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Dr. Joe Wenke Headshot

Not Feeling the Love for Pope Francis

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I feel left out. Just about everybody is in love with Pope Francis except me. I know he hasn't gotten much love from Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin, but they are totally clueless. They criticized Francis because of his remarks on economic inequality in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). They talked about him as if he were a liberal politician. Rush even suggested that Francis is a closet Marxist. Of course, he's not a politician. He's not a Marxist. He's a pope, and popes are always on the side of the poor even though they head up one of the richest organizations on the face of the earth. There are also some very conservative Catholics who refuse to join the Francis love fest. They miss Benedict. He was their kind of pope with his love of Latin and papal pomp. Would Benedict ever give interviews to atheist journalists or wash and kiss the feet of a Muslim woman? Of course not. With B16, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, they knew that orthodoxy was safe. With Francis, they're not so sure.

That, for the most part, describes the party poopers -- the clueless far right and hardcore conservative Catholics who think that Vatican II was the work of the devil. Just about everybody else has been bitten by the Francis love bug. In fact, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that "among Catholics, 92 percent have a favorable view of Francis and 95 percent say the same of the church." Significantly the pope is most popular among Catholics with "moderate" or "liberal political views." It's clear that many Catholics are hungry for change, and they think that Francis will deliver it. I don't.

It all comes down to what you call real change. What are the issues that really matter? Let's start with the ordination of women. That matters. It's an issue of equality and respect, and on this issue Pope Francis has spoken with breathtaking finality. In an interview in July on his return flight from Rio he said, "as far as women's ordination is concerned, the Church has spoken and said: 'No.' . . . That door is closed." In The Joy of the Gospel, Francis reiterated this position, declaring that "the reservation of the priesthood to males . . . is not a question open to discussion."

Why the finality on this issue? According to the church, it does not have the authority from God to ordain women. Pope John Paul II stated this position in an apostolic letter in 1994, declaring "that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

It is true that the Apostle Paul wanted women to keep their mouths shut in church (1 Corinthians 14:33-35), but you simply won't find a prohibition against women priests anywhere in the New Testament. Nevertheless, according to the church, the Creator of the Universe has somehow at some time said no to women priests. I would love to see a transcript of that communication.

In April right after he became pope, Francis reaffirmed the Vatican's censure of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest group representing American nuns. The inquiry had been initiated by Benedict, and it focused largely on the LCWR's support for women's ordination and LGBT rights. Of course, it was Francis' remark in that same July in-flight interview that "if someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge them?" that created such excitement among progressives inside and outside the Catholic Church. The Advocate in an amazingly wrongheaded move even named Francis its Person of the Year.

If Francis' apparently nonjudgmental remark helps to promote tolerance toward LGBT people, then great. But it certainly does not imply any change in Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality or sexual morality. First of all, would the pope ever say if someone is straight "and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge them?" No, he'd never say that. So in making his kinder, gentler statement about gay people, the pope is ironically indicating that being gay is a problem. What's more, the view that he expresses is nothing new. It actually draws upon a combination of traditional Christian themes, including "Judge not, that you be not judged," (Matthew 7:1) and "Love the sinner. Hate the sin." It's the latter theme that exposes the profound issue that lies at the heart of his remark. Let's put this in personal terms: "Love the sinner" when it is applied to you as a gay person is actually a form of hate speech. It doesn't simply mean that you are a sinner like everyone else because of the stain of original sin. You are, but you bear an additional stain. You are "disordered," which means that your sexual orientation is contrary to nature because, according to the Catholic Church, the purpose of sex is procreation, and all sexual expression must be directed towards procreation.

Being "disordered" is obviously a very bad condition to be in. Nevertheless, according to the church, it is not actually a sin to exist in such a state. It's just that you, the disordered homosexual, can never marry -- that's between one man and one woman -- and you can never have sex with a person of your own gender without committing a mortal sin for which you are liable to be condemned to hell. Ironically, all of these devastating judgments are packed into the pope's rhetorical question, "who am I to judge?"

As these examples indicate, I see no reason to believe that Francis is a reformer, but my biggest issue with him is his failure to show moral leadership on the child sex abuse scandal. In July the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) requested that the Holy See, which is a party to the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, "provide detailed information on all cases of child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy, brothers and nuns or brought to the attention of the Holy See" over the past fifteen years. The Holy See issued a response that was legalistic and evasive, stating that it has authority only over Vatican City and that local church authorities "have the primary obligations of assuring the protection of children and of the young . . . and to provide an appropriate response to cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics or religious, as well as to prevent sexual violence and abuse." In January the Holy See appeared before the UN Committee for further questioning and essentially reiterated this position. On February 5, the UN Committee issued a report denouncing the Holy See for not taking "the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children" and for adopting "policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators." In reply the Holy See accused The U.N. Committee of not taking "adequate account of the responses . . . of the Holy See" and of being influenced in its report by "NGOs, the prejudices of which against the Catholic Church and the Holy See are well known."

The Holy See obviously has access to all of the information requested on sexual abuse and could certainly provide it to the CRC. More to the point, the pope has absolute authority over the Catholic Church and ultimate responsibility. What Francis must do is clear: Turn over to the appropriate authorities worldwide all existing information on the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by priests and other Catholic clergy. In addition, rather than convening a commission to tell him how to protect children and adolescents from sexual abuse, he should appoint an independent investigator to get to the bottom of why and how for at least decades so many priests throughout the church sexually abused children and adolescents and why so many people in authority within the church protected them and allowed them to continue their predation. Recommendations on how to ensure that this atrocity never recurs would derive from the independent investigation. I see no indication that Pope Francis will take such action.

Not feeling the love? Sorry, but when I consider these issues, I just can't. I hear the kinder, gentler tone. I note the warm and fuzzy optics. But as for the prospect of real change -- no. I don't see it. Real change would mean championing total transparency on sexual abuse and ensuring justice for the victims. It would mean aligning church teaching with what progressive Catholics actually believe on key issues such as the ordination of women and homosexuality as well as women's reproductive rights, contraception, divorce and gender identity. But it is evident that none of this is going to happen -- not under this pope despite all of the excitement and hope that he has generated.