Overemphasizing Pope Harms the Church, Says Commonweal Editor

Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ widespread popularity seems to be good news for the Catholic Church, gained in part by his welcoming words and actions towards LGBT people and their allies. Yet, one leading Catholic observer has criticized this intense focus on the papacy as harmful to the Church.

Paul Baumann, the editor of Commonweal, wrote an article for Slate titled, “The Public Pope: Why the intense fascination paid to Pope Francis – or any pope – isn’t good for the Catholic Church.” Baumann acknowledges the upsides to modern popes, gaining media coverage and secular attention in a world otherwise skeptical of religion. The allure of Pope Francis, who is preaching God’s love in new ways, is a prime example. However, even with these positives, the author explains:

“Whatever people think Pope Francis is offering, he is no magician; he can’t alter the course of secular history or bridge the church’s deepening ideological divisions simply by asserting what in truth are the papacy’s rather anemic powers. In this light, the inordinate attention paid to the papacy, while perhaps good for business, is not good for the church. Why not? Because it encourages the illusion that what ails the church can be cured by one man, especially by a new man.”

Baumann points to three popes to make his point about the weakness of the papacy: St. Peter, a “man of legendary weakness” who denied Jesus three times, John Paul II, a “media superstar” who failed to effectively deal with clergy sexual abuse, and Benedict XVI, a “man of towering intellect…overmastered by palace intrigue within the Vatican.”  There are surely more examples of papal failings. Instead of fixating on popes though, Baumann wants to shift attention back to Catholics at large who are both the problem and solution:

“The truth is that the more the world flatters the Catholic Church by fixating on the papacy—and the more the internal Catholic conversation is monopolized by speculation about the intentions of one man—the less likely it is that the church will succeed in moving beyond the confusions and conflicts that have preoccupied it since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium; it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope.”

The modern papacy, in Baumann’s estimation, is overly involved in the affairs of the global Catholic Church. Vatican meddling in the most local of cases has ‘infantilized’ bishops and suppressed theological discourse. The pope no longer exists as a source of unity, but has become a disciplinarian along ideological lines. This has all caused great harm to the Church. Baumann states:

“As in any heavily top-down organization, local initiatives fail to gain a foothold, or fizzle out for lack of dynamic leadership, and apathy prevails in the pews. Institutional gridlock and paralysis have become the norm. Seminaries are empty, and clerical talent is thin on the ground.”

There is also the reality of a divided Church, and Baumann mentions the topics of homosexuality and marriage equality among the laundry list of topics that provoke “mind-numbingly familiar” debates. Vatican II’s documents proved to be ambiguous, and even contradictory, allowing for the conservative/liberal divides to develop without any way means of conflict resolution:

“The persistent nature of such divisions reminds us that Catholics must find a way to live with and through their ongoing disputes and, most important, to live with one another. Perhaps this is precisely what Pope Francis is trying to tell Catholics in his efforts to shift the focus: away from Rome and back to the poor and afflicted, away from the question of who is living in the papal apartments to who is breaking bread with whom in more modest surroundings, and away—most winningly—from the popemobile to a used Renault.

“Lex orandi, lex credendi is one of the church’s most venerable teachings. Roughly translated, it means that the church’s worship determines its theology…Whatever their ideological disagreements, Catholics will find unity, and a less anachronistic relationship with the papacy, in practicing their faith together—or they will not find unity at all. That may mean that the same-sex couple in the pew next to you will provide a more faithful example of Christian witness than you might now imagine possible. Or perhaps the ardent piety of a Latin Mass enthusiast will lead you to reconsider parts of the church’s tradition you have long dismissed as irrelevant and sterile. In any event, the church’s unity and renewed vitality will be—must be—a gift that the faithful bring to the pope, and not the other way around.”

The history of LGBT advocacy within the Church confirms Baumann’s claims that it is the People of God who create change and build up a better Church, not necessarily the pope or the Vatican. While Pope Francis’ comments like “Who am I to judge?” are welcome, they are so positively received because thousands of LGBT Catholics, parents, friends, nuns and priests, and allies have committed decades to creating LGBT-positive parishes and communities. Through painstaking conversations, workshops, and pushing the boundaries bit by bit, LGBT advocates have fostered a Church more welcoming of all, even if this work is less media-friendly than papal pronouncements.

All that said, anti-gay laws are on the rise internationally, leading to discrimination and violence in nations like Uganda, India, and Russia. The firing of LGBT church workers, and even those who just support equal rights, is on the rise in the United States. Non-discrimination protections that include sexual orientation and gender identity are still not universaland neither is marriage equality. While I join many in celebrating Pope Francis after his first year, and affirm Equally Blessed’s statement that his LGBT-positive actions are like ‘rain on parched land,’ we must remember there is much work we must do, and that change emerges up from the People of God, not down from the pope.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. tomfluce
    tomfluce says:

    DITTO! DITTO! DITTO! Hierarchy from top to bottom has to go along with infallibility and all the persecution of dissenters. Of course, I’m now an avowed Deist and reject the essence of “revealed” religions. But since Brother Bergoglio and his catholic fans are indulging in this fascination they ought to make for real change to a human institution and continue on doing the wonderful good always done by catholics–without the God decreed stuff.

    Reply
    • Peter Beacham
      Peter Beacham says:

      Pope Francis is making a real change for the better in people’s lives as he encourages them to live in love and without judgment. He is also cleaning up the Vatican and promoting an inclusive form of economics. Not too bad for being only 54 weeks in office. What have you accomplished for humanity in the past year.

      Reply
  2. Peter Beacham
    Peter Beacham says:

    The attraction is not to the Pope as a person but as a person who exemplifies Christ’s teachings on love, inclusion and non-judgement and encourages others to do so. The author, on the other hand, exemplifies judgment, exclusion and some mean-spiritedness so it is not surprising that he missed the point entirely.

    Reply
    • Jim
      Jim says:

      I wonder if I’m seeing a different article than the one Mr. Beacham responded to. I’m just not seeing the exclusion and mean-spiritedness he claims is in the article. Mr. Shine and the article he quotes are affirming the love, inclusion and non-judgmental nature of Pope Francis’ papacy, but point out that the real work of creating a loving, inclusive, non-judgmental church and world must happen in local communities and dioceses, as well as in the Vatican. Giving a few illustrations of just how far we are from that goal doesn’t strike me as mean-spirited or exclusive.

      Reply
      • Peter Beacham
        Peter Beacham says:

        I was referring to the original author of the article in Slate magazine, Paul Baumann, not the author of the Bondings article that commented on the Slate article. I should have made that clearer.

        Reply
  3. Lea
    Lea says:

    I think a lot has been done ‘in the ranks’ of the Catholic Church and I, for one, can’t help but cheer that our “leader” has advised the world that the goal for all is open-armedness (inclusion) just as Jesus emphasized both in word and action. Yes, we have a long way to go, but, just maybe, we Catholics have been given the impetus by Pope Francis’ words and action to lead this process of conversion (inclusion) so that, this time, it becomes more than just blathering.
    I am not part of the LGBT community but the issue of being an equal, cared-for voice in our community, both spiritual and sectarian, is of utmost importance to me-and I am not an exception!

    Reply
    • tomfluce
      tomfluce says:

      Well, this is the most feed-back I’ve seen in this blog. What I would like to underline as a followup to Paul Baumann’s article is that having an individual in the top/infallible/autocratic system of governance who is actually a leader that inspires people like the LGBTQI community, people who are disturbed about money controlling everything, etc. etc. is a perfect example of what is wrong with the system. People in this office including the current Brother Bergoglio have maintained the teaching of homosexuality as intrinsically disordered, a sin if freely/actively engaged in as a sexual activity. And worse, bishops and followers of this doctrine in more than 76 nations are actively killing, imprisoning innocent people without any condemnation by these “leaders” including Brother Bergoglio. And in this worse category is the fact that this church–and many others including Islamic– have not only killed dissenters around sexuality, but the slaves, the protestants as well as catholics, the saracens===you name it. What I’m saying is, don’t be fooled by a “good” Pope. Pope as an institution is simply deadly. Thank you.

      Reply
  4. Larry Quirk
    Larry Quirk says:

    Yes the people of the church have made progress especially on LGBT inclusion issues but the last two Popes were an active impediment to that progress particularly in appointing conservative/reactionary bishops and cardinals, too many of whom are still with us and meddling in not only the Church’s progress but denying civil rights to LGBT folks.

    So now that we have a “progressive” Pope at the helm he has to back off? In my thinking, he should be as active as possible in reining in his bishops and cardinals and moving the church in a new direction. Sending Bernie Law to a monastery and out of his cushy Rome job would be a good signal for a start followed by a Papal pronouncement against the anti-gay laws and crimes in so many countries . This Pope needs to use his power to move the Church in a new direction and support all of the Catholics who have labored these past decades to bring Christ’s light to this moribund institution.

    Reply

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