|One year ago today Pope Francis took the walk of a life time down the Sistine road and without a Toto.|
Of all the first year reviews of Pope Francis, the one that resonated most strongly with my own thinking is that of Paul Vallely in the UK Guardian. Like Vallely, I think Pope Francis is an enigma. While I give him huge marks for changing the tenor of the papacy from Imperial Roman Pope to populist Bishop of Rome, for initiating reforms in the structure and financial practices of the Vatican, and for opening doors to real synodality and collegiality, there are other areas, mostly involving Church discipline and doctrine, in which Francis is like a chameleon...or the Vatican Press Office with all it's clarifications makes it seem as if Francis is a chameleon. I've found it fascinating that Catholic conservatives and Catholic progressives appear to be using Francis like a Catholic Rorshach test of some sort. One side maintains he's a revolution the other claims Francis is walking the exact same path as his two predecessors. Francis does nothing to clarify the fog. Vallely makes this point in the following observations:
There is a carefully cultivated ambiguity about the man who is the 266th successor to St Peter. And it is producing a war of words between conservatives and liberals, inside and outside the Catholic church, with each trying to claim the pontiff for their side in a religious culture war. The stakes are high. This is a pope who has attracted almost seven million visitors to papal events in the 12 months since he took office – triple the number who turned out to see Benedict XVI the year before.
A glance at his Wikipedia page reveals one side of the battleline. It has clearly been written primarily by religious conservatives. Its entries seek predominantly to accentuate the religious orthodoxy of the man who was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Throughout his papacy, it insists, Pope Francis has been a vocal opponent of abortion. He has asserted that he is a "son of the church" and, therefore, loyal to existing doctrine. He has maintained that divorced and remarried Catholics may not receive holy communion (a totemic issue in the traditionalist v progressive divide). The reason he does not sing Gregorian chant during mass is because he had part of one lung removed as a young man.
The casual reader would be advised to take all that as a large dose of spin. Francis's opposition to abortion has hardly been vocal; indeed, he has proclaimed that the church has hitherto "obsessed" too much about it. There is an artful inscrutability to what he means by "a son of the church"; it is a statement about the past, not the future. He has repeatedly hinted that he wants to end the policy of banning divorced and remarried Catholics from communion. He does not chant in Latin because he feels traditional styles of worship do not connect with ordinary people in the wider non-European world.
But what about the other side of the argument? Liberal Catholics, like the new pope's many enthusiasts in the secular world, look to the first non-European bishop of Rome for 1,200 years and see something altogether different. He is "a miracle of humility in an age of vanity", to quote Elton John. He has shown his readiness to break with tradition by washing the feet of women and Muslims. He has told atheists they can get to heaven so long as they "obey their conscience". Most onlookers are attracted by his demand for "a poor church, for the poor" and his letter scolding the rich and powerful at Davos for neglecting the "frail, weak and vulnerable".
The world was taken aback when the head of a church whose key document on the pastoral care of gay Christians is called Homosexualitatis Problema asked: "Who am I to judge?" Yet he has shown no such reticence in adjudging the shortcomings of the medieval monarchy that is the Vatican, describing its courtly Curia (officials) as the "leprosy of the papacy".
All of which, conservatives counter, is a wish-fulfilment Fantasy Francis. It mistakes style for substance and ignores the fact that the new pope's actual teaching demonstrates what the prominent US conservative George Weigel, a biographer and confidante of John Paul II, has called a "seamless continuity" with the German and Polish popes who preceded him. (Yes indeed, Francis the Catholic Rorschach test.)
In spite of all the spinning being done by both sides, Catholics have learned some things in this first year of Francis. One thing I've learned is that there are at least four different Roman Catholic Churches. There is the Latin American version, the Anglo/Euro version, the African version, and the Oriental version and some of these versions are very very different in their world view. When I looked at the results of the Univision poll which tested the views of Catholics on sex and family issues in 12 different countries I was seriously shocked at how far apart Africa was from the rest of the global Church, especially the Anglo/Euro Church. I shouldn't have been surprised because the Anglican Church has been dealing with that split for decades. Catholicism's first chance to hash this split out will come in October at the Bishops Synod on the family. We'll find out if Francis is any better at dealing with this chasm than the Anglican Primate Rowan Williams because the Catholic results show this split is not the result of progressive Anglican theology, it's about different world views, most of them having to do with women and gender expectations.
This brings me to the second thing I've learned this past year. Neither the Church nor Pope Francis has any idea of what to do with the problem of women in the Church. At least Francis recognized it's a problem, but his notions about the Marian and Petrine Churches do not address the problem much less solve it. I understand that Francis is taking his concepts from Von Balthasar who had a great deal of influence on JPII. I suppose it's a nice concept if one wants to keep men in total control because it places the feminine as the heart of the Church with the masculine as the head of the Church...a nice complimentary situation which really appealed to JPII. Really, what woman could possibly be offended by being given the role of Mary in the scheme of things? Perhaps a woman who understands that in this particular scheme of things Mary is mythologized perfection and mere mortal women are neither perfect nor myths. I've often wondered why women have to emulate perfection but men get to emulate Peter who isn't exactly anyone's concept of perfect, but I digress. This idea of Von Balthasar's only flies if you accept the underlying assumption that women somehow embody empathy, relationship, and nurturing and men don't, won't or can't without sacrificing their masculinity on the altar of celibacy. I don't happen to buy any of it, but then I also happen to believe the clerical priesthood is the root and branch of all the Church's current scandal. Which brings me to the third thing I learned this year.
Pope Francis is a priest before he is anything else. I've written that before. His defense of the Church over clerical abuse must stem from how much of a victim he feels as a Catholic priest in today's climate. One wonders why he has empathy for every other form of human misery, but not victims of his own clerical class. He better get over it because there is more to come. He can speak all he wants about the cancer of clericalism but that cancer doesn't go away because someone calls it cancer. Cancers have to be cut out, not left in place to become the next miracle for the next saint from the Vatican saint factory. Clerical abuse stands as the most salient indictment of the whole Catholic clerical system and how abusive it is to the laity, to fellow priests, and to Jesus Himself. Francis can not let this one go. If he lives long enough to call another Vatican synod it should be on the priesthood because family aside, if change doesn't come to the priesthood even the Church in Africa is going to lose it's Catholic identity due to lack of sacramental access. Without meaningful change there is no doubt clerical sexual abuse will continue... and bishops will keep hiding it, especially in countries which do not have Anglo reporting requirements.