promised love and compassion from the church but it is taken for granted, at the same time, that they will be expected live the rest of their lives without sex.

Now, the church has been around a long, long time and it would not have been if it had pushed a doctrine so obviously at odds with human nature. Historically, the problem was dealt with through a mixture of cynicism and idealism. The church was cynical about men and idealistic about women. Every Catholic town had its brothel and everyone knew this. At the same time, people went to great lengths to imagine women were something "pure" that women are not. An willfully blind eye was turned towards girls and women. And here the church had a massive cultural impact that is with us 'til this day.

Now some will rush in and point out that Francis was very careful to reaffirm church teaching on sexuality. They will insist that he has not and will not change the rules. And they are absolutely right about this. But he hasn't changed the rules because he couldn't.

But there is more than one way to skin a cat. The town I grew up in had a law against spitting on the sidewalks. Nobody had been arrested for spitting on the sidewalks for decades. More importantly, virtually nobody knew that the law even existed anymore.

That's the strategy I think Francis is pushing. Everyone noticed how he came back the day after the interview was published to reaffirm teaching on abortion. What they didn't notice was how little he has to say about contraception or sex outside marriage. Except the bishops. You can be sure they noticed and they know what is expected of them now.

He's done two things to reinforce this. One, as I've already noted, is that he's told everyone in the church hierarchy that they don't have to talk about sexual teachings anymore. The traddies have made it almost a litmus test for bishops that they jump up and salute every time these issues are run up the flagpole. Francis has given them new cover to avoid these issues.

The second thing, though, is something that has not been widely noted and it is much more significant. I am referring to his comments on the Roman curia:
They are instruments of help. In some cases, however, when they are not functioning well, they run the risk of becoming institutions of censorship. It is amazing to see the denunciations for lack of orthodoxy that come to Rome. I think the cases should be investigated by the local bishops’ conferences, which can get valuable assistance from Rome. 
That sounds reasonable only to someone who isn't aware of what local bishop's conferences are really like. This is a little like the mother who assures her teenaged daughter that she doesn't want to be repressive. "I'll be here for you if you need advice and guidance dear but I trust you to make your own decisions about sex." Anyone even vaguely familiar with the track record of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, to pick one non-random example, knows exactly how this will play out. They will return to their old games of, for example, teaching the exceptions to the rules while forgetting to mention there actually are rules in the first place knowing that the Pope has just taken away the faithful's sole recourse against their excesses.

Within two decades at the very outside, that will have the effect of reducing Humane Vitae to the same level as my home town's anti-spitting laws. To be brutally honest, I can live with that. At the same time, I fear Pope Francis may be disastrous for the liturgy.

 Again, that is in line with what Francis has said elsewhere. The current pope has made it painfully clear that he doesn't thing the liturgy is the way to reach out people in need. He thinks other channels are more fruitful. He's wrong about that. As I said at the top, he isn't humble. There has been some discussion in the Catholic blogosphere about whether the media is playing the pope or he is playing the media. My fear is that he is actually playing himself.

No comments:

Post a Comment