September 25, 2013

By Bonnie Erbé

Is Pope Francis sitting astride an invisible seesaw? Why else would he on one day speak out as one of the great religious reformers of all time, and on the next, shrivel to the level of his most recent predecessors-- who kept the church cloaked in the darkness and atavism of its ancient past?

Last Thursday he gave an interview to the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, warning the Church away from its “obsession” with divisive social issues such as gay rights and abortion. He even took a dagger-fronted plunge into the heart of the Church’s conservative core and referred to those issues as the church’s “small-minded rules.” He used the occasion to lay out a vision of a more compassionate, supportive future for the Vatican and its hierarchical servants of God. He importuned them to act like a "field hospital after battle," healing the wounds of the faithful and going out to find those who have been hurt, excluded or have fallen away.
Those words reverberated around the globe and drew almost universal sighs of relief and approval. Media reports of parishioners leaving Sunday services quoted them as seeing his words as a signal from a true leader, a Pope who was ready to move beyond the mindset of the Inquisition and inspire a more welcoming, inclusive institution.
Then a mere one day after the interview, and with much less fanfare, Pope Francis spoke to a group including many Catholic obstetricians, and lectured them on the evils of abortion. He accused the world of having adopted a “throw-away culture” that does not value life. He said, “Every child that isn’t born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord.”
Watching this Pope evolve since he assumed office in March has been a thrill of roller coaster-like magnitude. He cast off the materialistic pomp of his predecessors, showing his followers that worldly possessions mean little or nothing.  He abjures the palatial papal apartment in favor of a simpler communal residence. He replaced the golden crucifix of Pope Benedict with one made of less expensive metal. Confounding his papal guard, he regularly exits Pope-mobile and bounds into the streets to embrace and pray for sick and disabled people and to wash the feet of the poor. This Pope has made clear love and people are important, things are not.
So why, then, did he feel the need to break the spirit of reform, and lecture an audience of Catholic, obstetricians (who would not have been granted a papal audience if they needed such a lecture) on the evils of abortion?
One possibility is he was trying to placate the right wing of the church, which if not omnipotent, is almost so. Popes Benedict and John Paul II stacked the ranks of Cardinals and Archbishops and Bishops and Priests for many years. Pope Francis faces a formidable wall of resistance as he tries to move the church forward to stop its seepage of adherents and to adapt it to modern culture. He is in every sense a crusader as he tries to reinvent a church created at a time of almost no communication (beyond an assembled crowd at a public speech) to an era of mass communication where words and deeds go instantaneously global and viral.
But the other possibility is that he really didn’t mean what he said in the interview, at least insofar as it pertained to women’s rights and to abortion. This is a Pope who has made clear he wants to enhance the role of women in the church. He has called for the creation of a, “deep theology of women,” although what he meant by that is unclear. What is clear is that this Pope, no matter how much of a reformer, is not going to allow women to become priests, or for that matter to be treated equally with men in the church. 
None of his decrees has reached the level of doctrinal change. But it would be a bit more inspiring to hear him address how he intends to make change for women, who are after all, the backbone of the Church.