Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong once wrote a controversial and thought-provoking book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change Or Die”. He called Creation post-Darwinian nonsense, and denied both the virgin birth of Christ and the existence of miracles. He believes that Christianity should accept feminism, gay rights, and racial equality. Many liberals, both Christian and non-Christian, would feel at home drinking a cold Sam Adams with Spong. But not the new pope…
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named Pope Francis on Wednesday, March 13. He has received a large amount of press for being the first pontiff from the Americas and from the Southern Hemisphere. By choosing a man who is Argentine by birth and Italian by blood, the Catholic Church is slowing moving into the future; Latin America has a disproportionately large Roman Catholic population with a much smaller representation in Rome than the churches of Europe. And while American Catholics (the ones in the United States) have cheered him as their new leader, they conveniently ignore the message he wants them to hear.
Francis gives the opposite message that Spong does: if Christianity changes, then it will die. He says that straying from Biblical foundation will turn the Catholic Church into nothing more than another non-governmental organization (NGO). And while my personal beliefs may lie more in common with Spong’s teaching, it is Francis who is right. If the Catholic Church changes its teachings, it will no longer be the Catholic Church. But will it be able to convince the rest of the world that its teachings are correct?
On the Poor
First, some praise. Francis, from the earliest days, has been outspoken on the horrors of poverty and upon becoming pope has said he wants “a poor Church, for the poor”. While he is not a subscriber to the “liberation theology” movement of Latin America, he is still very much a product of the Southern Hemisphere, where too many people cannot afford their daily bread. He recognizes that the “unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers”. He has called homelessness “structural slavery”. All too often Christianity is used for its “shall nots”, with righteous preachers condemning the sins of the world. Rarely do we hear the teachings of Jesus so clearly as in the call to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and heal the sick.
On the political stage, such views are often denounced as socialist, communist or bleeding heart. But the Catholic Church has long taught these ideals outside of the political realm with their numerous charitable organizations, food pantries and more. If you are Catholic and want to celebrate the choice of Francis, I strongly urge readers to donate canned goods to their local food pantry. As Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.” (This is a good message for us all, regardless of faith — giving back to our community through time, money, or food is the greatest moral act we can do.)
Where Francis may get the most pushback is in his seemingly outdated view of women. Melanie Heindl of Kaukauna tells me, “Research has shown over the past several years that the Catholic Church is quickly losing ground with its female population. These women rightly feel slighted by a church that relegates them to the sidelines while still openly speaking on their behalves regarding reproductive rights. Where are these members going to stand in regards to Pope Francis’ opinions on women in the Church?”
The Catholic Church, of course, has a tradition of being male-dominated, with only men allowed to be priests and bishops. Even if this is the correct approach, Francis should be aware that approximately 85 percent of all Church roles that do not require ordination are performed by women. The church simply cannot function without the involvement of all these devoted women.
When Cristina Kirchner was running for president in 2007, he said, “Women are naturally unfit for political office. Both the natural order and facts show us that the political being par excellence is male; the Scripture shows us that woman has always been the helper of man who thinks and does, but nothing more.” Ouch. To the women in politics, to the women who run multi-billion dollar corporations, to the women who have been leaders in other ways… how can this be anything other than a slap in the face? In what world does the “natural order” still rank the sexes?
Under Francis’ watch, we should not expect to see women ordained as priests. But if he thinks Catholic women are going to stop their careers and political ambitions, he knows nothing about half of the people he now leads.
Francis says that legalized abortion diminishes “the dignity of the person.” He has explicitly stated that “we should be conscious that people cannot receive Holy Communion and at the same time act or speak against the commandments, in particular when abortion, euthanasia, and other serious crimes against life and family are facilitated. This responsibility applies particularly to legislators, governors, and health professionals.”
The Church should certainly stand up against abortion and teach that all life is sacred. What is interesting is how the Church has grown stronger in its opposition over the centuries. Early church teachings followed Thomas Aquinas and said a human soul was infused after 40 days for a male fetus, 90 days for a female. While abortion even of an “unformed” person was a sin, it was not equated with murder. Today, not only is abortion seen as murder, but the Church does not accept the exceptions of rape and incest that even many conservatives would allow.
How many Catholics are receiving Eucharist in violation of the Church’s teachings? Anyone who is pro-choice, under any circumstance, should not be leaving their pews on Sunday morning. And in America, that does not leave very many people worthy of approaching the altar.
According to Francis, those who argue for same-sex marriage are offering “a destructive proposal to God’s plan”, and are advocating a “real and dire anthropological throwback”. Homosexual practices, even kissing, are “intrinsically immoral”. Same-sex unions “can seriously harm the family” and are an idea “sent by the Devil”.
The Church and homosexuality have a complicated relationship. John Paul II recognized that gays and lesbians “do not choose their homosexual condition” and have been on the forefront of getting anti-gay laws repealed, calling them a violation of human rights. And yet, the church maintains that sexual attraction exists only for procreation and thus homosexuality can only be seen as a “trial” that demands celibacy.
The growing acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex unions will put the church to a test in the near future, but even if Catholicism is right, Francis is wrong. Being opposed to same-sex unions is one thing, but the idea that such unions somehow harm traditional marriage is not supported by facts. (Some might even say traditional marriage has one a fine job of destroying itself without the aid of homosexuality.)
Agree or disagree with Francis, he is for the most part preaching only what we should expect him to preach. As Father Tom Pomeroy of Kaukauna tells me, “The Pope is Catholic. He has beliefs in line with Catholic teaching of the last 2000 years. People try to see the Church in political terms, but anyone they elected would be have been Catholic. Pope Francis has been known to take very unpopular positions in the past; his positions are not based on popularity, but on what the Church teaches.”
Gavin Schmitt (firstname.lastname@example.org) grew up in the Catholic Church, served as an altar boy and still doesn’t understand transubstantiation.