Pope Francis' "attitude adjustment program" is gaining traction
Two phrases the pope casually threw out at the beginning of his pontificate now look like seeds that have begun to bear fruit.
(Photo by GREGORIO BORGIA / POOL/EPA/Newscom/MaxPPP)
The widespread negative reaction to the latest pronouncement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) -- that the Church does not have the power to bless same-sex unions -- clearly surprised many people. Pope Francis was probably among those who were taken back a bit, especially by the fact that more than a few bishops voiced displeasure with the CDF text.
After all, he did authorize its publication.It's fairly normal for theologians to speak out against documents that come from the Vatican's doctrinal office. But it's not so normal when bishops do so -- especially when it means "dissenting" from a clear Church teaching or discipline.
But that is what has happened. A number of bishops stepped forward (and others continue to join them) to say they disagree with the latest CDF statement, which was merely a re-iteration of the Church's official teaching on homosexuality.And let's be honest. Except for its stinging line that God "cannot and does not bless sin", the authors of this statement seem to have tried -- though ham-handedly -- not to intentionally repeat the offensive language used in previous texts on homosexuality.
Bishops signal desire to "develop" teaching on homosexuality
In fact, for the first time ever, we have a CDF document actually acknowledging that there can be "positive elements" in homosexual relationships, elements that "are in themselves to be valued and appreciated".
Of course, the authors of this badly argued text basically admit just one line later that they really cannot appreciate this because -- well, you know -- these "positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the Creator's plan".
So, in the end, this latest CDF statement has not changed anything in the Vatican's longstanding, official line on homosexuality. Not a thing. And yet, there was criticism and outrage -- even from bishops.This is very significant, because it means that the Church's "official teachers of the faith" believe this teaching needs to be re-evaluated and developed.
There were not many men with miters on their heads who were brave enough (or stupid enough) to say that publicly eight or so years ago. And for good reason. The author of the Church's current articulation of the teaching on homosexuality was, at the time, the pope himself.
But, hey, who am I to judge?
Two key phrases from early in the pontificate
And that brings us the point of what is happening here.That phrase -- Who am I to judge? -- is very well known all over the world by now. Pope Francis said it in July 2013 during an in-flight press conference on his way back to Rome from Brazil, after completing the first international visit of his pontificate.
"If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?" were the exact words.This was one of two key phrases that Francis uttered shortly after being elected Bishop of Rome that, in hindsight, look like seeds that were casually cast out and have now begun to bear fruit.
The other phrase came in a blockbuster interview that was published a little over a month later. It was with Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the venerable Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica.He asked the pope about his thoughts on Church reform.
"The first reform must be the attitude," Francis said."The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward."Both these comments -- on the plane and in the interview -- seemed innocent enough at the time.
They did not signal any desire to change Church teaching or practices -- on anything. In fact, they sounded more like the pope's disarming attempt to avoid having to show where he stood on the controversial issues of homosexuality and Church reform.
Taken together, and in light of the strong reactions against the recent statement by the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, these two comments from the early months appear to be much more significant than when they were originally spoken.
The pope's "attitude adjustment program"
The statement "Who am I to judge?" opened a door or, as Francis would say, it "initiated a process" -- a process, and a safe space, to begin questioning the Church's attitude towards homosexual persons.
And the attitude of many Church leaders (including bishops and cardinals) began to change -- what the pope calls the first reform.Francis unobtrusively launched an "attitude adjustment program" and guided it, mainly by his own example. Concerning sensitive and controversial issues, such as homosexuality, he has not issued decrees or made significant changes to laws or teachings.
But he has used words and gestures to encourage the slow "process" of changing attitudes, especially those of the Church's pastors. And, as we have seen in the last several days, it is clearly working.
"The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths," Francis told Spadaro in the 2013 interview.
"Instead of being just a Church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a Church that finds new roads," he said back then.
"A constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return"
The pope is well aware that changing attitudes, which is indispensable to bringing about real reform, requires time. And he firmly believes that just like processes, "time is greater than space".
"This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results," Francis says in Evangelii gaudium.
This apostolic exhortation, published in November 2013, was the Argentine pope's first major document and the one that remains, to this day, the blueprint of his reforming pontificate and his vision for the future of the Church.
"Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces," he points out." Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return," he says.
The negative reaction to (or, rather, rejection of) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's reassertion of the prohibition on blessing same-sex unions is a sign the pope's "attitude adjustment program" is working, even on himself, it would seem.It is part of a long process towards reform -- that expanding chain -- that offers no possibility of return.
And to think that this process was initiated nearly eight years ago at some 35,000 feet in the air when a pope simply asked, "Who am I to judge?"
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