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The Two Popes


The Two Popes                      Gerry O'Shea

Shortly after taking over from Pope Benedict in March, 2013, Francis was asked his opinion on homosexuality and, in particular, on gay priests. He responded with a rhetorical question: "Who am I to judge?" This answer reflected a popular sentiment because most people are comfortable with a live-and-let-live approach to life and are often resentful of individuals or institutions - including the Vatican - that endeavor to instruct them how to behave.

However, his response did not find favor with a strong rump of conservative clerics and lay people who felt that the pope's job is precisely to make moral judgments and to  provide direction especially on controversial issues. His predecessor, Benedict, left no doubt about his belief that homosexuality is an intrinsic moral evil, an objective disorder that is incompatible with the priestly vocation. Plenty judgment there!

In Benedict's early years teaching in the University of Tubingen in Germany he was known for his liberal views in theology. However, the loud and rowdy student protests in 1968 changed his outlook and since then he has shared the traditionalists' distrust of new liberal approaches to dealing with the issues of the day. In 1981 Pope John Paul appointed him, then Cardinal Ratzinger, to head up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where his job entailed making sure that strict doctrinal orthodoxy was maintained in the universal church.

Orthodoxy was never Francis' main concern. He preached about a church that should be active in the street dealing with the messy problems of life in a compassionate way; using descriptive imagery, he talked about "smelling the sheep," reaching out with compassion especially to the poor and estranged. He wrote: "My fear is that we will be shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, - - -  within rules that make us harsh judges, - - -  while at our door people are starving and Jesus is saying in Mark 6:37 "Give them something to eat."

Sexual ethics have dominated Vatican pronouncements for many years - solemn prohibitions on divorce, the use of contraceptives, homosexual love and, of course, the bete noir of all Catholic preaching, liberal abortion laws. In his major pastoral letter, Amoris Laetitia  ("The Joy of Love"), written in the spring of 2016, Francis urged an openness to allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. The response to this suggested change was a cacophony of opposition from traditionalists, some of whom talked about a schism in the church.

Four cardinals wrote a formal canonical letter, called in churchspeak a dubia or statement of doubt , questioning Francis' right to stray from a teaching that they say goes back centuries. The Pope did not dignify their letter with a reply, but nobody doubted that this was a serious direct challenge to Francis' authority.

Just after the pope's visit to Ireland this summer, Archbishop Vigano, a former papal nuncio in Washington, accused the Pope in an open letter of covering up clerical sexual abuse and recommended that he resign. This was an astonishing  statement from an archbishop who, by some accounts, was bitterly disappointed that Francis passed over his claim to a cardinal's hat.

Whatever his motivation, an archbishop calling on the pope to resign was unheard of since the Middle Ages when for a while there were three popes claiming legitimacy as the descendant of St. Peter. European bishops rallied quickly to Francis' side against Vigano but their American colleagues - with a few exceptions - stayed on the sidelines. Cardinal Burke, a former archbishop of St Louis often identified as the leading traditionalist,  agreed with Vigano.  Pope Francis should resign for deviating from a doctrine that holds that nobody who has committed a serious sin may receive communion, and a person in a second relationship is considered an adulterer and so ruled out from the sacrament.

This logic would pass muster in the line of scholastic thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas and still dominates much of Catholic moral theology. In recent times, especially since Vatican Two in the sixties, many moralists have taken a more humane and situational approach. For instance, the clear traditional reasoning that rules out divorce provides a very limited moral perspective for a woman who is suffering abuse by her husband. What advice should she be given?

Francis strongly believes that the blatantly unfair economic system which keeps the poor living at subsistence levels, at a time of abundance for millionaires, constitutes a major ethical problem. This is the big sin that he writes and preaches about at every opportunity, much more important to him than keeping divorced people from the altar rails. Economic injustice carries much less weight in the moral convictions of Cardinal Burke and company who, true to current American conservative thinking, seem to lose no sleep about the excesses of capitalism.

Polls show consistently that close to 90% of Catholics support the moral right of adults to avail of contraceptives and for divorced church members to participate fully in the Eucharist. The figures are not as high for the ordination of women but a slight majority of churchgoers also favors this change. The traditionalists acknowledge these liberal beliefs among many Catholics, but they prefer a smaller, purer church that abides by the old certainties. That is the church that Ratzinger promoted during his years as guardian of the faith.

The shameful opposition by the Catholic hierarchy in the United States to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which provided healthcare coverage for close to twenty million people, angered many thoughtful Catholics, who would identify themselves now as admirers of the Francis philosophy. Some nuns' leaders at the time argued forcibly that the ACA was a major step forward for the poor, but the powerful conservative voice of the Catholic bishops pronounced against it.

Francis is constantly under pressure from these traditionalists, who, although small in number, exert a major influence in powerful church circles in the Vatican and in the United States. When Cardinal Meisner, one of the four signers of the dubia letter, died, Benedict sent an archbishop to his funeral to read a message praising his faithfulness and outlining his own serious concerns about the current crises in the Church.

Cardinal Burke claims that he bears no ill-will for Francis, but he was photographed recently with a t-shirt  emblazoned with the defiant words "My pope is Benedict." No wonder that Diarmaid McCulloch, professor of  Church history in Oxford University, said recently "Two popes is a recipe for schism."

 

Gerry OShea  blogs at  wemustbetalking.com

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