Pope Francis Dodges Binarism and Raises Questions for All

Written by JLM; Published by GENDER FOCUS on September 22, 2013

Photo of Pope Francis in white vestments from March 2013

Let’s talk Pope for a few minutes. The figurehead’s been in the news lately, and has, I guess you could say, a fairly big circle of influence. Clearly, it’s time that we, as feminists, weigh in respectfully and thoughtfully with whatever we’ve got. I’ll begin:

When I heard the news that He had spoken of the homos, I knew very well that I would be able to divine meaning from his words. The way that I heard about it, however, still gives me a chuckle. I was in a graduate-level Religious Studies class, of all places! At the start of class, a classmate who studies broadcasting asked if any of us would like to speak about Pope Francis’ comments for his campus news opinion segment. Immediately, I wanted to speak, but there was only one problem: I didn’t know anything about what the Pope had said.

Right away, I asked what he had said and the room was filled with an incoherent mess about Pope Francis’ remarks on homosexuality, about him not wanting to comment, about him saying that homosexuality is a sin but you can be forgiven if you don’t commit homosexual acts. I felt lost in a papal abyss of homoerotic ambiguity.

We pulled up an article and I got a general idea, but still felt uninformed.  Nevertheless, I formulated a statement, suggesting that if we’re confused about what the Pope meant that we ask him directly what he meant. I also threw in a line about encouraging the Pope to allow women to serve as members of the clergy, after which I went blank from camera fright.

When I returned to my seat, I regretted that I did not go up with my fingers in peace signs and croon, “Sineaaaaaad” in my best Bill & Ted voice. I also regretted that I had not responded to my classmate’s question by discussing the fact that there are many, many, mannnnny homosexuals already in the church, since his question implied that homosexuals somehow exist entirely outside of it. The priesthood, in my bold but gently-intended opinion, is a largely homoerotic institution. The fact that we can speak about homosexuality as if it is outside of the church is by far the most baffling aspect of this whole is-this-or-is-this-not-controversy exchange.

Clergy aside, apparently there is still some confusion about where Pope Francis stands on contemporary political issues, but much of that has to do with our collective desire for concretes to fight, either for or against.

Thanks to his interview with Rev. Antonio Spadaro, we have a few more clues. According to my decoding, when it comes to homosexuality, Pope Francis puts the person first. Essentially, he doesn’t exactly say what the church should say to homosexuals. Instead, he poses more questions. Sure, it may be a moment of rhetorical deflection, but I like to think he’s offering a wise and high-minded response.

In not answering the question in terms of judgment, he sets an excellent example for anyone. In other words, by not condemning, he offers acceptance. He also offers depersonalized wisdom, saying, “it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

This is where I feel confused, but not with Pope Francis. Doesn’t this sound inclusive and universal rather than exclusive and For Catholics Only?

There is something profoundly comforting about the entire interview and I recommend highly that you read it and judge, or opt out of judgment, for yourself.

There are those who condemn him for not taking a firmer stance, while others praise him for speaking out about long-ignored issues that have been mired in the lava-like undercurrent of Catholicism, especially in recent years. If the Pope speaks out again, and I hope he will – with a plugged in amp – upheaval and internal division is not out of the question.

So, is Pope Francis speaking up uncharacteristically in a boldness that borders on liberalism or is he further quelling an international public hunger for a dose of leaden Papal definitiveness? I don’t think either is happening, and that could be part of our problem, not his: we’re set on clear and easy answers that we hope can be translated into comprehensive policies, yet it isn’t realistic.

Please don’t get me wrong; Father-worship is not my bag nor is the whole Male-Sexed-Folks-Unite-To-Define-And-Speak-For-God thing. As a matter of fact, I identify, right this moment, as a Wonderist: a belief-inclined secular humanist. I don’t want a pope having the power to decide whether or not I receive humane treatment that is determined by my homosexuality. As I said, though, I’m a humanist – the Pope, to me, is a human, so I cheer him and the growth of his compassion on as I would such things for any other person. I also believe that a woman is capable of speaking with as much wisdom as has Pope Francis, and I hold out in hope for that.

This is where my story gets personal. I was raised in a Catholic household. Not only that, but I was also extremely committed and devout. I went to church on weekdays over holiday breaks with my grandmother, said sixty-minute rosaries voluntarily, and prayed excessively for everyone in the entire world before I fell asleep each night.. I wrote letters to God. I confessed my sins (“Dear Father, I am sorry for wearing Melissa’s clothes to school without asking her”). I believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit with my entire mind.

That is, until I came out of the closet and was informed by multiple sources within and outside of my church that I would be going to Hell if I acted on my homoerotic desires.

To my confused adolescent mind, the messages from the Church, including the messages from my priest, didn’t make sense. I can spend all my nights alone thinking, in a constant state of pining, about a woman I love, but the second what’s already felt in my body is shared with that person, I get sentenced. Huh?

The moral of the story: I gave up (that) God and acted. My fate, apparently, is already sealed. I’ve chosen to risk the celestial slammer to live honestly, and to be “the same in mine own act and valor.” (Oh, wait, that was Lady Macbeth speaking— not God. Doh.)

As you can tell, I’m still confused, but I feel hopeful and for some reason I feel hopeful, in particular, about Pope Francis. Not that he’ll answer all my policy prayers, no. What I hope is that he’ll encourage his followers in wisdom, kindness, compassion, and love. I hope he’ll speak out more and continue to model acceptance.

Frankly, I never knew anything about a pope before Pope Francis. I felt his influence, to be sure, but never knew him. He was like the man behind the curtain, orchestrating the Great and Powerful Oz. It’s ironic that now, as a former Catholic and practicing Wonderist, I want to know him.

Do you feel like you know anything about the Pope? It’s about time we knew something. Painting him, with the brush of his abstract words, into a corner won’t allow that to happen. Instead, asking more questions in the spirit of cooperation and with the goal of progress is the way to go.

Here’s my big question for Pope Francis: Will you consider taking part in a peaceful public dialogue with Catholic female theologians who want to serve as members of the clergy?

I have others, but that’s a major one. What’s yours?

Some have asserted that Pope Francis has closed the door on the idea of women entering the priesthood. I would argue that such a door isn’t closed and that it isn’t simply up to him. He has said is that “the church has spoken and says no.” At the same time, we need to recognize that he serves a purpose for a large and very powerful institution. Put his “no” in context and instead of accepting it as a dead end, feminists who wish to witness this change can focus on and respond to the opportunities inherent in his other words: “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the Church.”

The more involved women become in the church and the more initiative they take in establishing their own and their collective theological authority, the more likely it is that they will begin to make way into the arena of the priesthood. If his original statement bothers you, take heart in the knowledge that a statement is not final and that every little bit of progress counts. Those who wish to make priesthood possible for women need to go the way of other great trailblazers and make it happen. The door is not closed if activists decide they want it open.

Popes influence what goes on in Catholic churches across the world, so we need to pay attention and be ready to engage in a dialogue and make ourselves heard when the time is ready. If not now, then tomorrow.

When it comes to Pope Francis, seeing him speak makes me want to talk back. I’ve always had this dream of being able to raise my hand during mass and ask a priest a question. I left the church because I didn’t feel that my voice, as a woman and as a lesbian and as a member of the church, mattered. We were there to listen and obey. Our voices do matter and need to be heard. The moment a leader speaks, we should, of course, have a good listen. But after, we should have our turn to speak and be heard.

Is Pope Francis, as Slate asserts, a “flaming liberal?” I sure do hope so. But even if it turns out that he’s just a principled, wise, devout and non-judgmental moderate pope, I’ll still be sure to tune in the next time he offers an interview.

My only other question doesn’t go out to the Pope; it goes out to Sinead O’Connor: Sinead, what do you think about all of this?

Sure, Sineads and Popes don’t usually answer, but it’s important that we keep asking the genuine questions on our minds.

(photo of Pope Francis CC-licensed via Wikimedia Commons)


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