Mary E. Hunt: The Pope’s Encore? Reforming the Church

Mary E. Hunt

Oct. 2, 2015

Published in the Baltimore Sun

Pope Francis came, saw and conquered during his U.S. visit. A gracious guest with the heart of a grateful immigrant, he experienced American life from the tables of the poor to the lofty spires of the rich. He challenged Americans to share wealth, safeguard the environment and work for the common good. What can he do for an encore?

First, there is a disconnect between the pope’s rhetoric about equality and the institutional Roman Catholic Church’s practice with regard to women. It was unmistakable during the televised masses and meetings. Hundreds of robed men — priests, bishops, cardinals and their successor seminarians — were visible at every turn. The principal of a school and the head of a social service agency were among the very few women in evidence. Women sang, led music and voiced the occasional prayer, but it was hard to miss that Pope Francis’ organization is virtually all male-led. Young male seminarians serenading the Pope assured that the future will mirror the past. So much for Francis’ call for education of girls as well as boys.

To be a decision-maker in Catholicism, to have jurisdiction, requires ordination. Women are prohibited from being ordained because they are not men — a tautology postmodern people reject. Equality is equality. Women’s ordination is important not so women can dress up like men on ceremonial occasions and celebrate the sacraments. It is to give women voice and vote in every church decision from parish to synod. Women’s participation will erase the impression that some people, namely men, are more equal than others because of gender, race, class and the like. That could change the world.

Currently, more American Catholic women than men minister in parishes and similar settings. A pope who calls people and nations to open their doors and embrace immigrants cannot say “the door is closed” on women’s ordination.

Second, the pope needs to make good on his promise to survivors of clergy sexual abuse. While his pastoral touch is deft, the pain of survivors of priest pedophiles and other criminals remains an open wound salved only by action. To commend bishops — some of whom covered up for their brother priests and/or moved them around to avoid prosecution — and to suggest that God weeps is inadequate and insulting.

It is time to rout out bishops who act illegally and to create structures of accountability to prevent future problems. A robust airing of sexual abuse cases with Francis and bishops in full listening mode would begin to put this disgraceful chapter of church history to rest. It is time to redirect energies away from individual cases that wind their way slowly, if at all, through the courts and focus instead on structural problems that require systemic change.

Francis can call for anti-violence education around the world, earmark resources for counseling and restitution for survivors and break down the clergy/lay divide that creates the conditions for unjust power relationships — breeding grounds for abuse of minors and adults. He can require bishops to name perpetrators publicly. Francis promised to deal with these problems; he must prove that he is a man of his word.

Finally, it is time to end the gay charade in the Roman Catholic Church. The sea of men in every church and papal meeting during the U.S. visit underscored a homosocial power structure. It is an open secret that a high percentage of clergy and religious leaders are same-sex loving people, whether sexually active or not. For those same men to collude in anti-LGBTIQ efforts, including legislation and theology, is morally repugnant.

A papal step next step would be to speak openly and frankly about the range of sex/gender options among Catholics and help people see the many healthy, good, natural and holy ways there are to love. Stop wasting church money on anti-marriage legislation. Change doctrine to keep young gay people from committing suicide because they internalize the church’s immoral teachings against their love.

Francis’ famous statement, “Who am I to judge?” is a pitiful, timid response to committed love. Francis might better embrace Tertullian’s observation in the second century: “See those people, how they love one another.” No qualifier is needed.

Francis and company have every right to raise a glass of Italian red following a successful first visit to the United States. Then they can get to work on this agenda, including more people — especially women — to accomplish it as quickly as possible. This encore is necessary to complete a well-received performance.