His reception was like that of a rock star. Wherever he went, crowds gathered while the media was transfixed by his presence. Other major news took a backseat to each event on his itinerary. For five days in September, the attention of the United States was on the head of the Roman Catholic Church: Pope Francis.
Now that the trip is over and the excitement has waned, I am better able to reflect on the various aspects of the Pope’s visit to the United States. While my family was Catholic, we all ended our involvement in the Catholic Church in the 1980’s. Since 1986, I’ve served as an ordained minister in a Protestant context. Today, I consider myself as Progressive Christian. I recognize my personal journey colors and shapes my perspective of the papal visit. I also am aware that many people of my generation chose to leave the Catholic Church and have found spiritual fulfillment elsewhere.
While Pope Francis was in the United States, I carefully followed the news reports and read the transcripts of all of his speeches and homilies. I have a deep appreciation of his focus on the common good, the importance of society to care for all its members, to live by the Golden Rule, for government to act for the betterment of people, and for people to live together with respect and dignity. The focus of his words echoed what I understand to represent the authentic teachings of Jesus. It was a refreshing change from the voices of conservative evangelical Christians in the US which are often filled with rage and hatred. In many ways, the public image of Pope Francis during this trip was nothing less than inspiring. For that I am grateful.
At the same time, I also recognize that there is a profound discontinuity between what the Pope said in the United States and some of the things that actually occurred during the visit. Further, the Pope’s words in other contexts do not reflect the same respect for human dignity for which he advocated in the United States. Among the points of discontinuity are three areas of which I am gravely concerned:
1. While speaking of the importance of women as leaders and the role of religious sisters and nuns in the Catholic Church, women were absent for leadership roles in all of the events during the Pope’s visit. That was even true at the vesper service in New York — a service which does not require the leadership of a priest. If women were respected as people of dignity, such a conspicuous absence would not have occurred. Instead, women remained as spectators reflecting the theology of the Catholic Church. (Note that the reason given for not ordaining women in the Catholic Church is that Jesus didn’t ordain women. In fact, men were not ordained by Jesus. The priesthood didn’t exist until centuries after the death of Jesus. Historic records show that from the Biblical era through the early centuries of the history of Christian churches, both women and men led local Christian communities.)
2. While the Pope frequently spoke of the needs of the poor and visited those in prison, he also canonized a “saint” commonly known to have been an agent of the subjugation and genocide of Native peoples. Junipero Serra wrote documents on how to treat Native peoples which included beating them into submission. Yes, he was not as harsh as other Spanish conquistadors, but he used force, physical abuse, and captivity as tools for conversion. Whatever devotion to faith and church Serra may have had, it doesn’t make up for his inhumanity to the Native people of California.
3. While the Pope avoided condemnation of sexual minorities during this visit and asked the bishops of the US to engage in dialogue, avenues for dialogue were shut. During the Philadelphia World Conference on Families, which Pope Francis attended, only one session was scheduled on the topic of homosexuality. That session was moved last minute from the main session hall which accommodated 10,000 to a much smaller meeting room seating only a thousand. News reports stated that thousands of people were locked out and unable to attend. Only one gay man was permitted to speak. The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, barred LGBT Catholics from holding a workshop at a nearby Catholic church. Dialogue on this topic is clearly a myth. In the past, Pope Francis has referred to marriage equality as “a destructive attack on God’s plan” and “a move of the Father of Lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.” The Pope also viewed gay and lesbian equal rights as discrimination against children. (Note that he’s never been this vitriolic about pedophilia.) He’s also compared transsexual individuals to nuclear weapons.
The media has cast these three issues as “civil rights” issues confronting the Catholic Church. This claim asserts a tension between the modern world and traditional theology. While there are issues of civil rights involved in terms of society at large, the glaring issue for me is the theological inconsistency reflected in each of these issues. If, as Pope Francis reminds us, that each human being is sacred and should be treated with respect, then the Catholic Church needs to end its mistreatment of women, ethnic groups, and sexual minorities and include members of these groups as full and equal members of the Church. While Pope Francis waxes eloquently of the need for families to have mothers and fathers, the role of women is once again conspicuously absent at the current Synod on Families. Instead, senior white men who are celibate will frame the discussion on family life.
To be honest, I have little hope for change within the Roman Catholic Church. Even when confronted by objective, obvious facts, the institution simply entrenches in its long held positions — no matter how wrong those positions may be. Perhaps the best example of this was how the Vatican resolved the excommunication of Galileo for his scientific observations demonstrating that the Earth revolved around the Sun rather than the erroneous view that Earth was the center of the universe. In 1990, the Catholic Church could not admit that it made an error. Instead, the official statement was that the Catholic Church’s “verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune” Cardinal Raztinger (Pope Benedict XVI), February 15, 1990. In other words, while the edict of excommunication was removed, the Vatican insisted that it was right to excommunicate Galileo. If the Catholic Church cannot admit its own error about the planets of the solar system revolving around the Sun, it’s difficult to image how it could admit to the ways it actively harms people through discrimination and failed theological positions.
Pope Francis asked that American pray for him. I do remember him in my prayers: that he and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church will have a change of heart and learn to treat all people with respect rather than subjugating women, members of various racial and ethnic groups, and sexual minorities. Perhaps his heart will soften and he will come to understand the harm he also perpetuates in the world.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.