Friday, August 2, 2013

Pope Francis in Rio: The Good, the Not-so-good, and the Downright Ugly

World Youth Day, for better or worse, gave us a broader perspective on Pope Francis and his views on multiple issues related to the Catholic Church. Let's pause and take a look at some of them:

A poor Church and for the poor

Probably the one universal hope shared by both the liberation theology community and church reform groups is that Pope Francis will lead the Catholic Church to focus more on the poor and less on issues of sexual morality, bringing it closer to the Gospel of Jesus. It is easily the goal that is most likely to be realized, as many of Pope Francis' statements during his Rio trip reveal.

The Pope's address to the Varginha community was particularly outstanding. A few excerpts:

"The Brazilian people, particularly the humblest among you, can offer the world a valuable lesson in solidarity; this word solidarity is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable. It almost seems like a bad word...solidarity. I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices. The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not, I repeat, not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: rather, it is the culture of solidarity that does so; the culture of solidarity means seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters. And we are all brothers and sisters!"

"I would like to encourage the efforts that Brazilian society is making to integrate all its members, including those who suffer most and are in greatest need, through the fight against hunger and deprivation. No amount of “peace-building” will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself. A society of that kind simply impoverishes itself, it loses something essential. We must never, never allow the throwaway culture to enter our hearts! We must never allow the throwaway culture to enter our hearts, because we are brothers and sisters. No one is disposable! Let us always remember this: only when we are able to share do we become truly rich; everything that is shared is multiplied! Think of the multiplication of the loaves by Jesus! The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty!"

But just spreading this kind of message to a poor community would have been easy. Pope Francis had similar words when he met with Brazil's political elite: "The future also demands a humanistic vision of the economy and a politics capable of ensuring greater and more effective participation on the part of the people, eliminating forms of elitism and eradicating poverty. No one should be denied what is necessary and everyone should be guaranteed dignity, fraternity and solidarity: this is the road that is proposed. In the days of the prophet Amos, God’s frequent warning was already being heard: 'They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – they … trample down the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way' (Am 2:6-7). The outcry, the call for justice, continues to be heard even today."

Before World Youth Day, Frei Betto encouraged Pope Francis to spend lots of time with the young people and pay attention to the protests that preceded his visit. Pope Francis obviously listened and took Frei Betto's words to heart because during his remarks to the young people's Saturday night prayer vigil, the pope told them, "Your young hearts want to build a better world. I have been closely following the news reports of the many young people who throughout the world have taken to the streets in order to express their desire for a more just and fraternal society. Young people in the streets. It is the young who want to be the protagonists of change. Please, don’t leave it to others to be the protagonists of change. You are the ones who hold the future! You … Through you the future is fulfilled in the world. I ask you also to be protagonists of this transformation. Continue to overcome apathy, offering a Christian response to the social and political anxieties, which are arising in various parts of the world. I ask you to be builders of the world, to work for a better world. Dear young people, please, don’t be observers of life, but get involved. Jesus did not remain an observer, but he immersed himself. Don’t be observers, but immerse yourself in the reality of life, as Jesus did."

Frei Betto later praised Pope Francis' remarks in Brazil, saying that the only thing the pope failed to do was "name the beast: neoliberalism". Betto wrote that "Francis is not a pastor who gives orders and imposes, but one who opens horizons and exudes enthusiasm. Something new is stirring in the barque of Peter."

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff also expressed positive feedback on Pope Francis's performance and his words about social justice, but said that the pope's greatest legacy was his personal presence, which Boff characterized as "a humble servant of the faith, stripped of all trappings, touching and letting himself be touched, speaking the language of the young and the truth with sincerety. He represented the noblest of leaders -- the servant leader who doesn't refer to himself but to others with affection and caring, evoking hope and confidence in the future."

Clericalism and the role of the laity

Opposition to clericalism has been a key issue with Pope Francis ever since his election to the papacy. The pope himself has sought to set the example for his fellow clergy and prelates through his simple lifestyle and shunning many of the perks that would normally come with his position. He has eschewed the luxurious vestments favored by his predecessor and made it clear that he expects those who have consecrated their lives to God to live simply and not buy showy cars, for example. He has also railed against another element of clericalism -- the tendency to be self-referential and settled, preferring comfort and prestige of position to missionary zeal.

This message was reiterated on multiple occasions during Pope Francis' trip to Rio de Janeiro. To a group of young pilgrims from Argentina, the Pope said, "I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves."

He came back to the theme in his address to the coordinating committee of CELAM, calling clericalism one of the temptations against the spirit of missionary discipleship: "Clericalism is also a very current temptation in Latin America. Curiously, in the majority of cases, it has to do with a sinful complicity: the priest becomes clericalized and the lay person asks him to please be clericalized, because deep down it's easier. The phenomenon of clericalism explains, in large part, the lack of maturity and Christian freedom in some of the Latin American laity. Either they simply do not grow (the majority), or else they take refuge in forms of ideology like those we have just seen, or in partial and limited ways of belonging. Yet in our countries there does exist a form of freedom of the laity which finds expression in communal experiences: Catholics as a people. Here one sees a greater autonomy, which on the whole is a healthy thing, basically expressed through popular piety. The chapter of the Aparecida document on popular piety describes this dimension in detail. The spread of Bible study groups, of ecclesial basic communities and of Pastoral Councils is in fact helping to overcome clericalism and to increase lay responsibility."

And the Pope asked the leadership of CELAM to reflect on some very pointed questions. Among them:

"In practice, do we make the lay faithful sharers in the Mission? Do we offer them the word of God and the sacraments with a clear awareness and conviction that the Holy Spirit makes himself manifest in them?"

"Is pastoral discernment a habitual criterion, through the use of Diocesan Councils? Do such Councils and Parish Councils, whether pastoral or financial, provide real opportunities for lay people to participate in pastoral consultation, organization and planning?"... And the pope offered his personal assessment that "on this score, we are far behind."

"As pastors, bishops and priests, are we conscious and convinced of the mission of the lay faithful and do we give them the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them? Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them? Are we constantly open to letting ourselves be challenged in our efforts to advance the good of the Church and her mission in the world?"

Divorced and remarried Catholics

One item that's high on the agenda of church reformers is the question of Communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without getting their first marriages annulled. It was also a question on the mind of Gian Guido Vecchi, a journalist from Corriere della Serra, during the pope's in-flight press conference. Pope Francis started his response by emphasizing the importance of mercy, of the Church reaching out to people in these circumstances. Then he proceeded to frame the question within the broader issue of marriage:

"With reference to the problem of Communion for people in a second marriage -- because the divorced can take Communion, that's not a problem -- but when they're in a second marriage, they can't. I believe that it's necessary to look at it within the totality of the pastoral care of marriage. And that's why it's a problem. But also -- in parentheses -- the Orthodox have a different practice. They follow the theology of economy, as they call it, and give a second chance, they allow it. But I think this problem -- close parentheses -- must be studied within the framework of the pastoral care of marriage." The pope said that he is planning to consult with his advisory group of cardinals about how to move ahead on the issue of the pastoral care of marriage when he meets with them at the beginning of October and said that the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics will be part of that discussion. Pope Francis also said that marriage may very well be the theme of the next Synod of Bishops.

The pope emphasized that this question is a problem for everyone because there are so many cases. He mentioned that his predecessor in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Antonio Quarracino used to say he thought half of all marriages were null either because couples got married without being sufficiently mature, or without realizing it was for life, or got married because society says one should marry. And the pope added that there's a problem with the current system because there aren't enough marriage tribunals to hear the large number of annulments in a timely manner.

Pope Francis has to be aware that this is a troubling issue not just for lay people but also for many Catholic priests who want to be able to offer something to this group. It is the second point on the Austrian Pfarrer-Initiative's "Appeal To Disobedience" which says "We will not deny Communion to faithful of good will, especially remarried people..." and, as the pope also knows and this group has made clear, this public statement simply codifies what many priests have been doing privately and discretely for years. It's time for theology to catch up with practice so priests can deal with this issue mercifully and openly.

Gays in the priesthood

At the end of the Pope's in-flight press conference on his return from Rio, Brazilian reporter Ilze Scamparini asked a question about Msgr. Battista Ricca, a recent appointee to the Vatican Bank, whose homosexuality and relationship with a member of the Swiss Guard during his time in Uruguay in the late 1990s had been the subject of a story in L'Espresso the previous month. She asked Pope Francis what he was going to do about this and how he was going to deal with the "gay lobby".

After responding that he had made an investigation into the matter involving Msgr. Ricca according to Canon Law and that he had found no evidence of what Ricca was accused of, the Pope went on to talk in general about the forgiveness of sins and youthful indiscretions. He said he didn't know about any "gay lobby" and went on to distinguish such a concept from the treatment of homosexual individuals. "I think that when one finds oneself with a person like that, one should distinguish between the fact of being a gay person and the fact of lobbying...If a person is gay and is seeking the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks so beautifully about this...and it says 'these people should not be marginalized because of that, they should be integrated into society.' The problem is not having that tendency, no, we should be brothers..."

The tone of the Pope's remark was welcomed by gay priests and gay Catholic groups, coming as it does after the virtual witch hunt against gay Catholic clergy and the instruction to the seminaries to weed out candidates for the priesthood with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.

Rev. Gary Meier, a gay priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis who has been on leave for vocational discernment expressed cautious optimism in an editorial column in the NY Daily News. "To me, it’s a beginning. What a breath of fresh air to hear a voice that’s not hostile...This is the first pulpit voice that we've heard that has not been judgmental. That gives a lot of people in the LGBT community hope...I hope cardinals and bishops will follow this Pope’s lead. Once your leader says 'Who am I to judge you?' it opens the door for more gay priests to come out."

Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry commented that "Pope Francis’ statement on accepting and respecting gay priests is a clear sign that this pope will be taking a more conciliatory approach to LGBT issues than his immediate predecessors have done." DeBernardo added that while "some will say that Francis’ statement is not enough, that he still refers to sins of homosexuals,...the important thing is the question of emphasis. Even if he doesn't drop the sin language, this is still a major step forward, and one that can pave the way for further advancements down the road."

Another organization working with LGBT Catholics, Equally Blessed, called the Pope's remarks "some of the most encouraging words a pontiff has ever spoken about gay and lesbian people" and said that in doing so, Pope Francis "has set a great example for Catholics everywhere."

A Brazilian priest who was excommunicated earlier this year for his public pro-gay remarks, Fr. Roberto Francisco Daniel (aka "Padre Beto"), decided to challenge the excommunication after hearing the Pope's statement. The priest told O Estadão he believes that if his case had been decided today, after the Pope's remarks, the outcome would have been different because diocesan officials would have a better understanding of what he was trying to say. Pretty nervy for someone who has just published a new book titled Verdades Proibidas - Ideias do padre que a Igreja não conseguiu calar ("Forbidden truths: Ideas of the priest that the Church wasn't able to silence"), but Padre Beto insists that he wants to eventually return to active ministry, that he is still observing his vow of celibacy. "I feel that I'm a priest. This is my vocation and I have not ruled out going back to performing that role in the future," Padre Beto told G1.

The Pope's remarks were also the impetus that Andrés Gioeni, a former priest from Mendoza, Argentina, who left the priesthood after openly admitting his homosexuality, needed to draft an open letter to the Pontiff about how the Church treats LGBT Catholics. Gioeni, who had been in a heterosexual relationship prior to entering seminary, discovered his real orientation there after several other seminarians admitted being attracted to their handsome colleague. Nonetheless, Gioeni was ordained in 2000 and promoted to being the youngest director of his diocese's Institute for Catechism in the organization's history. Two years later, he came out -- way out -- by posing nude in the gay magazine, Imperio.

The now actor and author of two novels Lucifer, ángel y demonio and Vacio De Resurrección says he wrote the letter because he thinks "there's a glimmer of hope in the answer [the pope] gave about not judging gays. I see humility and openness in him." In his letter, the former priest who says he has been in a monogamous same sex relationship for almost ten years, makes a simple but eloquent plea to the pope to initiate a new moral and sexual theology that takes into account the current reality and knowledge about homosexuality. "Help me and help many others to discover how we can navigate our faith without giving up the experience of love that, in conscience, we feel is essential in our lives," Gioeni pleads.

Role of Women in the Church

Pope Francis addressed the role of women briefly during his remarks to the Brazilian bishops and then again during his flight back from Rio when he was asked several questions on this subject.

In his remarks to the bishops, the Pope said that the Church should affirm "women, who play a fundamental role in passing on the faith and who are a daily source of strength in a society that carries this faith forward and renews it. Let us not reduce the involvement of women in the Church, but instead promote their active role in the ecclesial community. If the Church, in her complete and real dimension, loses women, she risks becoming sterile."

However, when he was questioned further by journalists, it became clear that the role of women in the ecclesial community would continue to be limited. Jean-Marie Guénois of Le Figaro picked up on the Pope's statement that the Church without women risks becoming sterile, asking the Pontiff what specific steps he might take such as admitting women to the diaconate or making a woman head of a dicastery. The Pope reiterated and clarified his assertion on the importance of women. "The Church without women is like the apostolic college without Mary. The role of women in the Church is not only motherhood, the mother of the family, but it's stronger -- it is precisely the icon of the Virgin, Our Lady, one that helps to grow the Church! But think about it. Our Lady is more important than the Apostles! She's more important! The Church is feminine - She is the Church, wife, mother. But... the role of women in the Church must not end at being a mother, being a worker, limited...No! It's something else! ...Paul VI wrote a beautiful thing about women, but I think we should move along in the explanation of the role and charisma of women. You can't understand a church without women -- but women who are active in the Church, with their traits, who carry it forward."

The Pope then launched into a strange interlude about Paraguayan women who, after that country's war with Brazil led to such a decimation of the male population that there were eight women to every man, made the risky choice to have more children to preserve the homeland, culture, faith and language. And he said that, in the Church, we must think of women from that perspective of risky choices made as women. Before what I'm sure were very bemused faces in the press corps, he then added that this should be better explained. Indeed it should. "I believe that we have not yet done a profound theology of women in the Church. Only that they can do this, they can do that, now they're altar servers, now they're lectors, the president of Caritas ... But, there's more! We must do a deep theology of women."

These remarks have led to a certain amount of eye-rolling among Catholic feminists. As Jamie Mason put it succinctly in the National Catholic Reporter, "for the past half-century, Catholic women theologians, many of them women religious, have been developing, writing and teaching a profound theology of women. Just because the hierarchy has not cared to read it doesn't mean it doesn't already exist." Perhaps Pope Francis could invite some of these theologians to come to the Vatican and brief him on the state of theological research in this area. He might start with Sr. Teresa Forcades i Vila, the Benedictine nun and theologian who has written a book on the subject. Because she's Spanish, there would be no language barrier and, as an officer of the European Society of Women in Theological Research, Dr. Forcades is well-positioned to recommend other experts in her field with whom the Pope might consult.

Further along in the in-flight press conference, a Brazilian reporter, Anna Ferreira, gave the Pope an opportunity to dig himself in deeper by asking him why he decided to talk to the Brazilian bishops about the role of women in the Church and then asked him point-blank what women's participation in the Church should be and specifically about women's ordination.

The Pope responded that he "would like to explain a little what I said about the participation of women in the Church -- it can't be limited to the fact of being an altar server or the president of Caritas, the catechist ... No! It must be more, but deeply more, even mystically more, with what I've said about the theology of women. And, with reference to the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and it says, "No". John Paul II said it, but with a definitive formulation. That it, that door, is closed, but on this I want to say something to you. I've said it, but I'll repeat it. Our Lady, Mary, was more important than the apostles, the bishops and deacons and priests. Women in the Church are more important than the bishops and priests -- why that is, is what we must try to explain better, because I think a theological explanation for this is lacking."

Needless to say, this reiteration of Pope John Paul II's ban on women priests and even on the discussion thereof drew immediate fire from groups and individuals supporting women's ordination. A sample:

Women's Ordination Conference: "The church was not Pope John II in 1994 when he forbade women's ordination nor is it Pope Francis today. The church is made up of the people of God and Pope Francis could have looked to the majority of Catholics who support the ordination of women, recognize that women are created in God's image, and strongly believe with God a door is always open."

Women's Ordination Worldwide: "The church has spoken? We remind Pope Francis that the church is made up of millions of women and men who have been officially forbidden by the Vatican from even discussing the question of women's ordination. Pope John Paul II may have spoken but he is not the Church. The ban on women priests may have been a definitive expression of prejudice but it was not an infallible ruling and it does not reflect the will or best interests of the people of the Church."

Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests: "The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests calls on Pope Francis to open a dialogue on women priests and gender equality, following the example of Saint Francis and Saint Clare. It is time for the full equality of women in the Catholic Church and for Pope Francis to drop 'definitive' and discriminatory practices."

Dr. Mary E. Hunt, feminist theologian: "This is the same old same old theology -- the Virgin Mary is more important than anyone else in the story, but living women cannot make ecclesial decisions, exercise sacramental ministry, or make ethical choices. Apparently, the question of women’s ordination is so yesterday in the Vatican Francis doesn't think it needs to be revisited."

Sr. Ivone Gebara, Brazilian nun and eco-feminist theologian: "How can Pope Francis simply ignore the strength of the feminist movement and its expression in Catholic feminist theology for more than thirty or forty decades, depending on the place? It also amazes me that he stated that we can even have more spaces in ministry when, in fact, in all the Catholic parishes, it's women for the most part who are carrying out the many missionary projects."

Bottom line: Your Holiness, women understand perfectly well where power resides in the Catholic Church. You can try to diminish clericalism -- a laudable goal -- and increase the role of the laity, but in any parish the ultimate decision-making power rests with the pastor who, in the current Church structure, is always a male priest. Higher up, at the diocesan level, it rests with the bishop and ultimately with your office. Women do not presently have access to those positions and that needs to change. No amount of ethereal Marian theology will compensate for that or satisfy the demands of women today who are used to equality in every other sphere of society. With all due respect, it's time for you to start to listen to women for a change.

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