Friday, September 20, 2013

Pope Francis, Getting Us to Come Out of the Closet

I said I'd try to have some cogent thoughts on Pope Francis' interview this morning. Little did I realize his interview was a whopping twelve thousand words long, and has lovely sections much more ready for personal meditation than analysis.  

I'll have more to say in the coming weeks, but for now here are two little points I notice, and one personal reflection.

A Church Obsessed With Sex
The section that has gotten the most play, unsurprisingly, is the Pope's comments on Catholic sexual ethics. Let me quote the section, in a slightly fuller form than has been generally presented:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

For anyone that's followed the Pope the last six months, this statement is a summation of what he's been up to, namely putting Catholic sexual ethics back in its place. If you listen to some Church outlets -- or in some cases journalists reporting on the Church -- you'd think most of what Jesus spoke about was who to have sex with and under what guidelines.

That's not the case (thank goodness -- although what a hilarious gospel that would be).
Which is not to say -- and here many journalists yesterday seemed to be getting it wrong -- that the Pope is implying some sort of change of policy on the topics of gay marriage or abortion. He's just saying, these issues have grown to such a size that they obscure their broader context.

Begging You For Mercy
And that broader context is a broken, wounded world in need of God's love and mercy. Pope Francis is a master of the simple image that speaks volumes, and in this interview he speaks about the Church as a field hospital:
I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.
For me, this piece is the most important. Because it lays out a very clear and Christ-like mission for the Church: caring for those in need. Being instruments not of judgment or condemnation, but of forgiveness, healing, love.

Finger wagging about other stuff is fundamentally a luxury; it makes as much sense as asking a man bleeding to death whether they've really got enough fiber in their diet.

Come Out of Your Closets
The other big piece for me, and I think for a lot of people trained to work in the Church, is Pope Francis' style here, his openness to the world.

By and large I think Pope Benedict gets a bad rap. Right before he was elected he made that comment that we should be open to a smaller Church of people who are faithful to Church teaching -- a sort of "Get in line or get out". But in his papacy he was never that guy.

Unfortunately, many of the people he and Pope John Paul II before him appointed have spoken in such ways, at least in the United States. Even as the American Church has gone through the biggest crisis of confidence probably of its existence, it has responded less with contrition and humility than the shrill denouncement of things like gay adoption or abortion and the forced feeding of a new translation of the liturgy that reads less like poetry than word salad.

It is difficult to be a Catholic in such an environment. You find yourself caught in an Orwellian sort of nightmare where the common sensical -- the fundamental mission of the Church as kindness and mercy; the truth of the Church as human and therefore sinful, always in need of development; and the necessity for the Church of not only teaching the world but learning from it -- is now considered heretical.

And many ministers' primary experience is wrapped up in fear that their bishops or worse will, like the all-seeing eye of Sauron, look their way.

I've lived with very holy, very reasonable men who have been told they can no longer write or teach because someone in Rome didn't like (or understand) what they had written. In most cases those men were never allowed to meet their accusers and defend themselves, and their work was grounded in very basic concepts from Vatican II.

Likewise, I worked at America Magazine when editor-in-chief Tom Reese was removed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in large part for allowing a free intellectual discussion on issues that mattered.  (As Catholic journalist David Gibson pointed out yesterday, this Pope just went much farther than Tom Reese ever did, or ever would.)

It has been a strange and somewhat awful truth to realize that the Church would outright condemn countries for treating its people in the way that it sometimes treats its own.

And it is a terrible puzzle, after so many years of education meant to be shared with the People of God, to then be muzzled from actually sharing it. You feel like somewhere along the line the Pharisees won the day, and if Jesus came again our own people would be first in line to crucify him.

To suddenly have a Pope whose fundamental disposition is not "NO" or "DON'T" or "WRONG", who sees himself not as a judge but as a friend and speaks from a place of mercy and kindness and concern for the poor -- it's like the doors and windows finally being thrown open on the closets (or caskets) we've been locked in and light shining in.

It's dizzying, too, and I'm sure much moreso for those who have found comfort in the clarity and insistence of the Church's prior disposition. I hear a good deal of gloating these last six months from the progressive wing of the Church, and that is both unhelpful and wrong headed.  It's like a guy hearing Jesus say "You're a sinner" and then turning to the guy next to him and saying, "You hear that? You're a sinner." Don't worry about your neighbor's status, kiddo; you've got plenty to work on yourself.

There's a lot more to say -- and forgive me for going on the length that I have. I'm just grateful for this leader whose words make me feel less crazy and less alone.

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