Pope Francis has just issued a new synod, Amoris Laetitia — “The Joy of Love.”
Francis had been expected to make a proclamation on the status of marriage and relationships in the church, with change being a major theme. “The Joy of Love” urges a relaxation of church rules in order to welcome in the remarried and divorced, allowing them communion and to re-marry with Catholic ceremonies (while still insisting on marriage as a bond between a man and woman that lasts until death). Much like with his encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si (Blessed Be), Francis has used his public presence to reiterate his message. Taking to Twitter shortly after the release of his synod, Francis said very bluntly, “The divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel a part of the church. They are not to be excommunicated.”
The sigh of relief for many Catholics was palpitable and newspapers like the Washington Post analyzed promptly. One piece spotlighted Maria Olsen, a Maryland Catholic who recalled how her father, who had been divorced, was denied communion because of his separation. It made church attendance rather awkward as he was still a dedicated Catholic and would often drop off his kids or wait in the back while they attended mass.
Most controversially, Francis insists on the inclusion of gays and lesbians while stopping short of actually embracing same sex marriage. Francis wants gays and lesbians to return to and attend mass and be part of Catholic communities but wants to avoid the earthquake that would be advocating same sex marriage.
While, for some like writer William Saletan, writing for Slate, Amoris Laetitia was a “closeted argument for same-sex marriage” (something that the Catholic Church’s many conservatives, who do not like Francis, would most certainly agree with), to others, Francis was “choosing all of the above.” Far from praising Francis, Michael Brendan Dougherty of The Week wrote that he acted “not by effecting some greater synthesis, but by cowardly obfuscation.” In his most harsh, Dougherty, writing as a conservative, says Francis aided the church’s “confused practice” by appealing “frighteningly, to its self-doubt.”
Francis’ approach to sex, relationships and marriage may be the most hostile waters that he can step through as pope. Sex motivates abuse and horrors, while also producing life itself, just as the other resources that power human conflict do. The Catholic Church is not alone as a religion that has a bad track record with sex but, unlike Islam, the church acts as a centralized theological body by which the blame can be laid.
An obvious impediment to any progress on issues of sex is clerical sex abuse. While the Catholic Church is surely not the only institution to have experienced such abuse (and probably one of very few to openly embrace oversight and accountability), its status as an institution caused these scandals to be tied to sex abuse in a way that cases of such abuse in American public schools, for instance, have not. The image of Catholic priests acting absurdly as celibate, closeted rapists and child molesters who nonetheless issue edicts on the sex lives of lay Catholics indeed is one that appears ridiculous with much reason to many people. The hypocritical image of the Catholic church contributes highly to the low attendance that helped precipitate the nomination of Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy.
As well intentioned as Francis may genuinely be, critics such as Michael Dougherty may be right that the contradictions are simply too glaring. Conservatives in the Catholic church (and throughout the religious world to a different degree) established their religious bodies as regulatory bodies to control sex and to control resources. Conservatives like Dougherty have been infuriated with Francis as he omits the “moral” limitations they find critical to Catholicism. Progressives and non-believers who criticize Francis for not embracing same sex marriage often omit that there’s a Catholic flock for whom even shallow overtures to the LGBT community is seen as betrayal. A house divided cannot stand and Francis cannot advocate his “field hospital” church while maintaining one that structurally still looks more like a castle at the top of the mountains. The contradictions eventually will come to a head and metastasize in to a real conflict within Catholicism, one that may leave much of the Catholic world appearing and operating very differently.
Francis is certainly not the first major progressive or radical religious figure (the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr. are two major figures in recent history). However, those figures weren’t head of a major religious institution. A church that really comported with Francis’ vision of “mercy” or as a “field hospital” would look much different than the vessel of social control he presides over. The Catholic Church was set up to maintain the Holy Roman Empire and continued to launch the Crusades and help administer Spanish colonialism. Catholic education was set up to weed out the native culture and languages of indigenous people, whereas the liberation theology that informs much of Pope Francis’ ideas embraces those cultures and practices with Christian theology. Catholic marriage, moreover, was designed to inculcate followers in to the Catholic flock, with all its practices. There is a reason why liberation theology was at the periphery of Catholicism for so long – its practices would and will, if Francis’ reforms and ideas continue as they have, upend traditional Catholicism.
While Catholicism has produced incredible intellectuals and helped with social progress, the origins of its governing structure can’t be denied. That doesn’t mean that the Catholic church couldn’t one day look like something matching his vision (the institutions, such as Catholic social services centers and homeless shelters, certainly exist and liberal churches throughout the United States have shown how to effectively include the LGBT community) but it would take a level of work and transformation that Francis has only started working toward.
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