Even in the Celibacy Wars, Progressives and Conservatives Fight to Claim Pope Francis for Their Side

He accepts the validity of same-sex relationships… unless he doesn’t. He’s calling on the Church to spend less time talking about contraception and abortion… but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still very serious sins. He even tried to get atheists into heaven… or did he?

At every possible opportunity, Catholics who want to see changes in the way the Church functions are getting caught up in rhetorical battles with Catholics who support the status quo, both sides arguing passionately for the claim that Pope Francis is on their side.

Caught in the middle of a tug-of-war

The latest issue is the celibate priesthood. For the previous pope, Benedict XVI, the question was closed: priests must continue to be male and celibate (or at least theoretically celibate). Some Catholics see hope for change in the person of Pope Francis. Supporters of celibacy, however, hasten to assure such wayward souls that Pope Francis intends to carry out business as usual in the Catholic Church.

Bill Keller’s recent New York Times op-ed stoked the fires of speculation, praising Francis for “the kindness of his language, his empathy for the least among us, and the humility of his example” and optimistically suggesting that the pontiff’s first major substantive change in Catholic teaching — the first among many in this brave new papacy — will focus on abolishing the celibacy rule.

Jesuit James Martin, writing for America (which calls itself the country’s “national Catholic review”, possibly because “national Catholic reporter” and “national Catholic register” were already taken), writes his opposing opinion bitterly and emphatically in a piece he titles “Beware: non-celibates writing about celibacy,” in which he argues that marriage has problems, too, and even married people become pedophiles.

Oh, and the pope took a vow of celibacy, which means he obviously must support it for all priests at all times, right?

This is not the first time we’ve heard rumours of celibacy’s impending demise. A similar story came out in September, when an archbishop close to the pope suggested that the discipline was open for discussion.

The result at that time was the same. Sources more progressive than the Church — which include several theologians as well as most mainstream media sources — hinted that Pope Francis might take progressive action. More conservative sources scoffed at the hype and insisted that, peculiar turns of phrase aside, Francis is a staunchly traditional Catholic who would never consider such sweeping changes.

Both sides seem to have a driving need to demonstrate that Pope Francis is on their side.

The pattern repeats itself ad infinitum. Pope Francis makes a statement related to some controversial issue. The media reports it far and wide as further evidence of the pontiff’s heterodoxy. A small minority of ultraconservative bloggers and pundits cries foul, bemoaning the state of the modern Church, some even going so far as to suggest they reject Francis as God’s inspired choice. More commonly, committed Catholics find a way to explain how Francis’ comments don’t really open the door to new ideas as completely as they might appear.

He didn’t really want to show support for the gays and their sinful lifestyle; he just meant that nobody should be judgmental of anybody else’s sin under any circumstances. But obviously the gays are still hellbound.

He may have said we should put less emphasis on abortion and contraception, but that doesn’t make them any less sinful, and don’t you forget it.

Atheists in heaven? Sure — just as long as they repent of their unbelief and offer up an Act of Contrition.

This is what happens when you end up with a popular pope who is less than crystal-clear about the doctrinal leanings of his papacy. Francis speaks the language of a kinder, gentler Catholicism, but his failure to reinforce that language with action gives conservatives a free pass to argue exactly what most of us fear about Francis: that all the flowery progressive language is really just cheap talk.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Sara Lin Wilde

Sara Lin Wilde is a recovering Catholic (and cat-holic, for that matter - all typographical errors are the responsibility of her feline friends). She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she is working on writing a novel that she really, really hopes can actually get published.

  • Crazy Russian

    “most of us fear [...] that all the flowery progressive language is really just cheap talk.”

    I’d say not so much fear as expect. Roman Catholic Church has been an extremely conservative institution throughout its entire history, so it’s a bit presumptuous to expect anything different now, simply because it’s a new century or whatnot. Ultimately, they will, of course, have to conform to the times or become extinct, just like they “evolved” on scientific evidence, Latin masses, and other issues. But before that happens, they will hold on to their archaic dogma as long as it remains profitable. My bet is that wooing relatively more progressive segments of religious society can bring them new (or help retain current) followers, who are a bit put off by antiquated bullshit, at least on the surface, and that is exactly what is going on here. Call me cynical, but I cannot, in good conscience, see anything other than pure calculated self-interest in an organization that is known for its malevolent despotism and egocentricity ever since it emerged a couple millenia ago, not without a good reason. I fail to see one here.

  • Richard Thomas

    I honestly couldn’t care less whether he means what he says or not. It’s not like I’m going to convert to catholicism anyway. He can keep the church on its current path to obscurity and irrelevancy, or he can shake things up to the point where they fracture. Either way, I’m ok with it.

    • JT Rager

      I care exactly because of those reasons in your second point.

      I wouldn’t care if there was an entire worldwide demographic of followers who believed in his inerrancy. I’m just not sure how loyal most Catholics are to the Pope. As an ex-Catholic, I was very progressive, so it’s hard for me to tell. Judging by the actions of Santorum and possibly other Catholic politicians, however, I’m optimistically thinking that they are loyal to the Pope as long as everything he says is something they agree with.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in the US and Europe Catholics seem to just do whatever they want anyway. They use birth control, have abortions and anything else. That’s true even of the ones that go to church and put money in the plate. The only people in America who seem to care what the pope says are reporters.

        • Agrajag

          If you observe actual behaviour, it appears that most catholics are so in principle only. That is, they’re fine with being labeled as such, but they’re not willing to adjust their actual behaviour by the wishes of the church.

          The most clear-cut examples are the bans on premarital sex and contraception. The percentage of catholics who actually adhere to either of those teachings, is in the single-digits.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      The problem is that the catholic church spends a lot of money influencing laws that affect us. (Prop 8, for example) Otherwise, I fully agree. The pope can believe whatever he wants about anything. His belief has no effect on me. The millions the church spends promoting ballot initiatives in the US (often through other organizations) does have an affect.

      • baal

        If the Pope would like to put some action to his words, he can tell the bishops to stop it with the Prop8 type spending (and buying up hospitals).

        • Anna

          I wouldn’t hold my breath…

  • Mike De Fleuriot

    And so our job is unchanged as well. We need to continue to question and provide answers as to why our world view is the best for humanity and it’s future. Because followers die off, and new ones join, so it is the new ones we need to get onto our side, and we have something worthwhile to offer I think.

  • Neko

    Francis released an apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, “Joy of the Gospel,” that lays out his views. I’ve not read it, but apparently abortion and women’s ordination are off the table. Francis is critical of legalism, clericalism, capitalism and, to the dismay of conservatives and art lovers everywhere, unseemly attention to church aesthetics.

    If he helps keep the heat off gays, relaxes attitudes toward birth control (the Church’s intransigence on this issue, based on a shameful and craven act of self-preservation at Vatican II, is of course responsible for untold misery in the developing world), and continues to focus on the oppressed everywhere, it will certainly be an improvement over his predecessor. But will Francis do anything to address the sex abuse scandals? The people demand justice!

    • LesterBallard

      Take the heat off gays? Say that the Bible is wrong on the subject.

      • Neko

        Maybe Sarah Lin Wilde knows, but I’m not sure if the Pope can even do that. The problem is that the Church’s position on homosexuality derives from its interpretation of “natural law” as well as from the scriptures. Even though a theologian can make St. Paul’s argument that Christians are released from the Mosaic Law, Paul himself railed against homosexuality. Then there’s Genesis and the “natural law,” which informs the Church’s ascetic idealism about sex; that is, if you must have sex at all, it should be oriented toward procreation. It’s madness.

        The Pope does have a lot of power in the Church. I suppose he could declare that the Holy Spirit had guided him to an understanding that homosexuality isn’t a sin, after all. That would wreak havoc in the Church which would be awesome. It’s bound to happen eventually, but I doubt in my lifetime. Though I didn’t think I’d see a black president of the US or gay marriage in my lifetime, either, so you never know.

        • Pofarmer

          Madness indeed.

  • PatiBea

    I am a quite-nicely recovered catholic. I think this issue of priests not being able to marry is archaic. Now, I don’t necessarily like marriage, either… for ME. But I think a nice compromise would be this: Priests can be like any other clergy, get married, have kids, etc., IF they wish to. If they want to stay SINGLE, they can do That. What they Can’t do, Must Not Do, is go around raping children. It’s pretty simple. If you want to sing out, sing out! If you want to be free.. oh wait, he went to islam, never mind that.. But seriously. If priests want to be in an adult relationship, gay or straight, it should be up to them. It is 1,000,000,000% unnatural for a human being to remain celibate for any reason other than physical limitations.

    • http://thewritepractice.com/ John Fisher

      Exactly. It’s the enforced celibacy that’s unnatural.

      • Pseudonym

        Beware: celibate men writing about reproductive health.

  • LesterBallard

    I don’t claim him. One pile of shit may be smaller, and may not smell as bad as another pile of shit, but it’s still shit.

  • http://roguemedic.com/ Rogue Medic

    The teaching on homosexuality seems to be that fornication is a sin and homosexuality is a sin, but why upset the heterosexuals by pointing out that their out of wedlock sex is just as bad as gay out of wedlock (in part because of Catholics) sex.

    Santorum and Gingrich promote a Catholicism that would have them excommunicated in the good old days. These “Cafeteria Catholics” are for the death penalty, while the Popes have been against the death penalty since John Pail II (“cruel and unnecessary”),

    They are opposed to gay marriage, but divorce and remarriage are not a problem. The excommunication of Henry VIII was over this quibble.

    They oppose taking care of the poor, while the Popes and Jesus have aggressively encouraged care of the poor.


    Will Francis overturn any major Catholic doctrine?

    Probably not, but he may point out that the Bible is the Ultimate Book of Moral Relativity and start the Catholics toward less hypocritical interpretations.

    Are gays worse than other fornicators? Catholics seem to worship the idea of unmarried gay sex being more evil than unmarried heterosexual sex, but that appears to be just because they are interpreting the Bible according to their biases.

    Does it really matter? Only to gay Catholics and to Catholics who oppose gay marriage. It sucks to be them.

    Is Francis going to suck up to Rush Limbaugh and claim that Jesus died to deliver consumers?

    He probably does not even know who Limbaugh is and would be face palming over this if he did.


    • Itarion

      One could argue – and many do – that gay fornicators are more sinful than straight fornicators, because two sins not one. I am of the opinion that they are both equally sinful, which is to say none. Everything clears up so nicely when you ignore Bronze Age literature and measure by direct harm caused. You might not always like the answer, but there’ll be a clear answer.

      • http://roguemedic.com/ Rogue Medic

        Like arguing over whether Hermione or Ron is a better friend to Harry Potter.

        • Alierias

          Helloooooo !
          It’s obvious that Hermione is the truer friend!

    • alfaretta

      Unfortunately, the actions of the Catholic Church affect far more than just their faithful. Funding anti-same sex marriage initiatives and fighting against reproductive rights are two egregious examples (both of which have already been mentioned).

      I wouldn’t care too much what the Pope or the Church said as long as it only applied to people who VOLUNTARILY submit to their authority.

      • http://roguemedic.com/ Rogue Medic

        I completely agree.

  • A3Kr0n

    After they get done with him, poor Pope Francis is going to look like the scarecrow in the Wizard of OZ after the flying monkeys pulled all his stuffing out.

  • Spectrall

    I don’t want the pope on my side. Fuck this pope ever so slightly less than the previous pope, but still, fuck the pope.

  • Itarion

    Schrodinger’s Pope: He both supports and doesn’t support X, where X is a controversial topic, until such a time as such topic is no longer controversial.

    • Pseudonym

      Even God doesn’t know what a Jesuit is thinking.

  • PrimateZero

    Out of all the perversions, celibacy is the strangest.

    As for the Pope, well it looks like the RCC got a new salesman for their brand of bullshit. He’s the more “progressive” likable pope who seems to be saying all the right things without saying anything (of clarity) at all. A true guru who will be whatever you want him to be…and so much more. They had to get someone to take the attention away from the child abuse scandals. With a majority of Catholics being Hispanic, what better person than a humble bishop from South America. As an Ex-Catholic I find myself extremely skeptical of anything that comes out of Rome, in fact I would much rather see the Church drift into obscurity where it belongs.

  • Rene Horn

    Being a recovering Catholic, my take on it is that Francis is trying to play down some of the rhetoric that has been plaguing the Church into irrelevance. He’s trying to make his non-changes fly under the radar so that people stop leaving the Church.

  • Robster

    One thing godbots have got down pat is the ability to write and elect spokesmen like the “popular pope who is less than crystal-clear about the doctrinal leanings of his papacy”. Starting with their old book of myths, right up to the newly minted pope Frank, they give doctrines dishonest names, twist and warp everything they touch and even at gunpoint would be unable to tell the truth both regards the doctrine to the never ending child rape cover ups, hey they’ll look you in the eye and tell you sincerely that a long dead magic jew “loves you”, as if! They’ll battle with confusion because that’s all they’ve got.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Don’t really care what the pope thinks. Celibacy is an unnatural state for most humans, asexuals aside, and to demand that of people is insane. Would prefer him to keep as many archaic rules as possible. Makes the downfall in the western world happen much faster.

  • jdm8

    “Beware: non-celibates writing about celibacy,”

    How about beware, unmarried clergy talking about marriage?

  • jdm8

    Yes, married people can still be pedophiles. BUT the difference that allowing married clergy can make is that you can grow your pool of clergy so much that you can afford to expel the criminals from your ranks and turn them over to prosecution, rather than keeping them on board and having to systematically hide their criminal deeds from law enforcement, just so that you can still have enough priests to run your global religion.

  • Karen

    I get the sense that Francis is a genuine believer in social justice, the notion that Christians — and honorable people of any or no faith, really — have an obligation to care for the sick, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and generally celebrate the unique humanness of each individual. This isn’t new Catholic teaching; I learned it growing up Catholic in the ’60s and ’70s. The Church strayed away on having its eye on that ball, and Francis is simply trying to bring the focus back to where it should be. He’ll have an uphill battle with the church hierarchy, which have grown very complacent about such issues while bloviating on abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. And the whole pedophile issue is such a mess that he might not have a clue as to how to tackle it, even if he’s inclined to do so; it’ll be like peeling an onion — beneath one disaster he’ll only find another one.

    Having said all of that, it’s still the Catholic Church: a fat, backward, often ungodly institution that most of all needs to keep up it’s own prestige. It’s a chronic meddler in secular politics, often taking stances that I find repulsive. I’d love to see it fade into absolute obscurity.