Today’s blog post is by guest blogger Vernon Smith (see bio below).
There he goes again! Pope Francis’ recent statements about marriage equality are unclear and disappointing. The man who at times provides glimpses of hope and a breath of fresh air can also be the man who confounds and lets people down. Sometimes, I just throw up my hands and walk way. But after the tantrum has subsided, I still cannot just write off the guy completely. One word captures my attitude towards Pope Francis: ambivalence.
In reflecting upon this ambivalence Francis can inspire, I see the currents of polarization that are so prevalent these days in the media and in society. The need to view and cast things in black and white, as incontrovertible and opposing, is stronger than ever. This polarized world view provides clarity and a certainty: good versus evil, saint and sinner, human against beast, hero versus villain, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.
Yet this polarization also points to a world filled with fear.
The need to find certainty amidst confusion is both a personal and social means of coping with new and potentially threatening ideas. The global rise of religious fundamentalism among all major faiths is an example of this need for certainty. Like all coping mechanisms, black-and-white thinking might be helpful in moderation, especially during times of stress. But as coping moves toward obsession without addressing complex root causes that defy black-and-white portrayals, it becomes dangerous. The classic example is the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe, when Jews, gays, and other “undesirables” were viewed as fundamental causes of the social and economic problems of the times and in need of eradication.
As far as evaluating Pope Francis, I see someone who, for all his faults, bucks this disturbing trend to polarize and marginalize one another. He is certainly not perfect, especially on LGBT issues. But maybe my need to see him as “perfect” is part of the problem. After all, perfection is also a polar concept. But really . . . do you know any perfect people?
Like many, I wish our church would move us a little towards the “positive” end of the spectrum on LGBT issues in the Church–never mind “perfection.” The snail’s pace at which we move is frustrating and tries the patience. I certainly understand, and do not challenge, my fellow progressives who may have given up on this Pope, or the Church, or other aspects of religion and spirituality. Matters of injustice and prejudice necessitate impatience. Each person is called to respond to these challenges in a manner that is true to oneself and promotes his or her own spiritual health.
When I assess Pope Francis, I do so in the context of my most basic life experiences and how those close to me are impacted. I think of my mother who recently passed away. She was raised in the pre-Vatican II era in which salvation rested in doing what the Church said you should do. This mindset was her experience and foundation in life, and as much as my generation moved away from that approach, I learned to respect the fact that – bottom line – she only genuinely wanted to be one with God.
Mom had two gay sons. As she was not a progressive Catholic in the slightest, homosexuality went against everything she was ever taught and understood, and there was no changing her mind. However, she never disowned my brother and me, or denied us her love. That was a great gift. However, I knew that for years she quietly struggled over the dissonance between her rigid Catholic background and her love for her children. What can be more terrifying to a parent than the thought – as ingrained by your Church – that any of your children may not enter Heaven?
In her final years, when faced with another potentially distressing family issue that did not square with Church teachings, she surprised us. She quickly responded by referencing Pope Francis’ famous line about gay people. She said, “Who is he to judge? Well, that is how I look at these things these days.” We were moved by her peace-filled response, which is not how she would have responded earlier.
A simple, pastoral statement by Francis allowed Mom to sleep a little better, and approach the latter part of her life with more peace, after a long and faithful journey. For all of my frustration with Francis, that personal impact is important to me. It was painful to see my mother troubled for so long. For Mom to realize that she could be released from those worries seemed to have a calming effect on her during the last few years of her life.
And so, I remain grateful to Pope Francis, and I have not quite been able to give up on the hope that he represents. I sometimes challenge myself about “settling” for really low expectations of him. He is no liberal stalwart that will revolutionize Church teachings the way I would like. He will continue to say things about “mercy” in relation to LGBT folks that can seem demeaning. But he does something that is probably more important these days. He emphasizes love and respect for the person, the whole person, above and beyond mere teachings. The way he embodies that message transcends everything else he does. And the occasionally bumbling manner in which he does so only underscores the humanity with which he carries himself while approaching and respecting others. I find that amazingly refreshing.
We really need this kind of high profile, vulnerable voice in an increasingly certain, polarized world. We need a fallible leader to cut through the fear that drives so many into opposing camps. His simple, pastoral emphasis upon love and respect for every person – and his imperfect means of engaging folks – allows for the discussion of genuine differences. In the polarized environment that existed under his predecessors, no discussion of perspectives was even possible. Francis seems to have put aside the fearful tough talk and harsh rhetoric that prevents the exploration of genuine, complex differences among people. It seems to be the first time in a long, long time that there is room for discussion. It is not exactly what I want, the way I want it, but at least it is moving in a positive direction.
Without discussion, there is not much hope for change in a polarized world. To me, Pope Francis defies polar opposites. He is difficult to cast as an outright hero or villain. I hope that is a good thing for the Church in moving forward, especially on LGBT issues. . Keep your emphasis upon the people, Pope Francis . . . keep it on the people!
–Vernon R. Smith
Vernon Smith is a professional archivist and a longtime volunteer for New Ways Ministry. He lives with Thom, his partner of 21 years, in suburban Maryland.