Pope Francis is merely five months into his papacy, but he already is reversing a three decades old paradigm in the Catholic Church of conservatives being courted and progressives being silenced. Traditionalist Catholics have responded several ways to Francis’ new style of leadership with potentially wide-ranging implications for both the church and LGBT equality.
David Gibson writes in the National Catholic Reporter about the divided opinions among conservatives in the Church, largely grouped in three camps. First, there are those who openly express their disapproval of Pope Francis, ranging from bloggers to archbishops:
“[Pope Francis has alienated] many on the Catholic right by refusing to play favorites and ignoring their preferred agenda items even as he stressed the kind of social justice issues that are near and dear to progressives…
“Indeed, he barely mentioned abortion directly or even gay rights until he was asked about gay priests during an impromptu press conference on the flight back from Brazil and, in a line heard round the world, he said, ‘Who am I to judge?’
“Catholics on ‘the right wing of the church,’ Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said on the eve of the Brazil trip, “have not been really happy about (Francis’) election.’ “
Others apologetically interpret Pope Francis to show how he is continuing the style and/or substance of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI:
“Not everyone on the right, however, is willing to concede that their influence may be on the wane or even that Francis is really any different than Benedict.
“Instead, many are advancing detailed arguments that they say show Francis doesn’t actually mean what the media and public think he means, adding that the pope’s honeymoon will get a cold shower when liberals see Francis is just as orthodox as his predecessors.”
A number of conservatives recognize change is occurring, but a change that is not necessarily destructive and might help shift a misguided emphasis on the papacy to a healthier ecclesiology.
Regardless of how conservative Catholics choose to interpret Pope Francis, how Pope Francis responds to them will be important for the Church’s future. Gibson cites Michael D’Antonio writing in Foreign Policy magazine in pointing out the pope’s challenge:
” ‘[Conservatives] have loyally supported the church with donations and activism and can be expected to oppose any change in direction of the sort Francis has signaled…
” ‘But this constituency cannot sustain the church in the long term…and the church now needs a figure able to bridge the gap between its rightward movement and the reality that Westerners are leaving the church in droves. That problem requires a wily pope with the skill and charisma to pull off the high-wire balancing act of unifying these two disparate impulses.’ “
Part of this tension is over issues of gender and sexual orientation. Those Westerners leaving Catholicism are often doing so due to harmful words of and actions by Catholic leaders against LGBT people, cheered on by a vocal anti-equality minority within the Church. Pope Francis seems to be taking a more pastoral and conversational tone around issues of sexuality and identity. This is an essential step to building up healthier Catholic communities, but one that will be controversial for conservatives complacent with the anti-gay rhetoric Francis’ two predecessors.
One first step in walking this line? Transforming how the People of God view bishops and their role in the Church. Check back tomorrow for commentary on just that — and if you’d like to receive daily posts from Bondings 2.0, you can subscribe by clicking the “Follow” button in the upper right hand corner of this page.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry