Pope Francis opens door to progressive action in the Catholic Church

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"If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security', those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists -- they have a static and inward-directed view of things."

- Pope Francis

Since his ordination in March of this year, the Pope, who is perhaps our era's most influential interpreter of the purpose of existence, has made regular headlines with inspiring symbolic decisions, such as to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi, the Christian saint who was most concerned with poverty, and stunning commentary -- especially in a recent interview given to La Civiltá Cattolica -- on the unnecessary preoccupation of the ministry with homosexuality, birth control and divorce. The reactions to Pope Francis's statements range from those who think that he is a clever public relations man to others who believe that he has delivered a powerful blow against conservatives. On one side, Doug Saunders, writing for Canada's national newspaper the Globe and Mail contends that Pope Francis is "more New Coke than New Testament": the Church's dilemma is that a multitude of Catholics in the Global North are leaving the faith while vast numbers in the Global South are joining, therefore the Pope needed a message that would maintain the expansion among the less wealthy countries while reversing the contraction among the affluent. Saunders argues that the Pope's solution was to sidestep the issue by changing the advertising without touching the product. Francis did not propose revising the doctrines concerned with LGBTQ communities, marriage or the Pill, but merely told his pastoral ministry to shift the accent from condemnation to mercy, to love the sinner while spending less time policing the sin.

On the other side, Kate Childs Graham, in an article for the Guardian, "Music to my progressive Catholic ears," remarks:

"Not since Khruschev denounced Stalin at the 20th Communist party conference has there been a reforming speech like this. Pope Francis' interview with a fellow Jesuit journalist is one of the most sensational interviews of my lifetime. It amounts to a wholesale repudiation of the policies and priorities of the last two popes."

She argues that the Pope's comments now make it impossible for conservative priests to orient themselves around abortion, contraception and gay marriage but instead focus on the Church's social justice message. Most importantly she notes that Francis's criticism of traditionalism -- captured in the quote at the top of this article -- opens the door for the emergence of a set of beliefs that evolve with time. This latter point is the most significant one for those of us who position our utopias in the future rather than the past.

Both Saunders and Graham make insightful points: the Pope is not changing doctrine but he is shifting the emphasis which will open the door for progressive Catholics to promote a more egalitarian agenda. That program of course will have significant limits: the Pope has made it clear that the ordination of women would not be an option, though he did point out that the Church needed to develop its theology: "Our Lady, was more important than the apostles, bishops, deacons and priests. Women play a role that's more important than that of bishops, or priests. How?" On the question of same-sex marriage, he stridently opposed it while he was a Cardinal in Buenos Aires, when Cristina Fernandez's government in Argentina proposed it, however he surprisingly suggested to his bishops that same-sex civil unions would be a solution that he could accept. On the subject of capitalism he has criticized our throwaway culture, the idolatry of money and the increase in inequality in the era of globalization.

While previous popes have asserted the same, this one's words will inspire action because of his relatively liberal and humble demeanour. While the above may not stimulate secular leftists, it should motivate religious ones: the Pope's comments will enable the emergence of a larger progressive Catholic bloc -- thus prying their votes and hopefully hearts away from conservatives -- while putting pressure on the leaders of other denominations and faiths to take more generous, humane and inclusive stances on questions of recognition and redistribution.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo: Jeffrey Bruno/flickr

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