I’ve been very interested by how people have reacted to the pope’s interview coming back from Brazil, and other statements he’s made. I’ve seen Catholics who were a bit taken aback by the media lovefest Francis is getting, when Benedict said the exact same thing. On the other hand I am seeing many progressives who are calling Francis a hypocrite or a liar or (at best) not nearly as positive as he seems because he isn’t proposing substantive changes.
But in my experience learning about Catholic church history and theology (I’m dissertating on a Catholic medieval philosopher, so it’s part of the process; plus I have Catholic extended family and grew up well-versed in Catholicism even though I’m a Methodist), the Catholic church doesn’t change quickly. It does change, but in the same way Treebeard changes over the centuries: not too hastily, to be sure, so slowly each individual person might not notice it, but there’s no doubting the old fogie Merry + Pippin find is different from the spry young sapling who once lost the entwives. So should we expect a pope, any pope no matter how progressive, to make a radical break with established church doctrines? No. but small changes can change that trajectory, for good or bad, even if they seem frustratingly inconsequential to those of us who thinks the current church is causing real harm right now. But this is what it means, I think, to take any kind of a tradition seriously. It must be bent slowly, organically, or you risk breaking it..
More to the point, I don’t think substance is all that matters. Language matters. Posture matters. There are very few values so wrong you can’t play them out in a loving way. This doesn’t make those values *right*, but given a wrong value people are acting on in hate and one they’re trying to act on in love, I’ll take the former. I disagree with the RCC that homosexual people have a disordered sexuality, but if you give me a pope who tries to love them, tries to recognize their value within the constraints of his beliefs about LGBT people and their sexual attraction… that’s a much better starting place for love and community than someone who just says God hates fags, or who just think there’s something about them that’s deeply sick and must be changed as proof that God is working in their lives.
In a lot of ways, I started with this idea that homosexuality was a sin, and much of my struggle over the last 10-15 years of my life has been: how do I love someone who is gay, who is transsexual, who is whatever in light of this belief. The change in posture (a desire to condemn to a hatred of the fact I had to condemn to a longing to love and support to the acceptance I actually could support) preceded my change in belief that I’d been reading the Bible wrongly. But I like to think even when I thought homosexuality was wrong, I was still a better person when I was trying to love and respect my gay friends in spite of that belief, than I was when I was content to think their sexuality was deeply wrong. I’m an individual so I can change much quicker than an institution does, and perhaps the RCC will never change to this extent.
But whatever the outcome on that point, I think the choosing to love, to respect,whatever the content of your beliefs, is significant. It may not be enough, but it’s a far way from nothing. I don’t want to downplay the harm done to LGBT people by RCC teaching on this issue, or to women or the divorced or whatever else. And I don’t want to turn the pope into some kind of closet feminist or gay activist who just hasn’t realized the implication of his beliefs. I believe I genuinely did believe homosexuality was sinful even when I was trying my best to find a way to respect my gay friends. But I still think that desire to love, that trying to live in peace and community with people and recognize their worth whatever our beliefs, is a significant step all on its own.