This past weekend I spent some time with a marvelous group of people, mostly women, who are determined to look towards the future of the Catholic Church with hope and optimism. Most of the people present adopt this hopeful stance despite decades of frustration and anger generated by the glacial pace of reform in the Church. They, and I with them, call for reform of the patriarchal ideologies that dominate the theology and ecclesiology of Roman Catholicism. They anticipate reform in spite of the threat of a drastic slide backwards into a repeat of the Dark Ages and the Inquisition. At the same time, they take huge risks in being the change they hope to see.
It’s true that I sometimes allow my skepticism to get the upper hand in my speculations about the Roman Catholic Church and all religions that have adopted patriarchal modes of control and organization. Sometimes I even lapse into cynicism, which needs the corrective practice of stepping back from things for a bit, and taking a longer view. But I want to argue that we skeptics and cynics have a role to play in discussions about the new pope and the directions the Church might take in the near future.
Pink smoke flies through the air as a symbol of women’s struggle to be recognized as equally called to ordination in the Roman Catholic Church
In families where there has been the overarching shadow of a tyrannical “poppa,” family members often fall into the habit of looking for small signs, any signs, that things might be safe and –dare they think it? – even happy in the family. Poppa smiles and a child’s spirits soar. Maybe this means it will be a good day today! Someone breaks a glass and, rather than breaking out in a tirade of insults or physical violence, Poppa simply orders that the mess be cleaned up. What a relief! People under the control of a bully seek desperately for any small sign of hope. As a result, they sometimes end up interpreting small and insignificant actions as signs of a better present and brighter future.
In really desperate situations, the root desire of the family is for safety. Daring to speak and act in spite of the possibility of making Poppa angry means doing so even though we know we are not safe. It means taking a risk in favour of the possibility of a change for the better in the way power is mediated in the family. In the Roman Catholic “family,” that has certainly been the situation faced by people who have dared to speak out. These people stand up to bullies among the Roman Catholic hierarchy who have the power to inflict judgment and punishment on the other members of the family. Speaking out about women’s ordination has, in the recent past, evoked anger from those with institutional power. The consequences have been severe. Excommunication, loss of employment, shunning – these are the dangers faced by those who have the courage to challenge injustice in the Church. The prohibition on speaking about women’s ordination is just one example of how the environment of the Catholic family is one in which many feel unsafe. There are many other areas of Catholic life where no criticism of the status quo will be tolerated.
We have to be careful, then, to avoid viewing the small, insignificant things the new pope does through the lens of our desperation. We have to avoid letting our desperate desire for improvement cause us to mistakenly interpret the smallest signs as indicating that things might be getting better. Popes can become media darlings who seem to cast a softer, rosier glow on the whole organizational structure of the Roman Curia. We have to remember that it is the system that has allowed for tyranny to rule, and that it is the system that has to be reformed. The fact that Francis has decided to wear black loafers instead of red Gucci shoes should not be read as the Pope’s personal rejection of the system of power dominated by the Roman hierarchy.
Maybe it’s the metaphor of “family” that needs reform in the Roman Catholic Church. After all, the members of the Church are not children who look to Poppa for permission to think, to act, to speak, to judge, to interpret and to construct our world together. That ship left the harbour a long time ago in the Western world. This is especially true as adults come forward to reveal to the world how they have been mistreated in the family. The family metaphor simply does not work anymore for most of us. It contributes to infantilizing the members of the Church, while it raises those standing in for the Poppa to positions of power that usurp the rights and responsibilities of the other members of the family.
The Church is not a family. It is a People. It is, in fact, the People of God. As the People of God, we enjoy certain constitutional rights and we share constitutional responsibilities. It is imperative that we enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom of conscience towards this end.
Let’s wait and see if there is any true reform of the system of governance and administration before interpreting Francis’ actions from a stance of desperate hope. Stay hopeful, but be watchful. Maybe Francis will inaugurate an era of institutional reform. That will be welcome. But we who are wary of patriarchal privilege at work in the exercise of Roman curial power will watch carefully and examine the concreteness of any changes before we interpret small actions as loaded symbolic messages of hope.