20 March, 2013

A new pope----A new Church ??

INTRODUCTION:  Interview with Fr. Han Kung

First of all, here is a comment on the election of Pope Francis from Hans Kung on CBC radio. It is instructive that Fr. Kung, the last remaining peritus of Vatican II, and who was highly critical of Pope John II and his own classmate and fellow professor, Benedict XVI, has a real but slightly guarded optimism for the reign of Pope Francis. Listen to the interview here:


First impressions of the new pope seem to be unusually positive. Surveys show that the vast majority of American Catholics have a positive attitude toward him. There are a number of immediate reasons for this: First is his projection as a very humble man who is aware of the People of God. How many times have you witnessed a pope, a bishop or even a priest asking lay people not just to "pray" for them but to "bless" them. Second, is the way he tries to express his own connection to the People of God, by paying his own hotel bill, riding on  the bus with other cardinals like he rode the bus "to work" in Argentina, walking freely among the crowd kissing so many babies and personally visiting a cardinal who is ill. Finally, the manner in which he has already taken small steps to simplify papal protocol.

Social Ethics. Much has been made of the Pope's Mother Teresa style concern for the poor. But it seems to me the foundation of his concern for the poor rests in what might be called a historical-contextual approach to theology. Francis seems not only to consider eternal abstract principles and their universal application to all situations. Rather, he seems to approach theology after the "modern" tradition of social ethics as initiated by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarm and continued in the great social encyclicals almost all later popes. This has been part-and parcel of the  modern and contemporary Jesuit Jesuit approach to theology with their emphasis on social justice and the "Preferential Option for the Poor."

Personal Ethics. With regard to personal ethics, the hierarchy and popes have generally been "conservative." This was the public stance of Francis when he was Archbishop in Argentina  especially in the period of the conflict with secular authorities. During this time, especially, he adhered to, preached and defended the "traditional" teachings of the Church. He opposed abortion, contraception, gay marriage and even said the adoption of children by same-sex partners was equivalent to "child abuse."  Whether Francis' position as pope will be to continue the active political, financial and PR opposition to these issues as Benedict did or to let these issues rest on the "back burner" so to speak, is unclear. Whether he might tolerate or even encourage dialogue over these issues (as well as priestly celibacy and the ordination of women as deacons and priests) is still unclear. But he has the reputation of being a mediator.

For too long the Church has insisted that the only way to discuss controversial issues related to personal morality, especially those in any way touching on sexuality is through the classist approach. In this objectiveness view there are certain principles and actions that are intrinsically wrong or evil. This is an "act centered" morality where the acts themselves are always and forever evil and sinful without regard to person, circumstance or context. For example, masturbation is always mortally sinful except that at times lack of  freewill consent may lessen culpability in performing an intrinsically gravely evil act.  There are a number of  contemporary serious theologians in the Catholic tradition (a number of them under censure by the Vatican and/or the American Bishops) who bring to bear the principle of justice into the discussion of personal morality, especially related to heterosexual and homosexual morality. In this approach, justice, love, persons and context become necessary elements in the attempt to understand the morality of personal behavior (and, BTW, the social and public nature of even the most intimate behavior). The deep origins of this approach can be seen in Pius XI's Encyclical  Casti Cannbubii. And even Pope Benedict "read the Signs of the Times" when he said that condoms might, at times, be used to help reduce the spread of AIDS. Were he not aware of and had not taken into account what has been happening with actual, real people during this epidemic, he most likely would never have offered the possible use of condoms.


It is still too early to know how and where Pope Francis might lead the Church. By and large he must contend with a conservative, entrenched Vatican bureaucracy. He is being hailed as a "reform" pope. If he is successful, he will remain a straight-forward, humble man of the people and be able to garner the support of more progressive bishops, theologians and the Laity. He will most undoubtedly aim the bark of Peter in the direction of serving the poor and marginalized where he will receive the support bishops in the Southern hemisphere and resistance from conservative Catholics in the U.S.A. and other highly industrialized Western Nations which may base their positions on conservative political ideology more than their Faith and social justice within and among nations.

The power of the "current tradition" and "creeping infallibility" plus the support of the hierarchy in developing nations, especially in Africa, may make it difficult for Francis even to allow, tolerate or encourage discussion of issues related to sexuality, ordination of women, celibacy etc. I, as well as most Catholics, accept the dictum that public opinion polls do not form the basis for Catholic doctrine. However, with the legal actions in many countries to decriminalize  same-sex behavior, approve "gay marriage," and give more protections to women's equality, it behooves the Church to at least take into account the results of polls as one factor in "reading the Signs of the Times" to determine how the Church will deal with these issues. For example, in the United States almost 2/3 of of American Catholics accept the legitimacy of same-sex marriage (higher than any other Christian denomination in the U.S.) and the vast majority of married Catholics have or do practice artificial birth control. The real hope is that Pope Francis will come to use and apply the same principles  to personal morality that he and the majority of theologians apply to social issues.