No doubt about it. Pope Francis is a charmer. In the years since his election in March, 2013, the breath of fresh air that is Francis has caught the imagination of people all over the world — Catholic and otherwise.
I too had been feeling the warm and fuzzy Francis effect — until a couple of weeks ago, that is, when I got a first-hand look at the Catholic hierarchy, in the flesh. It was pretty much male flesh.
The occasion was the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association, held this year in Philadelphia. I listened as four — count ’em four — archbishops and a
passel of Catholic priests and lay people briefed religion reporters on church doctrine and the pope’s upcoming visit to the U.S. There was a sprinkling of women on the dais, but mostly it was men speaking for the Catholic church — smart, skillful, socially adept, articulate, ambitious men.
Men who are running one of the world’s largest and most influential international institutions.
Pope Francis has earned his popularity, it’s clear. He says enlightened things like, “Who am I to judge?” He does amazing things like embrace a severely disfigured man as the world looks on.
Francis got the Cubans and the Americans talking. Good job. Similar blandishments didn’t work on Israel’s Shimon Peres and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas. But good try.
And there’s hope that Francis might even bring order to the inner workings of the Vatican and its bank.
Most dramatic, of course, is Francis’s plan to turn the church’s attention back to serving the poor, reversing the policy of his two predecessors. That’s terrific. (However, that old liberation theology phrase, “preferential option for the poor,” has never set too well with me. God prefers the poor? I don’t think so.)
No doubt about it, Pope Francis is a warm-hearted, forward-looking man.
A Forward-Looking Pope Francis?
But wait — I’m not so sure about that forward-looking part. Here’s why: This is a guy — and a church — who are telling married women and men that God does not trust them to take charge of their reproductive lives, to make decisions for their family’s economic stability and to know the limits of their ability to fully, attentively parent their children.
They’re saying that sex for sex’s sake is not OK with God. That God does not want married couples to use birth control, because God and God alone is in charge of how many babies a man and a woman shall produce, rear and support. Where’s the forward movement in that?
And where’s the reform in Pope Francis’s decision to kick off his Year of Mercy with a — temporary — mercy for Catholic women who have had abortions? For the next year, women who have had abortions can go to their priests for absolution and
reinstatement into the church. They won’t have to go through the humiliating extra hoops of taking their cases to higher up church authorities.
But what happens when the year of mercy is over? Church authorities — male human beings — will once again be authorized to decide whether a woman who’s had an abortion can be absolved of her sin.
The church — and its male hierarchy, headed by the pope — comes down plenty hard on many issues. But it’s not the issues that are igniting this — for me rare — rant.
It’s that hierarchy, that top-down earthly authority.
I’m not a Catholic, so maybe it’s none of my beeswax what the pope and his bishops say about religious liberty, birth control, divorce, extra marital sex, and same-sex marriage. I’m not affected, for example, by papal pronouncements on the so-called God-given rightness — the “complementarity” — of marriage between one man and one woman.
However, it is my beeswax if I’m an employee who’s denied birth control coverage or who’s been fired because I’m in a same-sex marriage.
I’m not the only one to have opinions on these issues. U.S. Catholics do too. A new Pew Research Center survey sheds some light:
Fewer than half of U.S. Catholics surveyed by Pew said that homosexual behavior, remarriage without annulment, cohabitation, and the use of contraception are sinful. A full seventy percent said it’s OK for a husband and wife to choose not to have children.
Is the pope listening?
The Pope of Surprises
Pope Francis is a man of surprises. He has declined to live in the luxurious papal apartments. He calls old friends on the phone out of the blue. He speaks off the cuff to the press. He washes the feet of women and Muslims.
“He’s in nobody’s pocket,” said one of last weekend’s powerful men in black, the Rev. Thomas Rosica of the Holy See press office. Pope Francis is his own man.
OK then, Francis, pope of surprises. Surprise me. Let go of some of that churchly power. Start maybe by acknowledging that women and men are fully competent to decide when and if they will try to get pregnant.
I’m pretty sure that God trusts people with those big life decisions. Why don’t you?
A version of this post first appeared on BarbaraFalconerNewhall.com. Newhall is the author of “Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith,” from Patheos Press. If this post resonated with you, you might enjoy “Why Are All Those Catholics So Darned Catholic?” Also “How to Pray, When You Don’t Have a Thing to Say to God.”