Pope Francis: World’s Pastor, Enforcer of Doctrine—or Spiritual Director?

As noted often on Bondings 2.0, Pope Francis’s declarations on LGBTQ issues have been producing spiritual whiplash. On one hand we have “Who am I to judge?” and “God made you like this. God loves you like this.” On the other, we have a reaffirmation that seminaries should not admit gay men, and no indication that Francis plans to alter basic church teaching on sexuality.

Should we simply conclude, as CNN’s Delia Gallagher has, that “his words and the teaching of his Church are an ‘and/and’ proposition: God loves you, the Church welcomes you AND we think [celibacy and heterosexual marriage are] the best way to live”?

Pope Francis

That’s the most common read. People on the theological “left” distrust “and/and” because they are skeptical that the pastoral can survive the doctrinal. People on the “right” distrust it for the opposite reason. Ross Douthat’s new book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism worries that doctrine will give way to the pastoral whims of (post) modernity.

Tara Isabella Burton and Andrew Sullivan both argue that Douthat overstates the contradiction between pastoral care and doctrinal tradition. As Burton says, we should not confuse

“the Catholic Church’s ideal of being unchanging with its historic expression. ‘The papacy’s claim to be a rock of unchanging teaching,’ as Douthat puts it, has more often than not been just a claim.

“For most of the church’s history, both doctrine and practice have been in flux.”

Sullivan adds,

“Francis is not a vandal within the church …. he retains a perspective of the broader world and its current ills that is far wider and calmer and saner than those who obsess over internecine church warfare.”

Still, they agree with Douthat that the pastoral/doctrinal clash—which often stands in for the clash between uncritical modernism and uncritical traditionalism—is the open question of the Francis papacy.

This question leaves all Catholic parties to LGBTQ questions feeling partly vindicated and partly dissatisfied, which gives us something important in common! But it does not provide anything very satisfying to sustain the current lives of LGBTQ Catholics and allies.

St. Ignatius Loyola

What if we viewed Francis as not primarily a keeper of doctrine, or a compassionate pastor, but as a spiritual director in the mode of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises that form him as a Jesuit? This role may be the greatest resource that Francis provides all Christians who see life as a journey toward deeper union with God and closer alignment with God’s call, whether they are LGBTQ or not.

The clues are everywhere. Francis constantly says that God meets people wherever they happen to be and invites them on a path toward greater intimacy with the divine. No starting point is disqualified. Francis always encourages people to move forward in faith from wherever they are, in whatever state of life, with whatever identity, job, orientation, or relationship status.

In the Ignatian view, the process of knowing and following Jesus is the process of discerning how we’re to follow. This discernment involves identifying the deep desires that God has implanted in each of us. As Jesuit author James Martin, S.J., has written:

“The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. Our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly.

“Desire gets a bad rap in many spiritual circles– because desires are often confused with selfish wants. But our selfish wants … are different than our deep, heartfelt longings, which lead us to God.”

This perspective is not uniformity masquerading as inclusiveness. One of the premises of Ignatian spirituality is that the answer to the question, “where is God calling me?” is different for each of us and is not given in advance. Church history is littered with evidence that although those genuine answers always do involve loving, compassionate, gutsy ways of responding to God’s love for us, they don’t always cohere with dominant interpretations of tradition or the current style of thinking in the Vatican.

As Martin also acknowledges, “it takes time to be able to discern between the two kinds of desires.” It requires a lifelong practice of prayer, reflection on experience, consultation with people we trust, and cold, hard, self-questioning reasoning. Alongside these practices, spiritual consolation and desolation—moments of grace that confirm good directions and warn us away from harmful ones—are terrific guides in this process.

Through his embrace of Ignatian spirituality, Francis’s most important message for LGBTQ folks and everyone else may just be his simple reminder to listen for God’s call in our lives: we should cultivate holy desire and follow whatever fruitful, surprising directions it may lead. As Martin writes,

“Desire is a key part of spirituality because desire is a key way that God’s voice is heard in our lives. And our deepest desire, planted within us, is our desire for God.”

What’s most remarkable about Francis is that his most profound questions are not about doctrine or pastoral care. Whatever else he says, Francis reminds us of what God asks everyone: What are the deepest desires of your heart? In what surprising directions do they lead you, as you keep company with Me?

As Ignatius also says, the path of love that holy desire blazes is inevitably strewn with obstacles and heartache; some of these, in LGBTQ experience anyway, are even put there by the Church. But it is God’s path. This, we can work with.

Cristina Traina, New Ways Ministry, May 30, 2018   (Cristina Traina is a Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, and a member of New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Borad.)

8 replies
  1. Richard Rosendall
    Richard Rosendall says:

    I confess that after reading this I haven’t the slightest idea of the difference between pastoral care and spiritual direction. But however you categorize the pope’s compassionate words, they are at odds with his enforcement of anti-gay doctrine. Either I am as God made me or I am not. Forgive me, but this whole discussion appears to be a casuistical effort to get His Holiness off the hook.

    • Mark
      Mark says:

      What I see in this is that the Latin Church is a bit like St Paul. Look at its past failings and what we are seeing is Jesus asking the church, its people, through Francis, “why do you persecute me?” The church is yet to fully respond. It took time for Paul and it will take time for the church.

  2. Peter
    Peter says:

    Francis’ ‘move forward in faith’ in the context of the global south is understood – dog whistle style – by the faithful as a message to those in ‘disordered lifestyles’ i.e. the LGBT. Yes, start from where you are, BUT move away from your inherent disorder to the goal of the ‘heteronormative holiness’ ideal. Too frequently this ‘process’ is aided by the application of violence, stigma, ‘holy hate’ and ‘just discrimination’. Doctrine needs to change. We are fooling ourselves otherwise and insulting and jeopardising the many, many global south lives. Currently in the global south many catholic and christian faithful understand though the churches ‘unchanging doctrine’ the following points 1. That being LGBT is evil 2. That Francis is being forced by dark and powerful LGBT forces to say nice things about/ to LGBT persons 3. That human rights is a ruse by ‘gender ideologist’ to mask the existential threat which they feel LGBT persons pose. Until catholic church doctrine changes to send a CLEAR MESSAGE to the poor and dispossessed who have no free time or money for discernment and for those living under heteronormative
    authoritarian regimes more LGBT persons WOULD die mentally, spiritually and physically.

  3. Peter
    Peter says:

    Francis becomes a spiritual director the day catholic church doctrine changes to recognise the humanity and equality of all LGBT+ persons and the real value of love and kindness.

  4. Loretta
    Loretta says:

    I am familiar with the adage that the Catholic Church is rooted more in both/and than either/or. Hence, the holy tension. How can we hold Francis to a higher standard than our own, that is, the expectation that he has to be entirely with us or he is not. If so, than how are we doing? For instance, are we loving and praying for our those who persecute us and our loved ones, the Trumps and Pences and Chaputs, my family members, etc. or do we merely assign them as “them” and all that implies. For me, Francis is doing his best, not too sure we can say the same for ourselves. When he speaks lovingly to a gay man and says what he says but doesn’t turn around and “change” official teaching, how is that any different than when a friend confides that she had an abortion and we don’t judge her but respond with new understanding which does not mean changing our mind about abortion. It’s called living with the tension. Many people who are opposed to gay marriage have responded in a loving way but they don’t or aren’t able to deny the heterosexual union as normative. They live with the tension. My point is how can we expect from Francis what we don’t live ourselves? For now, Francis is being persecuted from all sides. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake.” As for me, I have a long way to go so who am I to judge Francis?

    • Richard Rosendall
      Richard Rosendall says:

      Making judgments is something we do all the time. It is part of what God gave us brains for. Whether outlr judgments are sound and humane or not is another matter, which is why we have these discussions.

      I spent years working on the local marriage equality effort in DC, which included policy development, strategizing, organizing, voter research, messaging, and coalition work. Having learned from faith leaders over the years, I was careful to stress the religious diversity of our communities and to respect voices and leaders of faith, including DC Clergy United for Marriage Equality, who organized themselves and initially met at the Howard University School of Divinity. As part of our outreach and coalition building, I attended church services outside my own tradition. Our messaging reflected our listening to these voices and we deferred to them, such as when a response to the Archdiocese of Washington was needed. I’m no angel, as Mae West said, but I do not accept that I am asking Pope Francis to do something I have avoided doing. He has a much bigger and more prominent job, needless to say, and a vast and contentious flock, not to mention many strong-willed cardinals who show no signs of sharing his pastoral inclinations.

      I do not accept the comparison of homosexuality to abortion. Our love is intrinsically good, and does not involve the taking of an unborn life. (I am pro-choice, btw, based not on dismissing moral concerns or denying that a fetus is human, but on the practical legal question of who decides, and on my conviction that for the government to involve itself coercively only makes things worse. And yes, I am fully prepared to go to hell over this if I am wrong, if heaven and hell exist, and if God is prepared to punish me for using the brain He gave me to think for myself. I cannot in good conscience do otherwise. With all due respect to the Psalmist, I was not created as a sheep.)

      As to what is normative, we too often convey a simplistic notion of that. Our population is diverse. Just as left-handedness is normal for a small percentage of the population, so is homosexuality. Denying that diversity, demonizing minority populations, and using coercion to force them to live contrary to their God-given natures, is irrational, unjust, unloving, inhumane, and in contravention of the scientific evidence. I believe, as Galileo believed, that studying God’s creation is not unholy or irreverent in the slightest. I am seldom more reverent than when studying the universe. Attitudes to the contrary are promulgated by petty men who are more interested in control than in serving God or loving their neighbors.

  5. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    As has long been the practice, LGBT individuals who want to appear to be full members of the Church have to exist in a world of winks and nods, an ecclesiastical don’t ask don’t tell. A good many religious know in their hearts that homosexuals are as good/bad as anyone else and are welcoming as long as nothing is public. The lack of grace the Church has offered was nothing more than an insult homosexuals have had to tolerate.

    This was generally accepted until the 1970s when LGBT citizens claimed and received our civil rights. Given that as full members of civil society it became obvious LGBT citizens could participate in fully acceptable ways, operating as a second class member of the Church was no longer to be tolerated. The challenge for the Church is that to give homosexuals full status, it would also have to give women the same membership.
    Again this is obviously God’s plan, but a step too far for those who felt safe living in the past. Francis has a happy face, but still tied to an old song. Christ demanded honesty at the cost of His life, He asks as much of the Church and all of us who are part of it.


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