How Pope Francis is Changing the Church

I stumbled upon this video the other night by accident, looking for something else (like all good things).  My initial attraction to the video was the presence of Jim Martin, S.J., whose work I've looked at here.  Martin was fine, but really the highlights were Dr. Natalia Imperatori-Lee and, especially, Andrew Sullivan.  It's long (90 minutes), but worth your time.

Here were some highlights for me:

1.  Dr. Imperatori-Lee made a simple, but profound point about the distinction between "style" and "substance."  One is tempted to dismiss changes in "style" as being "only style," and not substantive.  But, in a Church that takes seriously the idea of sacraments and the Incarnation, the externals (i.e. the "style") are substance.  The style/substance distinction is, and must be, a false one in Catholic thinking.  Again, a subtle point, but a good one.

2.  I don't agree with Andrew Sullivan about everything.  He got visibly uncomfortable when pushed by Martin and Imperatori-Lee about Pope Francis's critiques of capitalism.  But, man, the way he speaks about Catholicism really resonates with me.  You can see it on display in this piece, which is again long but worth it.  But it really comes through in the stuff he says in this panel.

In particular, I took down this part about faith and doubt that really hit home (it comes around the 42 minute mark).  He articulates things that I feel and think about faith but have struggled to express in words.  In a sense, everything I am struggling to say in this blog can be summed up in this sort statement.  The fact Sullivan attributes this sentiment to Francis, and seems to believe that it is coming into the fore in Catholicism, is for me a burst of immense hope.

"I got the sense in Benedict that in a way he was afraid of what the modern world was showing.  He was afraid that it would undermine the faith.  That fear is, itself, not a sign of faith on some level. . . .

"Which implies the insecurity of uncertainty, or the insecurity of doubt. . . . . What [Francis] is showing us is in a way is that no one who has never doubted has ever really believed.  It is only by allowing oneself the risk of unbelief that we know what it is to believe.  And as human beings we don't live in our minds and souls the permanent certainty about everything.  We just don't.  

"We know the great saints doubted, we know Jesus doubted, and basically the fearlessness comes from not being afraid of doubt.  That in the slight insecurity there we have to trust God.  Whereas one sensed in Benedict that insecurity was terrifying, because it was thought to be able to undermine everything.  And it was a well-meant fear; that the Church's teachings would be dissolved and become inseparable from cultural materialism, secularism, and all the other challenges to our faith.  But I think there is a fearlessness about that truth . . . 

"I feel that my own faith is strengthened by allowing myself to go through periods and moments of doubt, sterility, barrenness, difficulty, unknowingness.  And [Francis] has given us permission to feel those things, in order for us to find the truth, to live our faith authentically.  As opposed to following rules, and believing somehow that those rules and the maintenance of them will somehow make us better messengers of Jesus's truth."

3.  Letters to the Catholic Right has a series called "Why Your Love Looks Like Hate," in which he tries to suggest to those Christians who believe they are "loving" gay and lesbian people by telling them how sinful their lives are may, in fact, come across as hating them.  Crazy, I know.

In any event, I would suggest that any one who genuinely wants to understand why the conservative Christian rhetoric on gay rights looks like hate should watch the above video beginning at 49:55.  There, Sullivan describes what it was like, as a gay man, to receive the most modest acknowledgement of his dignity by Francis in the famous "who am I judge?" comment.  Listen to his voice.  Hear the pain of being a gay man who is trying with all his might to love his faith while it calls him "intrinsically disordered."  See a man who is the polar opposite of tired caricature of someone who lives to bring down religious faith and oppress believers.  Observe someone asking only to be seen as a human being, and not a problem.  Watch what he has to say, and how he says it, and then tell me if what you are doing is love or hate.

I will have more to say about Sullivan's analysis of the issue.  For now, I will simply say I cried watching Sullivan speak about this.

4.  Sullivan's third bombshell for me had to do with Francis's October visit the the United States, where he will address Congress.  The obvious question to come from this is "what is he going to say?"  Sullivan expressed his hope, which I had never thought of, but would be a radical game changer for this country--that Francis call all Americans (not just Congress and the President, but them, too) to acknowledge the profound sinfulness of our collective endorsement of torture, and to call us to repentance.

As Sullivan points out, all of us, of whatever political party or persuasion, are guilty of the "heresy" (Sullivan's word) of American exceptionalism, the notion that whatever we do is good and just because America is special and righteous.  It is untrue, and our willingness to torture, and maybe even more damningly our seeming indifference to the reality of our acts, is maybe the clearest sign of that error.  And yet our politics do not allow us to step out of that comforting shield of American exceptionalism.  We need someone from the outside, someone who people will listen to because of his office.  Someone like Pope Francis.

I hope Francis follows Sullivan's advice.  We need this.

5.  All of the panelists, but especially Dr. Imperatori-Lee, point to something important about Pope Francis.  If Pope Francis is creating the space for us to move beyond the, frankly, fundamentalist vision of Catholicism of his immediate predecessors, that space includes the possibility of, and indeed requires us to, recognize the limitations of Francis himself, to criticize them in love, and to work to move beyond them.

As Dr. Imperatori-Lee says, Pope Francis is a 78 year old Argentinian man.  He has blind spots in his thinking, particularly, it seems, with regard to women.  That's a problem, and we should acknowledge it.  But if the Church is a place where doubt and discernment are allowed to flourish, we don't need to fear that, or fall into despair because of it.

This, I think, is another way to talk about making the Church into an idol.  If everything is about rules and whether one is following them or not following them, then you have only two options--follow, or leave.  And if someone new is put in charge, either the rules will change in such a way as you can follow them or you can leave.

So, when Francis didn't immediately change everything that (I think) needed changing, or fire crappy bishops and priests in Montana, it seemed like there was no hope.  I allowed myself to drift into a place where I thought the only options were to love Catholicism and accept everything it does and says uncritically, or think that it needed changes and fixes and thus hate it.

If these panelists are right, Pope Francis is creating a Church where one can love it and disagree with the Pope and think it is in immediate need of changes.  That's a non-idolatrous relationship with the Church.

It's a very encouraging vision.  I hope they are right.


Anonymous said…
"One is tempted to dismiss changes in 'style' as being 'only style,' and not substantive. But, in a Church that takes seriously the idea of sacraments and the Incarnation, the externals (i.e. the 'style') are substance. The style/substance distinction is, and must be, a false one in Catholic thinking."
Anonymous said…
I love the quote I posted above. Love, love, love!

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