If, like me, you are non-Catholic and socially liberal, has it been slightly disorienting to find yourself cheering Pope Francis for his interview comments about the Church’s treatment of contraception, abortion, and homosexuality?
If we’re a little bewildered, it may be because we’re rooting for the A-Rod and the Yankees of the religious major leagues, the most powerful person in a powerful, influential, relentlessly hierarchical institution. In the interview, Francis sounds like the humblest parish priest. But a Pope is still the God-Father.
To make it even squirmier, we’re probably cheering, not in spite of the Church’s authoritarianism, but because of it. After all, if the Pope had the same influence over his flock that John Boehner has over House Republicans, we wouldn’t give him the time of day.
Now, isn’t this an uncomfortable dilemma! A bunch of liberals apparently conniving at authoritarianism.
But, perhaps we shouldn’t apologize too strenuously. Maybe a little authoritarianism isn’t really so bad. Parents know it isn’t. Teachers are pretty sure it isn’t. The inmates of my fantasy re-education camp for litterers have been forced to acknowledge that it isn’t.
As a nation, would we have made the same progress on civil rights if the federal government hadn’t cracked the whip? On environmental cleanup, if emissions standards hadn’t been mandated?
So, where’s the balance? I think it’s in finding the genuine authority within authoritarianism. Pope Benedict was an authority on doctrine and rules, but not on the dilemmas and pains of the human heart. He ruled by fiat. Vox Papae over Vox Populi. Edict over Bene.
Francis, on the other hand, speaks first of the heart. He understands that religion is barren if it doesn’t welcome, console, and inspire. Still, he is very careful not to reject doctrine or rules (and, lest we liberals over-interpret, he does not say that the Church’s teachings on sexuality and procreation are wrong, just that they shouldn’t monopolize the conversation; nor does he promise a new role in the Church for women, saying simply that the question is vital and demands further investigation).
This is not Vox Populi over Vox Papae. Rather, it’s Francis’s recognition that the voice of the Church must take account of the voice of the people, that its moral authority rests on its ability to listen, but also on its duty to fashion doctrine and rules that are right, temporally and eternally. Authoritarianism tempered by authority, and vice versa.
Karl Malden, as Father Barry in On the Waterfront, matched compassion with muscle. You’ve probably seen the movie. Now, see how Francis plays it. Read the whole interview (at americamagazine.org/pope-interview). It may not be life-or-death drama, but then, maybe it is.