Is Pope Francis a “Disappointment” on Women and Gays?

At Religion Dispatches, Mary E Hunt has written about Pope Francis that there are “Three Things That Worry Me“.  She’s not alone. Amid the general euphoria and adulation that Pope Francis has received and in the secular press, there’ve been other voices questioning, if not fully dissenting, whether this is entirely justified. Conservatives of course, are worried (I think with good cause), and the outright reactionaries downright horrified and angry.  But we know that notwithstanding the noise they are able to make,and their claims to represent true Catholicism, these are a small minority. I’m more interested in the concerns of  many moderate and progressive Catholics,    Briefly, these concerns are

  • “All of the enthusiasm about Francis’ style does not change the fact that the institutional Roman Catholic Church is a rigid hierarchy led by a pope”
  • “A second difficulty flows from the first, in that nothing has changed for women or LGBTIQ people with regard to Catholicism during the early months of this papacy. Nor is there much prospect on either issue given what the pope has said publicly”
  • “A third conundrum of contemporary Catholicism is the remarkable, even enviable public relations success, not to say coup, that the papacy of Pope Francis represents….. substantive structural and doctrinal issues do not evaporate just because the pope does not wear Prada”,

(All three of the above quotations are Hunt’s words, taken directly from the opening statements for the three sections into which her post is conveniently divided. For the full arguments she brings to bear, read the full text here).

Mary E Hunt, theologian

Mary E Hunt, theologian

Each of these points deserves careful consideration. For now, I state only my top-line response. Hunt is right – but also wrong.

There’s been absolutely no change in any of the sorely needed matters of substance, it’s all been surface and style. Certainly, moving away from the evil of clericalism means we have to dramatically downgrade the papacy itself, and the episcopal office, just as we need open up the priesthood to  married men and women, of any orientation. There;s also been a lot of double – speak and mixed messages: there’ve been diametrically opposed interpretations of Francis’ recent comments about gay parents.

But it’s incorrect to assert that he has done nothing to change the fundamentals. His appointment of the advisory board of 8 has at a stroke downgraded the importance and power of the curia. By the time they have completed their deliberations on restructuring it, that process could well continue. The choice of new cardinals for next month’s consistory could also further shift the emphasis from the centre to the dioceses. Even more interesting, will be his choices for the consistory after this one, and for his remaining appointments to the curia. For me, the crunch issue is will he appoint more women and lay men to more senior positions in Vatican governance – and signal to the bishops that they should do the same at at national and diocesan level? For now, it’s too soon to tell, but he’s only been in office barely nine months. The important thing is not how “little” he’s done in those nine months, but what he will have achieved (or not) by the end of his term. Give him time, before judging conclusively. For now, he’s clearly moving in the direction of a more comprehensive, enduring restructuring of church power structures.
On the doctrinal issues (especially the sexual ones), and on women’s ordination, he’s obviously not changed anything – but he has very conspicuously opened up room for genuine and frank discussion and debate. It was notable that “Evangelii Gaudium” had nothing to say on sexuality in all its 225 pages – but in the preamble, he noted that some issues had deliberately not been covered, because they needed further study and reflection. Part of that process is the synod on marriage and family, and the global consultation that is preceding it. The synod has not been called to change teaching, but its conceivable (even likely?) that this period of study and reflection could demonstrate the need for that change.
He’s ruled out the likelihood of women cardinals (for now), but even discussion of the possibility would have been inconceivable under Benedict or JPII – and that possibility remains open, for the future. He has explicitly said that we need to find ways to bring women more directly into the decision making structures of the church, but not yet said how. That too, presumably, needs more “study and reflection”. Is it fantasy to imagine that could include rewriting the procedures for the conclave to it admit senior leaders of women religious (if not designated as cardinals, then in some other way)? Or similarly, could we see their counterparts taking up seats alongside men in what our now called national “bishops’ ” conferences?
On both these counts, sexuality and including women in church decision – making, Pope Francis is directly encouraging open discussion. Who knows where that will end?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor can the Vatican be unbuilt in one. He’s only just begun.


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8 comments for “Is Pope Francis a “Disappointment” on Women and Gays?

  1. William
    January 12, 2014 at 2:14 am

    Baby steps! We can’t expect things to change overnight, but it does seem that Pope Francis is leading the church into a more hopeful direction.

  2. January 12, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Thanks for this, it expresses my own sense of things re: Papa Francis as well. Sometimes we can become too enamoured of our own powers of criticism and I often feel this way about Mary Hunt. The criticisms are easy to make, but I feel she misses the essential point. Pope Francis’ essential ‘change of style’, far from being superficial, is bringing about the very process ‘demoting of the papacy’ which she is calling for. And I would have to say that tolerating the mixed messages and contradictions coming from Vatican spokes’men’ is part of this process. Francis makes his gentle, tolerant openminded comments, which are quickly ‘interpreted’ in the sharpest terms by ideologues, and Francis let’s it go. Very wise, in my opinion. Planting the seeds and patiently waiting for the spring. I’m relieved that he is not behaving like an autodictat, much as we might wish for some more decisive actions on some issues. But this is a pope who is sending the clear message that he is not the absolute arbiter of rules and doctrines. The fact that this revolutionary change of style has made him hugely popular is simply an ironic contradiction. And it has only been nine months, a very short time indeed to counteract years of entrenched ideological fanaticism.

    • January 12, 2014 at 11:12 am

      Spot on, Jayden and William. Baby steps, indeed, and NOT contradicting the mixed messages is a profound move away from the autocratic, all powerful papacy. That’s exactly what Hunt is calling for, but doesn’t seem to recognize is happening.

      If this much has changed in nine months – where will we be in (say) nine years?

  3. January 12, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    “For now, he’s clearly moving in the direction of a more comprehensive, enduring restructuring of church power structures.”

    As long as he does nothing with the conceptualization of the current priesthood, and he has given no indication what so ever at all that he is even considering this, nothing he does in reforming the curia fundamentally changes anything. This is the bottom line and this is exactly what Mary Hunt recognizes.

    • January 12, 2014 at 10:41 pm

      I’m not sure I agree with this reading. I don’t suppose that he is going to change the priesthood itself in any substantive way, but if he upgrades other forms of ministry, and erodes the clericalism of the priestly culture, then in effect that will represent a change, at least in relative terms, to the priestly office.

      I also think that it’s a mistake to read too much into what he has not yet said. It’s part of his Jesuit style to spend a long time listening and discerning, before making any pronouncements. The fact that he’s not yet given any indication of planned changes to the priestly office may imply that there won’t be any – or it could simply mean that he’s still deliberating the issue – along with many others things that have been occupying him, these past ten months.

      There’s more to say on this – which I’ll pick up on, in follow – up posts.

      • January 13, 2014 at 5:02 am

        Or under Pope Francis the clerical glass keeps getting bigger. Kind of like his take on capitalism.

        When does the ratio between priests and laity stop getting bigger? When Rome says put a glass of wine on your cell phone and Jesus will miraculously appear?

        Celibacy, and it’s impact on the production of vocations, is a much bigger issue in the third world than the first world. Does Francis kick all those housekeepers out of African rectories? Or does he kick the priests out of the priesthood? In the meantime, the women and children of non celibate priests pay the price. How shocking and novel is that in terms of the traditional church?

        • January 13, 2014 at 1:43 pm

          You’re absolutely right about clerical celibacy – the great big “herd of elephants” in the room. It’s widely ignored, in many parts of the world, with priests’ partners and children paying a heavy price for having to live in a clerical closet not of their own choosing.

          However, unlike the matter of women’s ordination, there have been several indications from senior people that once again, this is indeed up for discussion.

  4. January 13, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    I’m all for a reconceptialization of the priesthood – as the vital change which cuts to the heart of everything. And I do think its in the wind as a radical change in the future. I just don’t see or expect it within this papacy, and not without substantial movement from the grass roots. Perhaps communities deprived of officially ordained ministers heeding Edward Schillebeeckx’s advice of long ago and choosing, after prayer and discernment, one of their own members to represent them at the altar, and not necessarily as a permanent function or role. Rome would protest vigorously of course, but ‘reform of the Curia’ under Francis, would perhaps pave the way for the upper leadership to accept such a change when and If it arises from below. I certainly don’t see Rome initiating such a change. But I do hope for small cracks in the wall, and Francis has already made a few.

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