Center of Gravity

Wednesday afternoon, when the Catholic cardinals were shifting the church’s “center of gravity,” as the New York Times headline put it yesterday, I was in a diner across the street from my office shifting my own center of gravity with a medium-rare cheeseburger and fries.  Slaw on the side, captioned TV monitors above the tables.  White smoke came with the check.  Two of us in the packed diner dared to lift our eyes.

I had reason to.  I’d said in public, repeatedly, that I thought the conclave–all cardinals appointed by JPII or Benedict–were far too conservative to reach to the global south for a new leader, just as I asserted they were too conservative to address a host of other ills the church is suffering from, sex abuse and financial wrong-doing being ills A and B.

Forty-eight hours into the decision, the latter point–that the new boss is the same as the old boss when it comes to social issues–is at risk of being lost in Francis’s “firsts,” as everyone’s calling them.  First Argentinian, first Jesuit, first Francis.  First Liberation theologist.

The pick of Bergoglio was brilliant–it was a nod to the heart of the Catholic Church, South America, without venturing too far from the traditional European seat.  Is the pope Italian?  Argentinian?  Latino?  All three is a good answer.

We’re told he’s a “compassionate conservative,” by Forbes magazine!  And others.  Like John Paul II, the Cardinals’ great recent example of charisma.  Bergoglio washed the feet of AIDS patients.  He’s a Jesuit, used to doing Catholicism his own way.  He’s modest and eschews the castle and robes of his predecessors.  Until yesterday he lived in a small apartment and cooked his own food.  Stanley Hauerwas commented today, “My hunch is that many of the agendas that are associated with American Catholicism will not exactly be his agendas.”

But as the world’s most recently minted billionaire, questions about the new pope remain: How will he raise awareness of global poverty and how much can one man, even the pope, do about it?  As Nathan Schneider reminds us, the pope is not the church. Too, what has the church been doing about global poverty; serving the poor and vulnerable has always been part of its mission.  Even this:  Is Bergoglio’s elevation just a gift to the global south or will it really increase church membership there?

If I’m any kind of Catholic, I’m of another variety: critical convert.  I went through catechism in college after hightailing it out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the Mennonite church (fist-bump, Hauerwas).  Which means I knew going in that Catholics had a long tradition of dissent and, well, hypocrisy.  To be honest, what faith doesn’t? But my devotion to the mother church ended up being short-lived; sexual awareness came right after conversion.  While I was out scoring birth control, with my Irish Catholic boyfriend’s approval, everything seemed ok.  I wanted my sex life to be private anyway, none of my priest’s or fellow congregants’ business.  But I soon realized that sneaking pills wasn’t just about me; Catholicism was linking shame with sex in damaging ways for women around the world.  That was a level and scale of violence and imposition I wasn’t ready to ignore for the sake of an institution I’d come to love.

Families around the world are weighing their health and privacy against their love for the church every day.  Sure we got all excited about a new pope.  And sure, a large number of Catholics try their hardest to obey the institution’s draconian, punishing “traditions.”  But Pope Francis, however devoted to the poor, is still a social conservative who refuses to accept that much of that poverty is caused by the inequality of women.  He may feed the poor but he won’t support their access to the tools that will lift them out of poverty.  Or to use a biblical metaphor, he’s giving them fish and preventing them from fishing for themselves.

As Mark Engler writes for Dissent:

He is from a region (Latin America) where the Catholic Church was infused with a social justice ethos in the post–Vatican II period, yet he comes from a country within that region (Argentina) whose church remained among the most conservative.

He is from a religious order (the Jesuits) regarded as having progressive leanings, yet he has been a conservative force within that order.

Yet the headlines are, for a church losing adherents in the West like the north pole is losing ice, a total wet dream.  “Breaks with tradition.” “Shows a decisive shift from Europe.” The US and Europe, tired and disgusted by the ongoing scandals, welcome this message of change and firsts. Which is why New York’s Cardinal Dolan has been hedging his “change” message around network news.

To anti-choice groups, however, the selection of Bergoglio is all about continuity. “Cardinal Bergoglio has invited his clergy and laity to oppose both abortion and euthanasia,” wrote the ever-prolific Steven Ertelt at LifeNews, before summarizing Benedict’s “consistent record of advancing the pro-life teachings” of the church.  More of the same, they say.

Liberation theology, as Abby Ohlheiser explains at Slate, “puts the emphasis of the Christian concern with sin on social problems, rather than individual ones.”  But pope Francis’s liberation theology bona fides aren’t exactly above question.

What else do we know about Francis?  There’s that dubious “dirty war” stuff just now, at least in the US media, being publicly discussed. This thoroughly modern pope, announced with a tweet, has a history some may not wish to revisit.

Secrets, denials, cover-ups, opaque processes, shame, oppression.  Where is the change in that?  Continued inequality for half the population.  Bergoglio gives the Holiness flavor, a southern vibe (and a taste for tango), but he won’t substantially change what so many years ago stopped my genuflections.  As Dolan told Charlie Rose on TV yesterday,  “Some have said that Pope Francis has got the mind of a Benedict and heart of a John Paul the second.” Same as the old boss(es).

While Bergoglio’s selection may have excited Argentina’s 31 million Catholics, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t shifted the Vatican’s center of gravity very much at all.

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