Many liberal Catholics and secular ‘progressives’ have hoped that Pope Francis would turn the Church away from its polarizing focus on political issues and its retrograde stance on reproduction, abortion, gay marriage, and women’s rights. As importantly, they see Francis’ strong anti-capitalist message and endorsement of the poor as both profoundly Christian and morally principled and hope that Liberation Theology will regain its stature as a movement dedicated to the world’s disenfranchised.
Francis’ predecessors were far more conservative than he seems to be; and they never budged off the official Catholic line. The ordination of women was out of the question because all twelve apostles were men, and had Jesus wanted women as his evangelists, he would have included them. He was God, after all, and had a social and moral perspective far broader than the narrow confines of any temporal age. Only God can give and take away life, said the Church. Any attempt by Man to intervene in this sacred compact is arrogant pride. The purpose of marriage is procreation – again according to God’s law and the observed laws of nature – and any social construct is errant and wrong.
Liberation Theology, while indeed invoking Christ’s own charity and universal concern, was a secular, political movement. It engaged priests in dangerous, high-visibility conflicts and turned their attention from spiritual ministry to secular activism.
There is an excellent film called Into Great Silence, an intimate portrayal of the everyday lives of Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse, a monastery high in the French Alps. The monks observe a rigorous code of silence, and their days are spent in private or collective prayer. The purpose of the monastery is singular and clear – prayer and devotion.
Such religious retreats, common throughout history, are seen today as anachronisms in a modern world which demands action and resolve. Those who have followed a religious calling have an even greater responsibility than laymen, for they are God’s representatives on earth, His ministers, and His soldiers. Social activism on the part of priests, nuns, and monks would combine a secular commitment and a religious spirit. Who better to lead a secular struggle than those ordained to do God’s work?
The monks at Grande Chartreuse, however, are not idle. Their daily prayers, devotions, and invocations actively beseech God for charity, mercy, and forgiveness. They actively pray that a precariously irreligious world will once again turn to Him for guidance and salvation.
For secular humanists, this is all cockamamie nonsense. There is no God, and therefore the prayers of reclusive monks are self-serving, self-indulgent expressions of their own insecurity. They are in Grande Chartreuse as an escape from the demands and pressures of the real world, not to serve selflessly in devotion.
However, if there is a God, and if He does indeed respond to prayer, is there not a compelling need for a community of ordained interlocutors whose occupation is only reverence, supplication, and honor?
The issue of the clergy – the priests and nuns who minister to their congregations – is different in profession only. They, like the monks at Grande Chartreuse, are here to do God’s work, especially to retrieve abandoned sinners and to confirm the faith of those who still believe. Secular progress is nothing compared to eternal life.
The Hindu caste system has been roundly criticized by secularists because of its anti-democratic, repressive, and confining nature. In such a system the individual is devalued and unable to rise to achieve his full potential. It is a defeatist religious construct which is fundamentally flawed.
Hindus, on the other hand, disagree. Secular progress and the ambitious grasping for purchase in a commercial world are antithetical to the real and only purpose of life – spiritual enlightenment. Castes deliberately discourage such vain and ignorant pursuits. Much else in this very scripted religion is designed to limit the distractions of choice – an illusory concept of no worth or value. Every waking hour should be dedicated to one’s spiritual progress.
Both the Grande Chartreuse monks and devout Hindus understand the temporal nature of the world and the vanity of temporal desires. Catholic priests and nuns have been ordained to teach those tempted by the false gods of materialism and ambition.
The recently canonized Pope John Paul II was often criticized for his unwavering stance on abortion. He understood the nature of the Pro-Choice movement as an expression of the fight for women’s rights. Far from being a misogynist or anti-liberal in his views of sexual equality, John Paul was in favor of women’s full expression of their God-given individual spirit. Full social equality, however, should never be gained through immoral expediency. Women who aborted because of career, financial interests, or personal freedom ignored the profound moral implications of their actions. Roe v. Wade made such expediency current and common.
Feminism, John Paul said, was legitimate in fighting for women’s rights; but in expunging any and all moral considerations in the course of the struggle was wrong. The Pope knew that his words would be met with scorn and ridicule; but he knew that he was right in saying them.
He and other popes before and after understood that the Church’s stand on contraception was archly conservative and had little chance of being widely respected and observed. Popes, although isolated and removed, are not ignorant; and knew that reversing the trend was impossible. At the same time they saw contraception as a defiance of God’s law and a dangerous intervention in a moral order. Contraception was another expedient way of putting individual ambitions and goals above spiritual enlightenment. In statements that could have come from Hindu sages, the popes stressed the importance of preserving a social order which indeed limited individual secular choice and in so doing provided the right environment for spiritual progress.
The Church was as much opposed to expediency as it was to the acts of abortion and contraception. The more secular society becomes, the less possible it is for any individual to find God.
Sadhbh Walshe writing in The Guardian (5.10.14) feels that Catholic nuns have been ‘thrown under the bus’ by Pope Francis because he has chastised them for their neo-Liberation Theology. Francis can only be called hypocritical, for while he speaks eloquently of social equality, he denies nuns the opportunity to practice what he preaches.
Whatever this week's censure of nuns – who are in trouble precisely for stressing social justice issues over abortion, gay marriage and birth control – says about the pope's dedication to his stated mission, one thing is more clear than ever: if the church continues to pressure an already-dwindling population of nuns to abandon its social justice work, Pope Francis may undermine his own agenda, just as much as some power players at the Vatican hope to undermine the nuns on and off the bus.
This is a misreading of Francis’ intentions. He most definitely espouses Jesus’ teachings about the poor. Luke 4:16-19 is but one of many Biblical citations invoked by Francis:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.'
While I do not agree with his often facile conclusions about capitalism, I appreciate his focus on social inequality and the plight of the poor. He understands that the capitalist juggernaut will not be stopped anytime soon, nor even slowed; but feels it is his responsibility to raise the moral implications of inequality and indifference to the poor.
It is not, however, the responsibility of his pastoral representatives to disregard their vocation – spiritual ministry – and to enter the divisive world of electoral politics.
The dividing line is of course indistinct between secular and religious issues. There are some so-called ‘godly progressives’ who believe that Man’s stewardship of the Earth is part of God’s purpose, and that engagement in environmental issues is in fact a religious commitment. Fundamentalist Christians are also entering the arena invoking the Garden of Eden and the importance of respecting God’s original design. Contraception is a good way to keep Catholic numbers down, so moral principle is not the only concern of the Church. The death penalty, war, and civil violence cannot be ignored on either a social, secular level or a moral and religious one.
Yet while the temptation to through the moral and spiritual weight of the Church behind secular causes is great, the Pope is right to limit its social activism. There are enough morally responsible and honest secular advocates for social change without having to enlist nuns, priests, and monks in the struggle.