The Best We Can Hope For
The contrast in reactions to the Pope's recent comments on sexuality and abortion is interesting. On the left -- especially the secular left -- there is this feeling that Francis is the second coming of John XXIII: a pope that non-Catholics can feel good about. On the right, however, there seems to be widespread quiescence. I have not observed a kind of freak-out that some have expected from Catholic conservatives.
How can we explain this aymmetry? I think one thing we are seeing here are the fruits of the Pope's experience during the Argentine dirty war. This is a man who managed, somehow, to come through an extremely polarized situation with the respect of many on both the right and the left, including several prominent liberation theologians. This strikes me as only possible for someone who is a true master at quietly building consensus.
It seems to me that the move he is making -- saying that the Church has become too preoccupied with abortion and gay marriage and contraception without saying that those teachings are in any need of revision -- is quite literally the only thing he could do without angering one or the other side of the debates on those issues.
On the left, we are so worn down from the battles of the past 30 years, so tired of being told day in and day out that we cannot in good conscience support progressive politicians, so tired of seeing Catholic politicians denied communion for supporting abortion rights while Catholic politicians who support gutting food stamps get a pass, that the promise of a new conversation is like the lifting of an enormous burden. And the Pope's statement that the Church has developed an unhealthy obssession with these issues sounds like an affirmation of many of the things we have been saying for years. Sure, many of us would like to see a change in doctrine, but not being constantly cudgeled with existing doctrine is a great start, and probably the best we can hope for.
On the right, they are no doubt taking solace from the fact that, even as the Pope has criticized the hierarchy's uneven sense of priorities, he has reiterated his support for the substantive teachings underlying them. And since Catholics on the right are more focused on authoritative doctrine to begin with, this failure to change teachings is more significant to them than it is to Catholics on the left.
My assessment might be premature. As I said last week in my post on Catholics and Evangelicals together, sometimes, the Catholic right seems far more interested in forging conservative political alliances than in doctrinal orthodoxy (at least on doctrine not related to sexuality). So a right-wring freakout may still be in the cards, especially if the Pope continues on his present course. We'll have to wait and see. For now, however, the new tone he is striking is politically astute in its ability to win over the left without losing the right.
Saying that the Pope's move has been canny is not the same as saying it is insincere. Notwithstanding my early (and ultimately, I think, unfounded) concerns about his actions during the Argentine dirty war, I have become increasingly impressed by the new Pope's genuine sense of humility and holiness. There's a humanity in him that reminds me of the best parish priests I have ever known. (Sadly, few of them are still priests, but that is a topic for another post.) If the Pope is a man who is interested in revolutionizing the Church, I see few signs of it. Instead, he seems to me to be someone who above all else wants to bridge divisions, both within the Church and between Catholics and others. As we've seen with our current president, the search for consensus is not a strategy for radical change. But, under the circumstances, I think it's the best we could have hoped for. I for one am grateful for the change.
I don't think conservative Catholics will give up on their crusade to convince Catholic progressives that their position is not tenable and that issues like abortion and gay marriage trump all others. But if, in the future, they don't have the apparent backing of the hierarchy, their arguments will be far easier to disregard.
About the Author
Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.