Why I Defend Pope Francis

One of the things that has become increasingly clear to me over the last year or so is that not everyone believes in the same God.  In saying that, I don't mean that Christians have a different understanding of God from Hindus or Buddhists or Wiccans, though that is certainly true as well.  What I mean is that two people who use the same words to refer to God, and even subscribe to the same formal definitions of God, can have a radically different and mutually exclusive subjective picture of who God is.  And that subjective picture of who God is is just as important, and perhaps more important, than the formal definitions that we have been handed down to us via our theological heritage.

This is the main point of David Gushee's piece from the other day.  There are people who insist on a God that they must fear, a God that is out to get them "for their own good" in some inscrutable manner.  They disdain those who challenge that picture as soft, cowardly, not worthy to bear the name "Christian."  And there are those who see that image of God as a fundamental betrayal of the message of Christ, an embrace of everything Jesus came to lead us away from.  These two visions of God are not the same, and are in fact diametrically opposed.  And I am coming to believe that this division is so central, so fundamental to everything that constitutes religion, that if it continues it will inevitably result in a split along these lines.  As Gushee says, these are not just doctrinal disputes, but manifestations of different religions.

This drawing of the line, this Great Divide, will likely not happen tomorrow, or this year, more maybe in the next ten years.  It may not even happen during my lifetime.  But, if it were to happen tomorrow, I can tell you for sure which side of the line I will be found.  And I have a pretty good sense of who will end up on which side of the line.  And I am pretty confident that I will find the current Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church on the same side of the line as I will be.

Reading Amoris Laetitia again, especially the more theoretical parts, reveals a Pope Francis who believes in a God who's core characteristic is unceasing love.  Not love that is conditioned on obedience to some arbitrary set of rules or structures, not love that acts as a cover for manipulation (by God or by his representatives), not the pseudo-love of "the love that looks like hate," as Frank Strong calls it.  No, Pope Francis seems to know and believe in the real thing, the one that I see when I read the Gospels.

In fact, I think it precisely because that belief shines through the text that the bad parts of Amoris Laetitia--the utter dismissal of LGBT lives and loves, particularly--stand out so clearly.  We see them so clearly because they are not part and parcel of the rest of the text, either in tone or message.  A text that is all about the individual, pastoral approach to Christianity shifts abruptly into bloodless Vatican-speak the moment LGBT questions are raised [Edit:  After posting this, I saw an article from Fr. Francis Clooney that makes the same observation].  You read along as if you are on a smooth road, and then suddenly you are jerked up violently as you run over speed bumps at full throttle.  These sections are so discordant, so tonally disjunctive from the rest of the text that they are like black splotches on a white background.

I am not here in any way to justify or defend Pope Francis's lack of willingness to stretch himself and think differently on LGBT questions.  Alternatively, if you think Pope Francis wants to stretch himself in this area and feels constrained by the political realities of the Church, then I will not defend his timidity and his willingness to barter the lives of LGBT folks for political gain.  Those that have called him out in this score are right to do so.  Likewise, while I think the text in general is encouraging with regard to gender issues--specifically the idea that the "women's movement" is a work of the Spirit (paragraph 54) and an unambiguous rejection of Ephesians 5:22-24 as a mandate for male dominance (paragraph 156)--there is still far too much gender essentialism in the vision proposed by the Pope, and it is fair to call that out, too.

But I think we miss something important by failing to recognize the common cause those of us on "this side" have with Pope Francis, notwithstanding the warts.  He may not be where we are, and he may not be willing to work to get to where we need him to be.  But he is in the same ballpark as we are, in a way that many of his fellow members of the hierarchy clearly and manifestly are not.  There is a categorical difference between Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke, and that difference matters.

I can understand completely why some will say "that's not nearly good enough."  And I recognize how much easier it is for me to focus on the positives of Amoris Laetitia when the negatives are not directed at me as a straight man.  I do not and will never begrudge anyone for saying that the refusal of Catholicism to to make concrete steps toward allowing gay marriage or women's ordination, or even to countenance such steps, is disqualifying.  I write this not to convince anyone to change their minds or to think differently about Pope Francis, or the document.  

Instead, I'm writing this to explain the basis for the hope and encouragement I've found in this document and in Pope Francis.  It feels like the violent, vengeful, punitive vision of God so central to so much of Christian discourse, both now and in the past, is giving way a bit in favor of more constructive (and, I believe, more in keeping with the Gospels) visions of God.  Pope Francis is appreciably moving this ball forward.  He is not, and probably never will be, moving the ball all the way forward, nor is he willing to move it to certain places that it needs to go.  But the movement is real, and I appreciate what he is doing.  He is not a perfect player, but I think he is on our team.


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