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 universal, and 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