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Jon O'Brien, President, Catholics for Choice.
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When the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics look at our church after a year with Pope Francis, it feels different than the church of Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II. In just one year and through simple words and gestures, Pope Francis has changed the church’s tone with an approach that favors the pastoral over the political. The significance of this shift for Catholics cannot be overestimated. For example, Catholics who are gay or lesbian have listened to a hierarchy labeling their sexual orientation a disorder—or worse—and felt rejected by a church that would throw its weight in with politicians who deny basic human dignity to all.
Francis urged bishops to stop obsessing over the ‘pelvic zone’ issues of contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage to focus instead on the broader issues of social justice. Leading by example, the pope cracked open the church’s door to the many Catholics who had previously felt shut out. Opinion polls from around the world clearly show how this pope has struck a deep chord with the Catholic laity. Overwhelming majorities have a favorable view of Francis and believe he represents a major change in direction for the church. Catholics are praying for change in church policy to allow everything from married priests, women priests, birth control, abortion, Communion for the divorced and remarried and a host of other issues. The burning question is: will Pope Francis deliver any or all of the reforms the laity are crying out for?
The rhetoric of Francis sounds—and indeed feels—good to Catholics, and this is meaningful in a church that felt bad and sounded terrible for so long. But real reform and substantive change are needed to bridge the gulf between the people in the church and the hierarchy. Can Francis embrace fresh thinking on church teachings that have ignored the lived wisdom of Catholics?
Some indicators are in the negative column: in particular, Pope Francis has a blind spot when it comes to women. In fact, he simply doesn’t seem to understand them. Perhaps his problem with women can be explained by his years as a celibate man surrounded by a clerical life. But such lack of understanding can lead to serious missteps. For example, in an interview last year he indicated that women need a separate theology. The pope has also said that women’s desires to be recognized for the Trojan work they do for the church every day or received into the priesthood are a closed issue—one that is in some way driven by a ‘female machismo.’ That is not only not what women are asking for, it's plain wrong to misrepresent a call for fairness as sexist bullying. The fact remains that under Francis, important meetings about the future of the church go on while the Vatican continues to lock the door to women, sidelining half of the church. No other global institution would dream of doing the same and staying relevant and in business. One sometimes just wishes that our very free pope would sit down with some wise women who could tell him what is really going on in our church.
While Francis appears not to want to spend all day lecturing Catholics about birth control, the overwhelming majority of Catholic women use methods banned by the Vatican. He has yet to step up and end the hypocrisy of a hierarchy that wages war on contraception from the United Nations and in countries like the United States and the Philippines, where the bishops attempt to strong-arm democratically elected politicians into doing their bidding.
Rather than taking a stand, Francis appeared to be hedging his bets in the Corriere della Sera newspaper last week, claiming rather unbelievably that Pope Paul VI displayed ‘courage’ when he slammed the door shut on contraception back in the 1960s. That act deeply divided the church then and continues to do so today. His predecessor was hardly courageous in refusing to listen to the majority who supported contraception as an ethical option, and Francis is no more audacious today in his belief that a new interpretation will justify bad church policy. On the other hand, in the same interview he appeared to be giving a more pastoral approach to how the issue is treated, something that could lead to long-overdue reform on this question.
It is up to each and every Catholic to bring about the sort of church we want based on justice, compassion and truth—not just Pope Francis. Catholics are not looking for a Superman. But many think of John XXIII and wonder if it’s too much to ask for a super pope, or even a very good one—a pope who could at least help get his brother bishops in order, reform teaching that is obviously not working and put an end to hypocrisy.
Despite some disappointments in what he said this year, we are inspired by Pope Francis’ emphasis on the pastoral over the political. The Synod on the Family to be held in October affords Francis a chance to institute some real change in the church, particularly when it comes to the lives of ordinary Catholics, while returning the church teaching on freedom of conscience to a central place within the hierarchy’s understanding of how we really practice our faith.
Catholics are praying for a miracle: that a change of tone can become a true change and a new direction for the church.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.
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