Even in the Celibacy Wars, Progressives and Conservatives Fight to Claim Pope Francis for Their Side December 4, 2013

Even in the Celibacy Wars, Progressives and Conservatives Fight to Claim Pope Francis for Their Side

He accepts the validity of same-sex relationships… unless he doesn’t. He’s calling on the Church to spend less time talking about contraception and abortion… but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still very serious sins. He even tried to get atheists into heaven… or did he?

At every possible opportunity, Catholics who want to see changes in the way the Church functions are getting caught up in rhetorical battles with Catholics who support the status quo, both sides arguing passionately for the claim that Pope Francis is on their side.

Caught in the middle of a tug-of-war

The latest issue is the celibate priesthood. For the previous pope, Benedict XVI, the question was closed: priests must continue to be male and celibate (or at least theoretically celibate). Some Catholics see hope for change in the person of Pope Francis. Supporters of celibacy, however, hasten to assure such wayward souls that Pope Francis intends to carry out business as usual in the Catholic Church.

Bill Keller’s recent New York Times op-ed stoked the fires of speculation, praising Francis for “the kindness of his language, his empathy for the least among us, and the humility of his example” and optimistically suggesting that the pontiff’s first major substantive change in Catholic teaching — the first among many in this brave new papacy — will focus on abolishing the celibacy rule.

Jesuit James Martin, writing for America (which calls itself the country’s “national Catholic review”, possibly because “national Catholic reporter” and “national Catholic register” were already taken), writes his opposing opinion bitterly and emphatically in a piece he titles “Beware: non-celibates writing about celibacy,” in which he argues that marriage has problems, too, and even married people become pedophiles.

Oh, and the pope took a vow of celibacy, which means he obviously must support it for all priests at all times, right?

This is not the first time we’ve heard rumours of celibacy’s impending demise. A similar story came out in September, when an archbishop close to the pope suggested that the discipline was open for discussion.

The result at that time was the same. Sources more progressive than the Church — which include several theologians as well as most mainstream media sources — hinted that Pope Francis might take progressive action. More conservative sources scoffed at the hype and insisted that, peculiar turns of phrase aside, Francis is a staunchly traditional Catholic who would never consider such sweeping changes.

Both sides seem to have a driving need to demonstrate that Pope Francis is on their side.

The pattern repeats itself ad infinitum. Pope Francis makes a statement related to some controversial issue. The media reports it far and wide as further evidence of the pontiff’s heterodoxy. A small minority of ultraconservative bloggers and pundits cries foul, bemoaning the state of the modern Church, some even going so far as to suggest they reject Francis as God’s inspired choice. More commonly, committed Catholics find a way to explain how Francis’ comments don’t really open the door to new ideas as completely as they might appear.

He didn’t really want to show support for the gays and their sinful lifestyle; he just meant that nobody should be judgmental of anybody else’s sin under any circumstances. But obviously the gays are still hellbound.

He may have said we should put less emphasis on abortion and contraception, but that doesn’t make them any less sinful, and don’t you forget it.

Atheists in heaven? Sure — just as long as they repent of their unbelief and offer up an Act of Contrition.

This is what happens when you end up with a popular pope who is less than crystal-clear about the doctrinal leanings of his papacy. Francis speaks the language of a kinder, gentler Catholicism, but his failure to reinforce that language with action gives conservatives a free pass to argue exactly what most of us fear about Francis: that all the flowery progressive language is really just cheap talk.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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