I have to admit that Pope Francis was not my situla of holy water when he came on the scene back in March. To the extent I care about popes, I like ones who dress up, know how to sing, think like theologians and make the Church an easy target for critics like me. I miss you, Benedict. Papa Francesco can’t do any of those things, and now he has also made the church a more difficult target. He thinks the Church should stop talking about abortion and gays and bedroom issues and step out into the sunshine.
Maybe it’s because he comes from a sunny country and has a fairly sunny disposition. Anyway, it’s hard to argue that the church should get out of the bedroom when some of its own priests seem to prefer public toilets and darkened sacristies. Anyone who has paid attention to the history of Catholic dogma in the last forty years knows what is going on. Hard to swallow dogmas (doctrines that have been officially proclaimed by Rome) like the real presence, an ancient one, and the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary into heaven, (newer ones) are being quietly laid away in the attic along with the gold-threaded chasubles and ruby studded chalices. They were beautiful examples of human ingenuity, theology gone wild.
But no one really understands them anymore. A recent survey revealed that nearly half of Catholics didn’t know that they were supposed to believe that in the Mass ordinary bread and wine is actually (but in a mysterious way) transformed into the “body blood soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.” Wars were fought over this doctrine. The map of Europe was transformed because of it. Television comedians used to be censored for going near it in their routines. Who could have predicted a day when Jimmy Fagin’s grandson Trevonne would get asked about it by a pollster and answer “Really? We believe that shit?” But that’s where we are and that is where the Church’s failed attempt at modernization—Vatican II—has brought Mother Church. Attempts to renew devotion to Mary—May processions as of yore and praying the rosary—have not quite convinced people that she is bodily in heaven (the Assumption, 1950) because she was born without sin (Immaculate Conception, 1854) and thus cannot have died. –Death being a punishment for original sin, the effects of which, being the mother of God, she was spared. Everyone likes Mary of course, so no one says much out loud. But almost everybody hated the rosary so don’t look for a groundswell there.
What took the place of what was no longer understood or believed were things that were too easily understood because they had nothing to do with theology. No one has experienced an immaculate conception, but most women knew what pregnancy, birth control, and abortion were. The Gynecological Church was born. The world had moved on, but the Church began to obsess about issues it could not have foreseen in 1969, the year Pope Paul VI issued his absurd salvo against effective birth control. Prior to that all Catholics knew they shouldn’t use condoms, but they did anyway, and it was the man’s responsibility to supply them. With the advent of the birth control pill and related methods of contraception, the church began to worry that it might lose moral control. Only three years later, with the Roe v Wade decision, abortion was decriminalized in the United States. And then, beginning in the 1990’s the possibility of same sex marriage was openly discussed, and in the first decades of the new millennium, became a reality . In an embarrassing way, the extent to which the church was (always had been) immersed in gynecological issues was revealed, and revealed because it was being progressively excluded from any role in making pronouncements about human conception and life.
To make it worse, the prophetic voices the church offered were those of celibate but not necessarily chaste priests who considered marriage an inferior lifestyle option (even if they didn’t say so) and considered birth control and abortion direct assaults on the church’s standard means of replenishment; the large family, or failing that, ample numbers of orphans and adoptees. Undoubtedly many theologians had a high view of what they thought they were doing: Pope John Paul II’s manifestos on “the culture of life” tried to sanctify the question of human existence “from conception to death” arguing that the church has a rightful interest in protecting “human dignity at every step along the way.” To be fair, it isn’t a bad argument, despite the fact that it launches from a series of arguable propositions the failure of any one of which is rather like taking a wing off a jet plane.
But if you think God created you, and established the process whereby you are made, and wished for you to be alive no matter what from the moment the process began until the moment your number is up, then attacking or interrupting the process at any level—murder, capital punishment, war, and of course, abortion—were to be considered violations of the natural law established by God for the propagation of his world. It was a tantalizingly simple calculus designed to sequester what was given to you by God—life—from any power, secular or medical, that wants to take it from you. Catholic pro-life crazies screamed the 7th commandment at abortion doctors as they arrived at family planning clinics. But the Church academicians had a much more sophisticated argument, one the crazies never quite grasped. Even contraception, while nowhere near as bad as abortion, messed with the process, and thus also had to be considered sinful. The church threw war and capital punishment into the mix as flotsam; after all it had had centuries of experience propagating both. But for the sake of consistency and to win hearts and minds in Europe, the spectrum of protectable life was made to include all cases of life being “interrupted” by the decision of an individual or the fiat of the state. And is abortion not an interruption of those natural processes which God ordained for the good of the world at the beginning of time? Of course it is. But whatever the theologians were doing by remaking Thomistic analogies, the ordinary Catholic was seduced into thinking that the modern Catholic Church was really only about vaginas.
Worshipers of the virgin—now the very symbol of obedient motherhood and the unwanted but submissive pregnancy–could do her best service not by crowning her with gardenias in May but maybe by bombing an abortion clinic, interrupting a surgical procedure—even harassing and doing violence to a medical practitioner. When she won the Nobel prize in 1979 Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the most insidious woman ever to be awarded a prize for peace described easy access to birth control alongside infanticide as coequal atrocities. The church’s reaction to gay marriage was somewhat hampered by the pedophile priest scandal of the last twelve years,which sent the interesting message that perhaps getting jiggered under the cassock was okay but it is not okay to kiss or have sexual relations with another man or consider that same-sex tendencies might be as natural as heterosexual ones. We will never know the extent to which priests unhappily tied to vows of sexual celibacy were driven into the corners of the Church rather than openly acknowledge their sexual preferences. What everyone knows is the consequences of denial. Unable to express themselves freely to their fellow priests for fear of censure or being ratted out, they were forced to live their sexual lives in secret, prey on the innocent, ruin lives.
Yet still the church preached against homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered’ and “contrary to God’s will.” It is now 2013 and we have had more than a generation of the Gynecological Church, a church without a clear theological message and a hundred discarded dogmas, that has tried to keep abortion and more recently an improved message about gay marriage front and centre. It has done this for the worst of reasons: to get people to believe in something identifiably Catholic when they have forgotten everything else. To his credit, this pope has recognized, or more likely has been made to recognize, that this obsession with abortion, gays and birth control threatens to replace Catholicism as a church and turn it into a campaign. He seems to understand that if the Church becomes a franchise for a “right to life” movement, a church where, in my limited experience over the last twenty years, every sermon preached by every priest manages to allude to abortion and murder, then it will last as long as the movements that spawned prohibition and temperance, women’s rights, and civil rights—linked inexorably to the conditions that brought them into existence and not fated to outlast them. We do not struggle against earthly powers, Paul the apostle once said, but against principalities and powers.
Translated, that means, big ideas, not social and sexual conventions and trends that the Church has no hope of controlling. I do not expect the church to make abortion a sacrament, though confessing that contraception might be something a just, merciful and compassionate God would want wouldn’t be bad thing to acknowledge. I do not expect the Church to become an advocate of gay marriage—not least because I personally believe that the framing of the gay marriage debate has been preposterous; that what we are really talking about is the human right for people who love each other to live and be intimate with each other and live happily or unhappily ever after, same as other people. My liberal friends implore me to give up my idea of marriage as being out of step with everything else I think. Or else not to talk about it.
But I have always thought—for historical and cultural reasons—that the church holds the imprimatur on the definition of marriage. Marriage only makes sense to me in a religious and cultural context, like penis gourds and hula skirts. But the Church does not hold a patent on human relationships, sexuality, and happiness. I may be alone, but I stubbornly persist in having an Aristotelian idea that marriage is that connection, accidentally (read the Metaphysics before you write to me) between two persons of opposite sexes which results in progeny—its telos and end. You can call the legal union of two people of the same sex a marriage if you want to, you can even add children to the mix. But the union will always lack that defining element that society and culture have assigned to it. No I was not brainwashed by Dominicans to believe that; it simply makes good sense. So let the Church have its Aristotle and its view; but let it also say that the union of man and man and woman and woman is not sexually disordered, is not sin, is not unnatural, is not something the Church needs to condemn. Let a Church that claims to represent the author of Life—nay claims to be able to make him supernaturally present on earth to this day–acknowledge that God made all kinds of people, and that, as in the platonic myth, each of us is wired a little differently. Basically, it’s unlikely that the church can modify its sacramental theology to incorporate same sex love.
That doesn’t mean a hundred theologians from adjacent traditions especially Anglican traditions, won’t try and aren’t trying. But it can modify its teaching about sin. I don’t know whether Pope Francis will prove to be one of the “outstanding” popes of the modern era or a leftover of some of the feel-goodism of post Vatican II liberal theology. It can go either way. Let’s say simply that i am skeptical. It seems to me that all popes, finally, will share in the destiny of their church, which is to be less and less relevant in the ordinary lives of ordinary Catholics. This is not a messaging problem. It is a reality problem. I was lucky enough to grow up in a Church of immense liturgical beauty, that knew who and what it was; the mystical bride of Christ enraptured in a perpetual wedding banquet called the Eucharist. But I Lived to see a church that stumbled arthritically through a failed renewal, tried to be young when it was old, lost its singing voice (maybe Francis is a metaphor) and its self-respect. I am not quite sure however what Francis is saying: Perhaps he really is trying to get the Church out of the bedroom and into the world again.
That’s why he talks so much about the poor, about justice and peace. Things we all like to hear about, now and again. But, as every newspaperman knows, the question isn’t whether peace and justice and the alleviation of poverty are good things. It’s about whether those things sell newspapers—or a Church. Or is Francis saying something different: the Church shouldn’t talk so much about gays and abortion and birth control. There are other things to talk about. If he is saying that, he is admitting defeat—as perhaps he should. But a church that is consigned to silence on such issues has already consigned itself to irrelevance. Is that what he has done?