Pope Francis has huge popularity with rank-and-file Catholics who have hungered for a figure to transcend an age of scandal. But the advancing story line of Francis’s papacy is this: how far can a pope go in making reforms against an embedded culture of cardinals and bishops, averse to change?
“Gay clergy many times feel that their gifts as ministers flow from the experience of a homosexual orientation,” is how Father Robert Nugent explained his advocacy for gay Catholics, when I first interviewed him in 1987.
Nugent founded New Ways Ministry with Sister Jeannine Gramick to reconcile gays with a church whose moral teachings ostracized them — and a church with a huge, restive closet of gay priests. In 1999 a Vatican investigation of the priest and nun culminated when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger censured them, ordering them into silence.
Gramick kept speaking out. Nugent, with a masters of divinity from Yale, was more wounded and retreated into the quiet life of a parish priest. He wrote essays including a particularly moving one in Commonweal on the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, whom the Vatican silenced in the 1960s for his writings on evolution. Nugent died Jan. 1, at 76, with Gramick by his side.
How pleased he would have been at seeing his key metaphor — “gifts” —echoed in the Oct. 13 draft report by the Vatican Synod on the Family: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a further space in our communities?”
Media scrutiny of the initial report authored by Archbishop Bruno Forte seized on Francis’ famous remark on gays, “Who am I to judge?”
Nugent would not have been surprised to see Forte’s draft catalyze hard-line conservative bishops: A revised draft, translated from Italian to English, watered domwn “welcoming” to “providing for.”
Every nuance counts when human love is subject to review. Bishops who do not “welcome” gays can “provide” what? Lessons that they heed ancient scripture that condemns same-sex love? Bearing the cross of sexual orientation over which they have no choice?
The Italian version is official, but a final document will emerge from next fall’s sequel synod, subject to Francis’ final word.
How does a teaching church align itself with one of the core human rights issues of the age in which it teaches? A larger question looms: does a reform-driven pope have the power to change doctrinal language?
The teaching church vs. the worshiping church
“The $64,000 question is whether Francis is pushing doctrinal changes,” explains Father Charles Curran, the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, a prolific moral theologian, and a realist on the church internal.
“I think it would be very difficult for him personally and institutionally,” Curran said. “We’ve been trying to get them to change on contraception for 50 years.”
In 1968, Curran was a prominent figure challenging Paul VI’s papal letter condemning all forms of birth control. An advisory commission to the pope had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the birth control pill. The fallout against the papal letter made international headlines for months. Polls today show 85 percent of laypeople ignore the church’s position.
It took nearly two decades for payback, but Ratzinger revoked Curran’s license to teach theology at Catholic University of America after a Vatican investigation of his “dissent.” Catholic University operates under a Vatican charter.
Curran lost his tenured post in 1988, and eventually took the position at SMU in Dallas.
“For a pope to say my predecessors were wrong has never been done,” says Curran. “Francis isn’t changing the very specific negative teachings of the church. Instead, he’s not emphasizing them. But the teaching church should reflect the worshiping church. Nobody talks about birth control from the pulpit and everybody practices it. That shows how very difficult it is for them to admit that the teaching was wrong.”
Bishops have become high-profile critics of gay marriage, sometimes spending church funds in opposition to gay marriage ballot initiatives.
As one of the red lines in the culture wars in Europe, North America and Australia, the Catholic hierarchy waged that battle and lost.
Francis recently beatified Paul VI, the step before sainthood, for his distant predecessor’s role in shepherding the reform-minded Second Vatican Council to its resolution in 1965. That same pope was so devastated by the public hostility to his birth control statement that he issued no other encyclical in his final 10 years.
Popes have a history of making mistakes, often embarrassing ones, which a defensive Vatican chooses to forget or ignore.
Gregory XVI, who was pope from 1831-1846, condemned the spread of railroads in Italy. He also condemned Italian nationalism. The railroads, which were built anyway, helped Italy gain a certain national identity.
Why can’t popes admit that earlier popes made mistakes? The doctrine of infallibility applies only when a pope speaks on dogma, absolute religious truth (as opposed to moral teachings) and has only been invoked twice since its 1871 adaptation.
John Paul II praised one of the most notorious pedophiles in church history, Father Marcial Maciel, as “an efficacious guide to youth” and lopped praise on him long after the allegations by ex-seminarians were lodged in Ratzinger’s office in 1998.
As late as 2004, John Paul was still praising Maciel.
Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict, ousted Maciel in 2006 and fast-tracked John Paul for sainthood. Francis canonized Paul VI and John Paul II on the same day. All mistakes were forgiven. But are they forgotten?
Saint John Henry Newman, the prolific 19th century English cardinal, wrote a famous essay on the development of doctrine in which he said: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
John Paul in his own way advanced the idea of a church subject to revision by making a long line of apologies to Jews, Native Americans, Galileo and many others wronged by the church, in the name of “the purification of historical memory.”
His apologies in pursuit of historical honesty did not include clergy sex abuse victims, gay people or women seeking a role in the priesthood. Toward them he was rigid.
“Evolution just happens and it is not in the control of the institutional church in the end,” Catholic Studies Professor Paul Lakeland of Fairfield University told me.
“Doctrine is always developing. Change is the elephant in the room and always has been. What Francis seems to me to have done is to open the door to show the institutional church leaders struggling to absorb (or not) the message they are getting from the signs of the times.”
Certain issues that divide the Roman Catholic hierarchy, such as accepting divorced Catholics who have remarried without an annulment, are emotionally fraught for church traditionalists. The church of laws stands hard against sins of the world, in their view.
Sandro Magister, a veteran correspondent for the Italian newsweekly L’espresso, has excellent Vatican sources. Magister is a romantic conservative, covering the Vatican as a higher realm of morality, with infighting as you might expect in a great castle. In a recent interview with Rorate Caeli, a traditional Catholic blog, Magister gave voice to the steely view of cardinals and bishops at odds in this papacy’s drama of “to live is to change.”
On the issue that divided the recent Synod of the Family, letting divorced Catholics who remarry receive communion, Magister brooded that such tolerance "will result in the acceptance of second-marriages, and so to the dissolution of the sacramental bond of matrimony.”
He complained further of "another recurring practice of this Pontificate: reprimands to one side and the other. However, if we want to make an inventory, the scoldings aimed at the traditionalists, the legalists and the rigid defenders of doctrine appear to be much more numerous. On the other hand, whenever he has something to say to the progressives you never understand who he is really referring to.”
Francis is a change agent rivaled by few other figures in power today. That is why he stands at the top of various polls of the globe’s most popular figures. He is saying things no one in politics is saying about the injustice of unregulated capitalism and human rights of the world’s poor, while calling his church to search beyond the positions that have divided it since the disastrous 1968 birth control encyclical.
“Francis has electrified the church and attracted legions of non-Catholic admirers by energetically setting a new direction,” Fortune magazine said in March, naming him its most influential person in the world.
“He knows that while revolutionary, his actions so far have mostly reflected a new tone and intentions," the piece read. "His hardest work lies ahead. And yet signs of a ‘Francis effect’ abound: In a poll in March, one in four Catholics said they'd increased their charitable giving to the poor this year. Of those, 77 percent said it was due in part to the pope.”
The idea that a revolutionary pope is causing more Catholics to give money, after a generation of church scandals that have been a huge embarrassment to believers and caused many younger people to leave, underscores that Francis himself is an idea whose time has come.
He has until October 2015, when the next Synod of Bishops will convene, to decide on such things as the semantics of “welcoming” as opposed to “providing for” gay Catholics. And between now and then, one of the ripping political narratives of the day will continue, as the old guard cardinals push back against a pope many of them wish had never been elected.
Jason Berry is a GroundTruth religion correspondent and author of Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.