Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The New Yorker, Pope Francis, and Theology under Fire

I’ve long been a fan of The New Yorker, but the recent article about Pope Francis, “Who Am I to Judge” by James Carroll, has touched me more deeply than any magazine article in recent memory.  Perhaps this is because Carroll once studied for the priesthood, is a fine writer, and seems to understand Catholic dogma at its roots.  Perhaps it is because the piece is a welcome respite from the kind of hagiography we have seen in Time Magazine and much of mass media since Francis’ ascension to the papacy.  Perhaps, as an Irish Catholic who has been a foot-soldier in the culture wars and wrote a PhD dissertation on the Catholic imagination, I badly needed a fresh look at a church organization that has become anathema to many for its handling of the crimes against children.

When the Pope responded to a question about homosexuals with the remark:  “Who am I to judge?” the various factions lined up as expected.  Some saw this as opening the door to the gay community.   Conservative clergy, led by New York’s Cardinal Dolan, who seemed to be everywhere, responded that it was a matter of tone, not a shift in theology.  Carroll’s reading is a little more subtle in that he suggests Francis “unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world.”  But Carroll reminds us that in a less-known interview Francis calls homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil” and the inclination “must itself be seen as an objective disorder.”  And these remarks are consistent, in language if not in tone, with what Francis said when he was Archbishop of Buenos Ares.

The New Yorker piece also reminds us that there has been nothing subtle or understated about his remarks concerning the Institution Church.  Francis denounced the “psychology of princes” before new bishops last fall.  He denounced episcopal careerism as “spiritual adultery,” a “form of cancer.”  As Carroll notes, clearly there is more than a tonal shift when Francis, in an open letter to an Italian journalist, says: “I would not speak about ‘absolute’ truths, even for believers ….  Truth is a relationship.  As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.”  The New Yorker writer suggests that the Pope “violated a set code of Catholic ethical and discourse” in his reference to moral relativity.  The Pope would expand on this. “The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or difference understanding is wrong.” 

Sooner or later all discourse leads to the central tenets of Church doctrine.  One gets a sense from listening to Cardinal Dolan and others that we should indeed applaud what Francis has to say but at the end of the day, the Church should be understood as “semper idem”—always the same.   The good man can make changes at the pastoral edges but nothing in the long run will change.

However, Carroll reminds us that the “Church has made profound doctrinal changes in living memory.  In 1964, the council repudiated a millennium-long tradition of ‘No Salvation outside the Church’.”  That formulation dates at least to the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215…. The Vatican overturned the doctrine by affirming the primary of conscience—a doctrine Francis has reiterated.”   Even “more momentous is the council’s rejection of the ‘Christ-killer’ slander against the Jews, which has its roots in the Gospels.”  Carroll writes that “None of the potential changes to doctrine facing the contemporary Church compare with the depth of this revision.”      

At the end of the day, Pope Francis will likely be judged by how he responds to priest sexual-abuse.  He has established a commission of priests, nuns, and lay experts to address these issues.  There is no indication that the commission will look at the Vatican or bishops’ involvement.  Pressure on the Vatican to do just this is coming from a lot of places, including the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of Children.  In an unusually blunt and sobering report released at the end of January 2014, the UN Committee states that the Holy See hides behind Canon Law and places obedience to the Pope above the protection of children.  The report states that tens of thousands of children have been abused by clergy and the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes.  In fact, there is a code of silence around this abuse.  Abusers are rarely reported to civil authorities.  Accordingly the commission to investigate these crimes should include civil society and victims.  The U.N. urges the Church to consider sexual abuse a crime and not some vague “defect against the moral” order, as the Church has defined it.  Canon Law should be changed to reflect the reality.

Given the popularity of the new Pope, the UN report came as a shock to many, not only because of the charge that the Vatican is hiding behind Canon Law but also because the report included criticisms of the Church’s position on homosexuality, gender equality, birth control and abortion.  It is very rare for the UN to comment on religious doctrine.

The Pope has directed dioceses to distribute questionnaires to parishioners about divorce, birth control, and gay marriage.  According to Carroll, “When Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the Synod, was recently asked if remarried divorcees might be admitted to the sacraments, he replied, ‘The fact that it has been included in the questionnaire means it’s going to be looked at, and the intention is to discuss the issue without any taboos, otherwise it would not have been mentioned.’”  Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, quoted in the Irish Times, suggested “This is a great opportunity for Francis.  Please, let us not have a bunch of men who have deliberately chosen not to have families tell us as members of families how we’re going to live our family life.  Please, let us have a broad-ranging discussion in which people who have real experience of family life lead the reflection.”

I wrote after returning from Italy last fall about how the Catholic Church, surrounded by such lushness and lustiness in art and architecture, has never found a way to let a full feminine impulse into its teachings.  Certainly Mary, the Mother of Christ, has an exalted presence but she was ever virgin, a perpetual virgin.  The Church tried to imbue its theology formally with the feminine principle by announcing The Immaculate Conception (1845) and the Assumption into Heaven (1950) as dogma.  These seem rather late in a 2000-year history.  This full article can be found at

In explaining much of the conflict and ambivalence in the current Church, James Carroll quotes Stephen Colbert, speaking about Francis at the Al Smith dinner.  “I believe the Pope is infallible.  But he’s also wrong about a lot of things.”

That issue might be the least of the Church’s doctrinal worries.  Colbert is joking but his humor finds support in a recent poll by Univision, the U.S. Spanish-language network that confirms what has been long assumed:  most Catholics in the developed world are at odds with the Church over gay marriage, contraception, divorce and women’s admittance to the priesthood.  The Church has already pivoted in its outreach to the souls in Latin America and Africa where the laity is more in tune with Catholic doctrine.

Colbert has his work cut out. 

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