The Catholic conundrum named Francis

Is there a theological chasm opening between: 1) the economic-equality message of Pope Francis; and 2) the continued manic obsession of U.S. Bishops and Catholic lay leaders with gay rights and women’s reproductive rights?

It’s not really an issue of the ‘official’ positions of the Catholic Church having changed — they haven’t. Instead, we used to have an American Catholic leadership, and a Papacy, working in tandem to keep the church focused liked a laser-beam on hard-right social conservatism. Economic issues were a footnote.

Now we have a relatively new pope who has expressed the heretical (to conservatives) notion that unfettered capitalism is not a guarantor of freedom, prosperity, or human dignity. He’s even suggested economic inequality is a more important concern for the church, and humanity, than condemning gay people or women who use contraception.  And as a result, far right Catholic activists and social conservatives, including Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, are freaking out.

So what happens now?

Pope Francis. neneo / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis. neneo / Shutterstock.com

A conservative-fundamentalist alliance once grew

Not that long ago, American Catholic leaders — the Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals — were perfectly in alignment with the official Vatican positions on just about everything. Social policy, abortion and contraception, LGBT/gay rights, politics, you name it.

Essentially, to be a Catholic leader was synonymous with being joined at the hip with the increasingly radical-conservative Republicans and their Tea Party extremist cohorts. And the American radical right liked it that way. It granted them what they perceived to be moral legitimacy in their hard-right positions.

Vatican City

Vatican City

There wasn’t always much consistency, though, behind this attempted and imperfect alliance with official Vatican positions.

For example, we’ve witnessed numerous instances of American Catholic politicians (and even simple voters) being threatened with the withholding of the communion Eucharist (the blessed wafer), or even excommunication, over support for reproductive rights for women and gay rights.

Yet these threats are never leveled against politicians who are in favor of capital punishment — which the Catholic Church also opposes. Or politicians who look to cut financial or food aid to the poor. Or those who have voted for wars of aggression, such as the one in Iraq.

In fact, when you get down to it, as Markos Moulitsas pointed out, the notion that the Roman Catholic Church’s positions on everything were 100% equivalent to those of the American hard-right was never more than an illusion anyway. Yes, the Church was always anti-sex and anti-gay on everything — but they’ve also been in favor of helping the poor, having economies serve the people (not the other way around), and opposing both capital punishment and war.

As with those who point to Leviticus as to why they think being gay is a sin, yet have no problem enjoying cheeseburgers, shrimp, and lobster, and who cut their hair and wear mixed fabrics (all frowned on by Leviticus as well), the would-be social-religious conservatives ignore any part of the Church’s teachings they don’t want to talk about.

Or adhere to.

Then along comes Pope Francis

Pope Francis (photo: Creative Commons)

Pope Francis (photo: Creative Commons)

Argentinian-born Jorge Mario Gergoglio joined the priesthood in 1969, and had a somewhat unremarkable career as a Jesuit priest for the next few decades until being appointed ‘Auxiliary Bishop’ of Buenos Aires in ’92. He rose to Archbishop by ’98.

Among his major initiatives was an effort to have more priests serve in the slums of Buenos Aires (of which there are lots). His was also an active voice in trying to make amends for the silence of the Catholic Church in Argentina during the military juntas of the 70s. In one remark, he said the Argentinian Catholic Church needed “to put on garments of public penance for the sins committed during the years of the dictatorship.”

In 2001, Pope John Paul II elevated Gergoglio to Cardinal. On 13 March 2013, former Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis (the first of this name) — the first Jesuit pope, and the first from the Americas.

Gergoglio long had a reputation as a man who eschews opulence in all forms. As Bishop in Buenos Aires, he was entitled to live in a posh official Bishop’s residence in Olivos, but instead stayed in a small apartment. He used public transportation and preferred to cook his own meals (and still does, for the latter, although the former is no longer practical). As one story goes, after he was elected Pope in Rome, but before his formal appointment to the office, he took a bus back to his hotel so he could pay his bill and check out.

(The Vatican has denied the reports that Pope Francis has disguised himself as an ordinary priest to sneak out at night and tend to the homeless. Yet the fact such a story was reported, and deemed believable by many, speaks volumes as to just how different a pope Francis really is.)

Most of all, Bergoglio was very well liked by his fellow Cardinals, hence why he was reported to have been in the running for pope when John Paul II passed away in 2005.

Make no mistake, Pope Francis is no social liberal

Francis is not at all liberal or progressive on many issues — most notably reproductive rights, on which he hasn’t budged (although he’s refrained from saying that contraception is 100% wrong 100% of the time).

He’s also on the record as being against the ordination of female priests (but he has said he’d like to see more women in administrative and leadership positions within the Church).

He’s totally against same-sex marriage, and holds to the Church teaching that to be LGBT is “intrinsically immoral.” He had this to say when Argentina was considering the ultimately successful passage of a marriage equality law:

In the coming weeks, the Argentine people will face a situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family… At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.

And although he’s spoken out often and vehemently against child abuse and child sex trafficking, he’s been accused of the usual whitewashing when crimes against children were committed by Catholic clergy.

Yet where as his predecessor, Pope Benedict, led the Church in becoming always more hard-line, and more tightly aligned with hard-right political parties and positions throughout the world, Pope Francis seems to be bringing at least some of the usual Jesuit pragmatism to the office.

The Roman Catholic Church hasn’t changed its positions either

While much of the focus from the progressive left has been on the Church’s conservative positions on reproductive rights and LGBT rights, having Popes speak out against the evils of unfettered capitalism and the spiritual poverty of those who worship money is nothing new. Even the most conservative of the recent popes — John Paul II and Benedict XVI — both spoke out against economic inequality and urge the wealthy nations it was their duty to be generous and to fight poverty.

The difference between before and now is a matter of focus and emphasis. And I would contend that we are seeing a pope whose preferred focus and emphasis is no longer in alignment with the direction the Roman Catholic Church had been moving, particularly during the reigns of the last two popes, and especially Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Consider how Francis has gone out of his way repeatedly now to draw attention to income inequality and poverty, whereas Benedict couldn’t seem to pass up a chance to avow that gay people would destroy human civilization utterly.

American Catholic leaders have led the charge to the hard-right

As I noted earlier, we don’t see American Catholic Bishops threatening to withhold communion or other sacraments from politicians who vote in favor of cuts to programs that help the poor. Or who vote in favor of wars. Or who vote to protect moneyed interests over the good of the people. Or who vote repeatedly to deny healthcare to the sick and needy.

I’ve also pointed out how the hard right conservative contingent has increasingly become rigidly dogmatic and unforgiving of any deviation from conservative orthodoxy.

Just consider the reaction of the far right to Republican politicians who tried to pay their respects for the passing of Nelson Mandela. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Eric Cantor, and John Boehner — ultra-conservative Republicans all — were savaged online because they failed to denounce Mandela as a terrorist nor promise to go urinate on his grave at the earliest opportunity.

Courtesy of TPM.

Courtesy of TPM.

American Catholic leaders appear to have adopted this culture of conservative orthodoxy and dogma as well.

The part I find fascinating is how much they’re willing to overlook all the different ways their far-right allies don’t meet with ‘official’ Catholic positions — provided certain pet issues are supported:

  • Abortion and access to contraceptives? Against.
  • Gay rights? Against.
  • Protect the Church from prosecution for the pedophiles in its clergy? Absolutely.

Other Church positions, none of which are new:

  • Help for the poor? Not important enough to lobby for.
  • End wars and redirect military spending to peaceful causes? (((crickets)))
  • Abolish capital punishment? (Not even crickets.)
  • Poverty and economic inequality? Talk, sure, but that’s all.

Yes, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has objected to GOP cuts in food stamps and social programs, at times going so far as to send a sternly worded letter to the individuals involved.

But don’t worry, Senator GOPer! Voting to eliminate food stamps, unemployment benefits, repeal of minimum wage, and abolishing Social Security and Medicare won’t put your Communion wafer or eternal salvation at risk at all. Just don’t ever listen to those naughty Jezebels who want to claim that hormonal contraceptive medication is used for non-contraceptive purposes 58% of the time and you’ll be fine.

Priorities and pragmatism… and anathemas

This is the real problem for the hard right radicals, and for the American Catholic Bishops: They don’t know how to bend at all. They don’t want to bend.

Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

Catholic Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of Illinois conducted an exorcism to “cure” the state of its impending gay marriages.

Now then, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the RCC Diocese of Springfield, Illinois knows how it’s supposed to be done. Never mind the sheer heresy* in calling for a public exorcism, contrary to De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam (v.1999, rev 2004; translates as ‘Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications’). Bishop Paprocki called for a public prayer exorcism for the entire state of Illinois — because its secular state legislature had passed and Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a marriage equality bill.

(* = Heresy in that it is abundantly clear that exorcisms are supposed to be performed quietly and without any public or media attention whatsoever.)

Not content with having an estimated 500 people pray to exorcise the symbolic demons of democratic governance, Paprocki also issued a veiled threat of eternal damnation for anybody who votes to elect any pro-gay rights politician:

“If you’re voting for someone because you have the intention of trying to promote something that is gravely sinful then you are putting your salvation in jeopardy.”

Good to see you love America so very much, Bishop Paprocki.

It’s the same deal with adoptions in states with laws that ban discrimination against gay and lesbian parents. Rather than comply with anti-discrimination laws, the Catholic Church opted to shut down their orphanages. (Although given what happened to the kids in Catholic-run orphanages in Ireland, and elsewhere throughout the world, I’m not so sure this was a bad idea…)

Or contraceptive medication, constantly misrepresented as an abortifacient, when what it actually does is prevent ovulation. Apparently utterly lacking in irony, the American Roman Catholic Church wants a religious exemption from having to cover this in group insurance — without realizing the same argument could and will likely be used by anybody with any particular belief or whim. Suppose one is a Christian Scientist — would that not grant a blanket exemption from offering health insurance at all, since they don’t believe in doctors?

Cardinal Dolan (Credit: Cy White)

Cardinal Dolan (Credit: Cy White)

Yet Cardinal and Archibishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, had these apocalyptic words to say:

To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to healthcare as on religious freedom. Historically this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty.

C’mon: We all pay taxes. Taxes pay for military weaponry. Military weapons are used in wars. Are not wars inherently immoral, according to the Roman Catholic Church?

Its not permitting the preventable deaths of innocent civilians a far more unconscionable crime than whether or not a woman uses contraceptive medication?

As ever, Dolan emphasized his (and his Church’s) opposition to PPCACA mandated coverage for contraceptives and sterilization as an attack on pregnancy — ignoring all the other reasons (often medically necessary) as for why these medical treatments exist in the first place. Yet it’s worth noting that in 1966, Paul VI’s commission on birth control recommended lifting the Church ban, but he refused.

The Catholic conundrum named Francis

I feel like I’m going to get beaten up if I don’t reiterate this, so I shall: Pope Francis is not a progressive Catholic, certainly not on social policy.

Francis hasn’t proposed any changes in Church policy on gay or trans issues, contraception, or anything else. In fact, with respect to women’s reproductive freedoms, he earns a big fat goose egg from me.

Nevertheless, he’s committed numerous heresies against radical conservatism, and that should peak our interest. Radical conservatives, especially the Tea Party, do not tolerate conservative apostasy, and they’re not terribly thrilled with what Francis has been saying. Their displeasure, if anything, is proof of why we should be paying attention.

Pope Francis suggested that maybe the Church and its clergy and its allies — politicians, pundits, lobbyists, and hangers-on — shouldn’t be so focused on judging and condemning others.

Last July, he was reported as saying, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” It’s noted that unlike his predecessors (and many American Bishops) who prefer the clinically pejorative term ‘homosexual’, Francis actually used the word ‘gay’ even though the rest of what he said was in Italian.

In a long interview in September, in remarks that reverberated throughout the Church and the media, Pope Francis said:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. 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.”

American Bishops have already expressed dismay that Francis isn’t obsessed with Teh Gay and abortion pills like they are. Here in the States, the Archbishop of Chicago would not condemn the comparison of Obama with Hitler and Stalin, and equated Gay Pride with the Ku Klux Klan.

Well, most of this sort of news was fodder for page A-2 in the newspapers and a Slot-B mention on the nightly news programs. However, Pope Francis really stepped into it when he contradicted Saint Ronnie and averred the economic teachings of the Catholic Church, including calling into question the bedrock dogmas of unfettered laissez faire capitalism. In a papal statement, the Evangelii Gaudinum, he wrote:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Boy did this cause wailing and gnashing of teeth. Half-term former Alaska governor Sarah Palin referred to the remarks as kind of “liberal.” Rush Limbaugh went further and said it was “pure Marxism.”

His remarks caused one Fox News editor, Adam Shaw, to lose his cool and also reportedly his side-gig writing for the Catholic News Service. (Shaw’s column? “Pope Francis is the Catholic Church’s Obama — God help us.”)

And of course, Fox Business News’s Stuart Varney blithely dismissed the problems of the poor and referred to Pope Francis’ remarks on income inequality as Neo-Socialism. Fortunately, Jon Stewart was there to point out the crass cruelty of Varney as well.

U.S. Bishops (and allies) versus Pope Francis and the Church?

So this is my question, and I’m hoping you folks will take it up in the comments: Can this contradiction be resolved? Or is the Catholic Church heading slowly towards schism?

The American Catholic Church appears to be quite comfortable with its GOP/Tea Party/Ultra-Conservative alliance. Sure, from time to time, the U.S. Bishops will make some noise in opposition to budget cuts that hurt the poor. But as I’ve said, none of their objections rise to the level of threatened withholding of Communion, Excommunication, and/or eternal damnation.

Vote to let women use a safe and legal drug — for contraception and also for other medical needs — and it’s worthy of consignment to Hell. Same thing if you merely vote for a politician you know will vote in favor of gay marriage or gay rights.

On the other hand, we now have a Pope who is saying we shouldn’t be focused on those things at all. That we, if we follow his example, shouldn’t presume to judge others. He even had harsh words for priests who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers, saying:

“In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage. These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized!”

Or — and I have to ask this in honesty — is this pope really no different from his predecessors, other than being much better at public relations?

The soap box is yours.


Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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