I Love Pope Francis — Or Do I?

The papal keys in bas relief over the tomb of John Paul II, Vatican. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The papal keys — symbol of the pope’s authority over the church and its people. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

My honeymoon with Catholicism’s newest pope is over.

I’m done with getting all hopeful and goosebumpy about Pope Francis and the breath-of-fresh-air tone he’s setting for one of the world’s largest and most powerful international institutions.

Yeah, yeah. Pope Francis says nice things like, “Who am I to judge?” He does amazing things like embrace a severely disfigured man as the world looks on.

And it seems Francis might eventually bring some order to the inner workings of the Vatican and its bank.

Not to mention Francis’s plan to turn the church’s attention back to serving the poor, which reverses the policy of his two predecessors. That’s terrific. Except that that old liberation

Archbishops Joseph E. Kurtz, Bernardito C. Auza and Charles J. Chaput spoke on Pope Francis and his US visit at a meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association in Philadelphia, August 28, 2015

Archbishops Joseph E. Kurtz, Bernardito C. Auza and Charles J. Chaput at the meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association in Philadelphia last week. Photo by Barbara Newhall

theology phrase, “preferential option for the poor,” has never set too well with me. God prefers the poor? I don’t think so.

And, of course, Francis got the Cubans and the Americans talking. Good job. Too bad similar blandishments didn’t work on Israel’s Shimon Peres and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas. But good try.

No doubt about it, Pope Francis is a modest man of the people.

A Modest Pope Francis?

But wait — I’m not so sure about the modest part.

Here’s a guy — not married — who’s telling married women and men that God does not trust them to take charge of their reproductive lives, to make decisions for their family’s economic stability and to know the limits of their ability to fully, attentively parent their children. That sex for sex’s sake is not OK with God. That God does not want married couples to use birth control, because God is in charge of how many babies a man and a woman shall produce, rear and support.

Where’s the modesty in that?

And where’s the modesty in Pope Francis’s decision to kick off his Year of Mercy with a — temporary — mercy for Catholic women who have had abortions?  For the next year,

A score of Catholic clergy were present at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association in Philadelphia, August, 2015. Photo by Barbara Newhall

A score of Catholic clergy participated in the RNA conference. Photo by Barbara Newhall

women who have had abortions can go to their priests for absolution and reinstatement into the church. They won’t have to go through the humiliating extra hoops of taking their cases to higher up church authorities.

But what happens when the year of mercy is over? Church authorities — male human beings — will once again be authorized to decide whether a woman who’s had an abortion can be absolved of her sin.

(And what about the men who helped get those pregnancies started, and might well have participated in the decision to abort? Are they excused from the grave mortal sin of abortion?)

The church — and its male hierarchy, headed by the pope — comes down plenty hard on many issues. But it’s not the issues that are igniting my — for me unusual — rant.

It’s that hierarchy, that top-down earthly authority.

A lot of people around the world, Catholic and otherwise, have been charmed by the breath of fresh air that is Pope Francis. I too had been feeling the Francis effect — until last weekend.

That Male Church Hierarchy

That’s when I got a close-up look at the Catholic hierarchy in the flesh. And it was pretty much male flesh.

The occasion was the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association, held this year in Philadelphia. I listened as four — count ’em four — archbishops and a passel of Catholic priests and lay people briefed religion reporters on church doctrine and the pope’s upcoming visit to the U.S.

There was a sprinkling of women on the dais, but mostly it was men speaking for the Catholic church. A phalanx of smart, skillful, socially adept, articulate, ambitious men.

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office speaks at the Religion Newswriters Association conference, Philadelphia, August, 2015. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office, spoke at the conference. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Men in power.

I’m not a Catholic, so maybe it’s none of my beeswax what the pope and his bishops say about religious liberty, birth control, divorce, extra marital sex, and same-sex marriage. I’m not affected by papal pronouncements on the so-called God-given rightness — the “complementarity” — of marriage between one man and one woman.

However, it is my beeswax if I’m an employee who’s denied birth control coverage or who’s been fired because I’m in a same-sex marriage.

I’m not the only one to have opinions on these issues. So do U.S. Catholics. A new Pew Research Center survey sheds some light:

Fewer than half of U.S. Catholics surveyed said that homosexual behavior, remarriage without annulment, cohabitation, and the use of contraception are sinful. A full seventy percent said it’s OK for a husband and wife to choose not to have children.

Is the pope listening?

The Pope of Surprises

Pope Francis is a man of surprises. He has declined to live in the luxurious papal apartments. He calls old friends on the phone out of the blue. He speaks off the cuff to the press. He washes the feet of women and Muslims.

“He’s in nobody’s pocket,” said one of last weekend’s powerful men in black, the Rev. Thomas Rosica of the Holy See press office. Pope Francis is his own man.

OK then, Francis, pope of surprises. Surprise me. Let go of some of that power. Start maybe by acknowledging that women and men are fully competent to decide when and if they will get pregnant.

I’m pretty sure God trusts people with those big life decisions. Why don’t you?

If this post resonated with you, you might like “Dying Jesus, Dying Churches.”  Also, “Why Are All Those Catholics So Darned Catholic?”

Here’s another Pope Francis Post from me: “Which Way America” With Francis’ Compassion? Or Donald’s Vitriol?”



  1. David Newhall says:

    Of course the Catholic Church is utterly ridiculous. But I think the love affair with Pope Francis has been caused not by his radically undermining the entrenched nonsense (which he obviously hasn’t), but by the fact that he is relatively progressive — relative, that is, to his predecessors. And that is a real thing to be happy about. I need only point to the wailing, whining, and gnashing of teeth of the Right Wing here in the US about the fact that the Pope has dared mention that they ought to examine their lives on more days than Sunday, and examine real issues of poverty and powerlessness rather than just easy theoretical “sinning”. To us on the outside, this is a breath of fresh air. But your overall point is completely right; seen in the right light, from a ways back, the Church still has a long, long way to go before it joins even the nineteenth century, let alone the twenty-first.

    • David, So true. Pope Francis is making big changes in the church, just by shifting the tone so radically. What stopped me in my tracks, however, was the sight, at the RNA conference, of so many male priests — holding all the positions of power in the church. And I got the feeling — subjective, of course — that they were not going to give up their power any time soon.

  2. virginia newhall says:

    Exactly, Barbara!! When I saw the pope on TV offering absolution for the “sin” of abortion, I felt pretty disgusted with all religions. I once heard Louis Farakan at a rally ranting, “What’s going on under those Catholic priests robes?!!!” I’m no fan of Farakan at all, but I found his sarcasm appropriate. Then we have God instructing the Kentucky clerk to deny marriage licenses. Insanity!! Thanks so much for your perspective.

    • Don’t forget, there is a vast body of progressive people in every religious and humanist tradition in the U.S. and around the world. Tune in to Tikkun magazine, for example, for a refreshing glimpse of open-minded, open-hearted thought and action.

  3. Sue Watson says:

    Now that’s a rant

    • Yeah. I’ll cop to that. As I mentioned in the post, it wasn’t so much the church’s stand on issues that set me off so much as the sight of all those celibate middle-aged men in black holding forth on the dynamics between husband and wife.


  1. […] I confess. Every now and then I’ll cut loose with a rant. It’s not exactly Trump-worthy vitriol, but it’s a rant. Pope Francis — or more precisely the male dominated Catholic church that he has inherited — was the most recent object of my ire at “I Love Pope Francis — Or Do I?” […]

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