Is the pope preaching tolerance?

Bill Crane asks whether recent comments by Pope Francis will mark a new era of openness in the Catholic Church.

ON JULY 29, Pope Francis shocked the Western media by striking a conciliatory tone toward homosexuality. "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?" the Pope asked, speaking in Italian, but using the English word "gay."

His words were immediately seized on as a sign of new liberality within the Catholic Church. The New York Times praised the Pope for his "compassionate tone," while other liberal outlets in the West have seized on his remarks as a sign of the "revitalization of the Church." The Huffington Post stood out with its headline proclaiming "Pope OK with gays."

The Pope's new teaching certainly marks a departure from the tone of his predecessor Benedict XVI. However, some progressively minded people may rightly wonder if this is a departure from Benedict in anything but tone.

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The context for the Pope's remarks was an ongoing debate in the Church about whether to allow gay priests. In this sense, Francis was remarking that the Church as a body has no problem with priests who are gay.

Progress? Of a sort, but not any kind that marks a real change in Church teaching. The Church has never explicitly disallowed gay men taking holy orders--though Benedict XVI certainly did strike an uncomfortable tone with his statement that "men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not become priests." In Catholic teaching, however, orientation of homosexuals is not a sin--it is homosexual acts that are condemned, a fact that traditionalists in the Vatican and Catholic establishment worldwide were quick to seize on.

In other words, while the Church allows men who are attracted to other men to take the cloth, it forbids them, as well as any lay faithful who feel similarly, to act on their completely natural urges. (It also, for the record, continues to teach that heterosexual sex that takes place outside of marriage is a sin.)

Francis' remarks on homosexuality, as well as on the participation of women in the Church--where he still maintains women have no right to the priesthood--do strike a more conciliatory tone than that of Benedict, somewhat reminiscent of his predecessor, John Paul II.

John Paul II (who is expected to be recognized as a saint by the end of the year) like Francis, struck a more liberal posture in dealing with the Church's ongoing problems with women, the LGBT community, and other religious groups, than did Benedict, who spoke of homosexuality as "a strong tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil," and said of Islam: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

In other words, both John Paul II and Francis represent a more liberal, tolerant face of what is otherwise an incredibly conservative and unchanging Church doctrine, while Benedict's teaching represented a more extreme and intolerant version of the same doctrine that seems incredibly out of place in a world in which women, LGBT people, Muslims and other faith groups are making more progress toward acceptance in the world and in the Church's traditional heartlands. But it is essentially the same message.

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TO UNDERSTAND what exactly is new in Pope Francis' teaching requires an understanding of the Roman Catholic Church as a deeply conservative institution, that only changes when it feels it absolutely must, and even then very slowly.

The idea of the Church as a body with essentially unchanging dogmas, promoted both by Catholic traditionalists and some anti-Catholic bigots, has long been recognized as a fiction. While the Church considers abortion a mortal sin these days, termination of a pregnancy did not receive so much as a mention in the canon law until the late 18th century, around the start of the Industrial Revolution. At about the same time, the Church held for some years that the consumption of caffeine, considered to have demonic properties, was a sin.

In fact, Catholic Church, perhaps the world's strongest and most populous religious institution, has never been quite so monolithic as it tried to present itself. While a centralized bureaucracy in Rome has dominated the official workings of the Church for centuries, at its outskirts Roman Catholicism fractures into a number of separate "Churches."

While some maintain loyalty to Rome and absolute traditionalism (the infamous Opus Dei in Spain, and the Knights of Columbus in the U.S.) some of the faithful are dedicated to an idea of the Church as tolerant, accepting and serving the poor--such as the liberation theology tradition of Latin America.

The Italian revolutionary Marxist Antonio Gramsci expressed this contradiction at the heart of Catholicism in his Prison Notebooks: "[T]here is one Catholicism for the peasants, one for the petit-bourgeois and town-workers, one for women, and one for intellectuals which is itself variegated and disconnected."

Catholicism has always had to struggle to make itself relevant to the many different groups of the faithful, and this process not infrequently escapes the boundaries set by the hierarchy centered in Rome.

In the contemporary Church, it is hard to overstate how much relies on the Papacy in terms of setting the tone. The role of a Pope is to present a doctrine which sounds coherent but is just ambiguous enough for very different groups of Catholics to find something acceptable in.

At the same time, the role of the Vatican bureaucracy--byzantine, incredibly wealthy and extremely intolerant of anything threatening its position--severely threatens the Church's relevance in the modern world. It is this institution that has horrified many of the faithful with its cynical failed cover-up of the clerical sexual abuse scandals in Europe and North America.

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THE RESIGNATION of Benedict XVI, which grabbed worldwide headlines as only the second willing Papal resignation in the 2000-year history of the Church, in fact had a more sinister context than merely that of an old man who no longer felt capable of guiding the One True Faith.

Shortly after his resignation, the Vatican quietly announced that Keith Cardinal O'Brien, head of the Church in Scotland and a Church politician of immense stature, would not be attending the conclave to determine Benedict's successor. Some weeks later, Cardinal O'Brien stepped down as the archbishop of Glasgow, as a result of several reports of his long record of sexually abusing seminarians who were under his jurisdiction.

The Church, especially in the developed West, now faces many deep crises which it so far has been unable to resolve. On the one hand, the longstanding problems with sexual abuse by clerics continues to develop with ever more horrifying revelations. At the same time, in the West, the Church struggles to survive even in its former bastions, such as Ireland, Spain and the United States. Archaic dogmas on women and homosexuality compound these tensions.

In the U.S., for example, the Church in the early 20th century held sway ideologically over millions-strong communities of Irish-, Italian-, and Polish-Americans. So much has changed that now, the Church has to import priests from Asia, Africa and Latin America to serve rapidly dwindling numbers of the faithful.

In this country, the Church is a shadow of its former self. It faces a rank-and-file rebellion of nuns, who were recently threatened with takeover by the American bishops' hierarchy for deviating from Church teaching on same-sex marriage, a woman's right to choose, and other social issues.

Recently there has also been an uprising of the faithful regarding the right of women to receive holy orders. Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who served for forty years as a priest, social worker and activist was defrocked and excommunicated for participating in the ordination of women in 2008. Bourgeois said in his statement of defense to the hierarchy that, "Sexism, like racism, is a sin. And no matter how hard we may try to justify discrimination against women, in the end, it is not the way of God, but of men who want to hold on to their power."

Hundreds of priests signed a letter supporting Bourgeois against the hierarchy, and the National Catholic Reporter carried an editorial declaring, "Barring women from ordination to the priesthood is an injustice that cannot be allowed to stand."

Progressives and socialists, especially those without any religious belief, may question the relevance of those like Roy Bourgeois, the American nuns, and others who struggle to change the Church. It would seem reasonable to ridicule the idea that the Roman Catholic Church could ever be changed to reflect more progressive ideas--or indeed, given its historical character as a defender of the powerful, that anyone should try this.

To do this would be to ignore the millions of Catholic faithful with progressive ideas who nevertheless revere people like John Paul II and Francis. Marxism has always recognized religion as an alienated expression of human consciousness which can, under certain circumstances, point toward the emancipation of the oppressed.

In this regard it remains important to recognize the courage and sacrifice of those left-wing faithful who struggle to change the Church. The more tolerant tone the Pope takes toward gays is a reflection of the changing reality both outside and inside the Church, and we should hope to strengthen those who point it toward the future rather than the past.