He’s Only One Man
Photo via NYT
Pope Benedict is a man, and was a pope, who continually remade himself. At one time, a relatively liberal reformer, he became over time, the definer and enforcer of the Vatican household codes throughout the world.
Then he quit. His resignation was perhaps his most radical act, given that many of us assumed he would last forever—perhaps the first eternal Pope. Of course, his shadow looms large.
The effect of his resignation is to lengthen that shadow, even as the hierarchy seeks to appear as if it has moved on. The choice of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and his choice of the name of Francis, is intended to send a message of a less distant and authoritarian papacy, the gentler, softer Vatican.
For many, it seems to be working already. There are the adoring crowds pressing around the new pope. The new pope who forsakes fancy cars and wades into the crowd to offer blessing.
At the same time, few expect many changes. I am perpetually and irrepressibly hopeful, so I refuse to say nothing will change, but even I admit that it is hard to imagine much more than rearranging the furniture.
The source of my skepticism lies in the realization of how insulated the Roman hierarchy is. It is hard to believe that the immense range of human life really touches them. Without that, change is unlikely—unless it is forced upon them.
Still, there may be a little breathing room for hope. Pope Francis, as the senior prelate in Argentina, revealed at times a willingness to bend to reality—particularly in response to the imminent approval of full marriage equality by the national parliament.
According to the New York Times, then:
“Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who led the public charge against the measure, spoke out in a heated meeting of bishops in 2010 and advocated a highly unorthodox solution: that the church in Argentina support the idea of civil unions for gay couples. The concession inflamed the gathering — and offers a telling insight into the leadership style he may now bring to the papacy.”
photo via the Telegraph
The Times concedes that he is unlikely to veer from the church’s positions on core social issues, but they also suggest he has another side:
“that of a deal maker willing to compromise and court opposing sides in the debate, detractors included.”
That is the “good” side. But Pope Francis also called the civil unions law a “destructive pretension against the plan of God.” Esteban Paulón, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals observes, “The reality, beyond what he may have said in private meetings, was that he said some terrible things in public. He took a role, in public, that was determinedly combative.”
Francis has also declared flatly—in opposition to liberalizing measures supporting reproductive choice in Argentina—that “abortion is never a solution.”
So, will a Pope who comes from what is arguably the most liberal Latin American nation, in terms of social policy, make any real difference on the ground? Or will it simply help him be more savvy in terms of resisting change?
Will there be a change in church culture, of the sort that groups like our friends at Catholics for Choice seek, even if nothing in the papal agenda changes?
The Berlin Wall fell. So yes, it can happen.
But it is unlikely to be the work of one man, even if he is the pope—or perhaps because he is the pope. He is the head of an immense and intricately calibrated hierarchical structure, and his colleagues were appointed by his two conservative predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict, whose joint reign ran for almost 35 years.
There is the faint whiff of hope that he will be another John XXIII, opening the windows of the Vatican to let in fresh air and sunshine. And surely this pope does know he leads a very diverse church, a concept that seems to escape many of his colleagues.
Will he be able to recognize, as Catholics for Choice President Jon O’Brien said, that he is now the head of a church that “includes Catholics who use contraception, who have or provide abortions, who seek fertility treatments, who engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage or with people of the same sex, as well as people who are living with HIV & AIDS?”
And would such recognition lead to substantive change?
As always, our best and truest hope lies in God, the only one who is strong enough to tear down the rigid, and seemingly impregnable, walls of orthodoxy to let in the winds of change. The good news is that the winds are becoming more and more like tropical storms, and may soon reach hurricane strength.
Then not even a pope can stop them.
Rev. Dr. Robin H. Gorsline is President of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia, an interfaith organization of gay and straight clergy and lay people working for equality for LGBT Virginians. Read more of his thoughts on faith and spirituality on his personal blog.
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