Pope Francis: Still Finding His Own Voice?

Cape Cod, MA. Like many of you, I have had some time, a bit fragmented, in the past week to read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” Hectic days at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore (nearly 10,000 in attendance) and some travel for Thanksgiving were interwoven with reading his text. Others have already blogged well and at the length on the exhortation, including right here at the In All Things site. Like his September interview, but now all the more so, Francis’ words are deep and challenging, and an invitation to prayer and then to action. His Exhortation unfolds from an opening passage that captures succinctly the joy, the encounter, and the new, renewed mission to which he calls us:

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.

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What better reading for the start of Advent?

I had originally intended to comment just on the section on interreligious relations (nn. 247-254, included in the section on various dialogues), which is close to my expertise. But my attention was also caught by the section on the role of women in the Church (nn. 103-104, oddly included in the section, “Other Ecclesial Challenges”). My suggestion – only that, based on quick reading – is that these sections are less well developed, less integral to the whole document, and in need of Francis’ own personal voice.

On the religions: Francis echoes and reaffirms the consistent teaching of the Church since Vatican II, and this is good. Dialogue is here to stay, is essential to any preaching of the Gospel today, and requires us to respect and work with our sisters and brothers in other traditions; our link to and bond with the Jewish people is singular and essential; a major challenge and opportunity before us today is to work more closely with Muslims, as individuals desiring peace, and as nations and governments required to insure religious freedom. Dialogue with others – Hindus and Buddhists and still other faiths – is reaffirmed, though at a greater distance:

254. Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God,” and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.” But due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences.The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.

This is a good statement but, in my view, it simply reaffirms what has often been said before, with the same awkwardness. It is couched in a rather cautious, even legal language – odd in this document – that allows to non-Christians a certain relation to Christ “by God’s gracious initiative” and “when they are faithful to their own consciences.” For some reason, Francis also seems to feel impelled to comment on their “signs and rites” – hardly a topic for this Exhortation – and to reassert the view often repeated by Benedict, that their ways of worship “lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments” but still can free them from “atheistic immanentism” (but why would the people of Asian religions be prone to atheism more than Western Europeans?) and “purely individual religious experiences” (these too not unknown in the Christian West). The paragraph concludes with a generous admission that their wisdom can help Christians to live out our own faith in a better way. This is indeed a very good point to remember, and one that fits better the overall vision of the Exhortation; it begs for further development.

It seems to me that the whole section is not sufficient integrated with Francis’ more exciting vision, in the document, on an outward looking Church that is in the streets, with the people, soiled and wounded in the work of justice, combatting the real enemies of economic and political degradation and the deprivation of human dignity. The paragraph puts the non-Christians in their place, whereas what is needed is rather a more enthusiastic sense that “we” – Christians and non-Christians alike –have a shared task in the world of this new century, all of of us energized by faith. A Church that keeps repeating, in what might be read as a condescending tone, its views on Jews and Muslims and then on all other religious people of the world is still a bit too much a Church peering over its walls, pondering from afar and above a world of many faith traditions. In his own voice and not just as the successor to John Paul II and Benedict, Francis should, later if not sooner, help us to reimagine entirely our relation to Hindus and Buddhists and others. To rewrite the whole conversation on religions in light of his overall vision of Church will take nothing away from the centrality of Christ and the essential nature of the Good News.

On the place of women in the Church: Here I will speak briefly, since I know that others are far more expert than I. In essence: Francis can and must in the next several years do and say more. Let us recall first that the Exhortation is a dynamic call to all of us to rethink our mission, reconnect with the mission Jesus has given us, go forth into the tumultuous and messy world around us, and leave behind clericalism, privilege, and the stuffy attitudes of self-protection in a Church worried mainly about its own well-being. Such vices and sins must go. In that light, everyone, ordained or not, is to be active in the mission, and ordained ministry is for the mission. But consider the key paragraphs:

103. The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood. I readily acknowledge that many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, helping to guide people, families and groups and offering new contributions to theological reflection. But we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church. Because “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace” and in the various other settings where important decisions are made, both in the Church and in social structures.

104. Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected, based on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded. The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power “we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness.” The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the Church, functions “do not favour the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others.” Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops. Even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered “hierarchical”, it must be remembered that “it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members.” Its key and axis is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God’s people. This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.

All this seems to be in someone else’s voice. First, again, it is odd that special mention needs to be made of women, as if the Church needs to remember to speak “about them” in a section on “other ecclesial challenges.” Second, it is odd that Francis here feels a need to list women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets,” when the document nowhere mentions men’s skill sets. He must see that the solution does not lie in what men get to say about women. Third, the language of Christ as “Spouse” “giving himself in the Eucharist,” while a beautiful image, is out of place in this Exhortation, an echo of another view of Church – not necessarily incompatible, but different: as if the voice of Benedict, not of Francis. Fourth – and to tread lightly on thin ice – the Exhortation as a whole offers a dynamic and outward looking notion of our mission, and potentially a quite dynamic and in-the-world sense of priesthood. To my ear, it is then a jarring note to mention that “the reservation of the priesthood to males” has to do with that image of Christ the Spouse. The least that can be said is that Francis will have to find his own language for why women cannot be ordained, language in keeping with the exciting, challenging vision of ministry he proposes to us throughout the Exhortation and elsewhere. If he calls us to a vision of Eucharist which, as he says earlier in the Exhortation, exists for the sake of “an authentic witness to the Gospel in daily life,” how is he to explain why the ordination of women does not fit his vision of what the Church is all about? Fifth, surely Francis knows that everyone is watching: talk of the “possible role” of women in decision-making is no longer enough, even for his own vision of Church. How quickly will he move to insure that leadership in the Church, there for the sake of our joyful mission in the world, will clearly and obviously stop being a male preserve, in so many cases still entangled with privilege, clericalism, and domination? When women actually do have roles in decision-making, such as cannot be suddenly taken away from them by men in higher positions of leadership, then we can see all the more freshly Francis' new model of the Church as it carries out its mission in the world. 

It may seem to some readers that I am missing the overall very positive and important vision of the Exhortation, by focusing on two points where I have concern. But the issues I have mentioned are of paramount importance too and need to be mentioned; my service, as another Jesuit in the Church, is to raise difficult questions. But I share the overall, very positive opinion readers have had thus far regarding this important Exhortation - again, our perfect reading for the start of Advent.

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 5 months ago
As the axiom says, "Fools rush in where angels fear to thread!" so if true, let me sheepishly play the fool, as follows, confessing to Fr. Clooney, "mea maxima culpa!" For sure Jesuit priest Francis X. Clooney is a very bright light in and of the Church. So is Pope Francis. Very bright light may interfere with the visual objectivity of objects. Does Fr. Clooney's critique of Pope Francis' "The Joy Of The Gospel" show signs of this? Or is the Holy Father truly "dog-paddling" so to speak in deep water, trying to find where the fishing is good, I mean, "finding his voice?" I feel pulled in both directions, towards Fr. Clooney in agreement and equally towards Pope Francis thus able to say, yes, he has "found his voice." For me, relative to Pope Francis, Christ has risen and his name is Francis! But the trusted Fr. Clooney is saying, "Whoa! Not so fast! So I feel somewhat bedraggled.
Anne Chapman
4 years 5 months ago
Thank you Fr. Clooney for your insightful analysis of Pope Francis's exhortation. I have not read all of it yet. I admire much of what Francis has said and done, in both words and through personal example, but I have found that his understanding of women and complementarity is as just distorted as that of his immediate predecessors. It will take a long time for the sin of patriarchy to disappear from the church, unfortunately.
Chris Pramuk
4 years 5 months ago
It occurred to me that Pope Francis' spirituality is akin to St. Ignatius on the lines of being a "pilgrim," the spiritual life as pilgrimage, and the image of the church as a pilgrim church. As a pilgrim, you don't have it all figured out ahead of time. There is vulnerability and risk. The church is "a field hospital after battle." In short, this requires an OPEN imagination. You find and respond to God coming toward you in the wounded world (and church) you meet. But then this exception: the question of women and priesthood, which he repeats, is closed. Why? Because the church has settled it definitively. This betrays a CLOSED imagination - and ultimately, perhaps this is too strong - the death of the church, our slow bleeding out in the field. In any case, on this point it seems to me, he betrays the way of discernment, the way of trust, the way of Jesus and St Ignatius, of openness to the Spirit. Or maybe, as Fr. Clooney intimates, at least thus far on this question he has spoken "in someone else's voice."
Tim O'Leary
4 years 5 months ago
Wow, Chris. Do you really think the Church will (? Should) die if it doesn't ordain women? What spirit are you listening to? Some humility is required in these kinds of judgments, not only of the Bishops, but also of the laity. Or is your spirit closed to the idea that the Church is right to follow Jesus on this doctrine? I don't know if here is a sin called patriarchy but there is definitely a sin of rejection of true doctrine.
Anne Chapman
4 years 5 months ago
Will the church die? It is certainly possible - sooner in the developed world than in the less developed world, but as those countries develop economically, there will be more universal education, women will begin to have more rights in what are still patriarchal cultures, and eventually the Catholic church could die there also. The church will probably not totally die, however, it could be reduced to being one of tens of thousands of religious sects. Recent studies (some published in America) show that young adults are abandoning organized religion at increasing rates (pretty much all of them - progressive Christian, fundamentalist Christian, Judaism etc). But of special relevance to the RCC are the data that indicate that young Catholic women are now leaving the church at higher rates than young men (never happened before), and that they are leaving the Catholic church at higher rates than young women are leaving other christian churches. The data show that they are choosing to marry outside the church at unprecedented rates, and that infant baptisms are declining - naturally. Young women who choose to marry outside the Catholic church don't usually bring their kids in to be baptized there. Young women who are used to being accepted as equals in every aspect of their lives except in the church are no longer willing to accept a subservient status in their own church. When they leave and choose to marry outside the church, their future children go with them because most families attend the church that is the wife's preference and not the husband's. Of course, more and more are unchurched although believing in God and often having a regular prayer and spiritual life - "spiritual but not religious" is the most commonly used expression to describe them. This is one of the few areas of life where women have generally had more influence than men. If they join the unchurched (any church), their children will be raised outside of organized religion as well. Most scholars and theologians know that Jesus is not the source of the bulk of the "doctrine" of the Roman Catholic church, nor did he establish a priesthood or a hierarchical church in the form which developed in the centuries following his death. That is the work of men. The ban on admitting women to the priesthood is the work of men also (men who lack humility) not of Jesus. So to answer your question - the social system called patriarchy causes a great deal of harm, and this harm is evidence of sin.
Chris Pramuk
4 years 5 months ago
Anne, Thank you for your helpful, if sobering, response. Especially cogent, on the historical and doctrinal question, is your last paragraph. If I were to re-state or clarify my comment to Fr. Clooney's post, I might add this phrase: . . . "the death of the church as a community of hope." With humility, I suggest, the Pope has it half right. We don't need a new "theology of women" but a deeper and more holistic theology of the human person, founded on a holistic image of God, i.e. a memory and experience of God not built upon patriarchal or strict gender binaries (complementarity). One could say we already have it in our theology of baptism. Not to mention the doctrine of the creation of the human person, male and female, in the Imago Dei, as well as the poetically evocative and much marginalized Wisdom-Sophia tradition. Without transformation in our theology of God and theological anthropology - and reflecting such at every level, in our liturgical and institutional practices - it is hard for me to see the church as a leaven or sacrament of hope in a world that seems increasingly dangerous for women, girls, and inhumane for all. It is not to predict the outcome of such discernment ahead of time, but to trust in the Spirit's guidance of our investigating the question. The alternative, it seems to me - the refusal to ask the question, the unwillingness to imagine God is ever revealing and making something new, and (let us not forget) the punitive silencing or dismissal of those who engage the question - cannot help but yield the death of hope. A community without hope, without imagination, is already dying, which is to say, it is not really "living," at best it is "surviving."
Tim O'Leary
4 years 5 months ago
Chris - the denial of the complementarity of the sexes and the special theological roles of men and women is, in my opinion, a heresy, akin in scope and influence to Arianism. And, it has many historical similarities. Arianism was a defect in understanding the nature of God, appeared suddenly, was driven by many of the elite of the time, seemed a reasonable alternative, and convinced many bishops and well-meaning people. But it impacted many aspects of theology and would have destroyed Christianity if it won over the Magisterium (as it did the Emperor). Today's heresy is a defect in the understanding of human nature, and has won over the elite and political classes and much of the clergy. It has effectively taken over the mainline Protestant denominations. It impacts family life, Church life, abortion, contraception, homosexuality (all infertile trends). It also impacts our understanding of God (witness the LCWR New Age shenanigans). It has fooled many good people. But, unlike Arianism, it has the laws of demography working against it.
Tim O'Leary
4 years 5 months ago
Anne - from your comments here and previously, I think you believe the Catholic Church is a human institution, with man-made sacraments - a kind of social organization - so I understand why you think it should be more democratic, and open all offices to all people. Certainly, no human institution is guaranteed to last until the end of time. I believe the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded, and is His Mystical Body. I know it won't die because Jesus promised it would not. As to national or regional Churches, they may come and go. But, I think your demographic projections leave out one major paradox. Women who leave the Church because of its teaching on complementarity almost all also have far fewer children (because of their active use of contraception, abortion and divorce and general shift from a culture of children to a contraceptive mentality). So, they may leave, but will do so with far fewer descendants than the Protestants of the sixteenth century did. It is not the Catholic Church that will wither, but the societies of those who abandon that fertile faith. Chris, my hope is not in a human institution, but in a divine institution.
Charles Ryder
4 years 5 months ago
Father Cooney, The words that Pope Francis uses are not Benedict's words nor are they the words of a controlling Curia. They are his own words.
Thomas Rooney OFS
4 years 5 months ago
I find it rather telling and more than a bit interesting, that Francis specfiies/emphasizes priestly ordination, several times ('The reservation of the priesthood to males...The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus...') rather than ordination in general when it comes to women in this document. I can't imagine this to be an omission or accident, completely overlooking the diaconate, the first of the Holy Orders. Perhaps this serves as a clue to what Francis means by stating the need for "still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church" in the future. Interesting to ponder.

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