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When the Dudes Don’t Cut It
Pope Francis’ Letter to US Bishops Ignores the Women In the Room
Pope Francis’ Letter to US Bishops Ignores the Women In the Room
Pope Francis’ Letter to the US Bishops is the most seismic statement on the nature of the Church since Vatican II … but not for what it explicitly says. Rather, for what it points to that even Pope Francis doesn’t get: the dudes don’t cut it.
Underneath its high-church language is a simple three-point message:
You guys are unreal and have been for a hella long time.
You’re not being what the Church is supposed to be.
Here’s what it’s supposed to be.
But Francis misses a crucial conclusion—he, like the US bishops, is trapped by the organization that he and his brothers through the centuries have created.
You Guys Are Unreal
“‘It cannot be like that with you,’” he quotes the Gospel of Matthew to liken them to thugs scrambling for power and prestige. In case his audience is dense (and the US hierarchy is a case study in willful stupidity), Francis peppers the letter with these glowing descriptions of the US bishops: “seeking positions of honor,” “jealousy,” “envy,” “machinations,” “loss of credibility,” and the whopper, “division and dispersion [that are] not fruits and promptings of the Holy Spirit but rather of ‘the enemy of human nature.’” Translation: “Guys, you’re doing the exact opposite of what the Christ said and lived.”
But Francis misses a crucial conclusion — he, like the US bishops, is trapped by the organization that he and his brothers through the centuries have created.
Ain’t the Church You Should Be
If the above sounds like scolding, it’s just an appetizer for Francis. For the pasta course, the Pope tells the US Bishops they’ve made spaghetti of the church, with “stern decrees,” “new committees,” and “improving flow charts as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.” The laity have been saying exactly that since the 1970s, but the Pope’s now stating it starkly.
Here’s What the Church Should Be
The real worth of Francis’ letter, though, is the let-me-say-it-real-slow-so-that-even-you-get-it way he tells the bishops something they should already know: what the church is supposed to be. To get the jaw-drop of this, read Francis in full sentences:
“This involves our ability, or inability, as a community to forge bonds and create spaces that are healthy, mature and respectful of the integrity and privacy of each person … to bring people together and to get them enthused and confident about a broad, shared project that is at once unassuming, solid, sober and transparent. This requires not only a new approach to management, but also a change in our mind-set (metanoia), our way of praying, our handling of power and money, our exercise of authority and our way of relating to one another and to the world around us.” [italics mine]
“measures free of false premises or rigid formulations no longer capable of speaking to or stirring the hearts of men and women in our time. Affective communion with the feelings of our people, with their disheartenment, urges us to exercise a collegial spiritual fatherhood that does not offer banal responses or act defensively, but instead seeks to learn … to listen to the voice of the Lord.” [boldface and italics mine]
“a new ecclesial season needs bishops who can teach others how to discern God’s presence in the history of his people, and not mere administrators … our primary duty is to foster a shared spirit of discernment, rather than to seek … a democratic vote where some emerge as “winners” and others not. No! It is about finding a collegial and paternal way of embracing the present situation … [to]protect those in our care from losing hope and feeling spiritually abandoned.” [boldface and italics mine]
So Close, Yet So Far … Off the Mark
Popes just don’t bitch-slap like this. Yet, “bitch” describes what Francis misses … because his entire MAN-made institution is built to deny it. The things that Francis calls for can’t be done so long as the church is the way it is—a hierarchical, patriarchal, toxically masculine organization built in the image of only half the human race.
In the bulleted quotations above, I’ve boldfaced “fatherhood” and “paternal.” Pope Francis can’t expect the US bishops to carry out metanoia any more than we can expect Francis to behave as if he isn’t a creature and progenitor of patriarchy. It’s telling that, in place of himself, Francis sends a man (the preacher of the papal household) to lead the bishops’ retreat. Another dude in this bro’ fest is not the answer.
Popes just don’t bitch-slap like this. Yet, “bitch” describes what Francis misses … because his entire MAN-made institution is built to deny it.
The measures Francis calls for are feminine/female charisms—relationality, motherly nurture, “affective communion with the feelings of people,” and seeking to learn and listen. I’m not saying that women alone are capable of such and that men can’t/don’t relate or nurture. Nor am I implying that these are solely “women’s tasks.”
But look at the behaviors to which Francis contrasts his remedies: “not mere administrators,” “compromise,” “winners,” “handling power and money,” and “acting defensively.” If these terms sound like the institutionalized behaviors of powerful men, then admit that we expect men to behave this way because we, too, are products of patriarchy. We have met the enemy, and HE is us.
The Token Broad In the Conclave
Francis ends the letter with an appeal to the Virgin Mary:
“From the beginning, Mary accompanied and sustained the community of the disciples. By her maternal presence she helped the community not to lose its bearings by breaking up into closed groups or by thinking that it could save itself. She protected the community of the disciples from the spiritual isolation that leads to self-centeredness. By her faith, she helped them to persevere amid perplexity, trusting that God’s light would come. We ask her to keep us united and persevering as on the day of Pentecost, so that the Spirit will be poured forth into our hearts and help us in every time and place to bear witness to the resurrection.”
This is catholic-speak for “business as usual.” Up to this point, Francis had the bishops’ ear. But he had to call in the token babe again.
Don’t get me wrong; I adore Mary. She’s a bad-ass, but her badassery has been veiled in so much gauzy hagiography and pious piddle that the form in which she’s paraded around by church hierarchy as a sop to the masses (pun intended) belies what the church truly thinks about half the human race: We don’t give a fuck what you have to say or offer. Just sit there at the foot of the cross, and the dudes will do the rest, occasionally invoking Mary to sound motherly. Oh, yeah, we’ll also call the church “she/her/hers” [Francis himself does it in this letter], ‘cuz we’re dimly aware that G-d has feminine aspects but we don’t hafta consider them so long as we invoke a menstruating pronoun every now and then.
If the hierarchical church has lost credibility and is hemorrhaging membership (especially among the young), it’s because we aren’t stupid—the authoritative, blustering, old-man church is hardly authentic so long as it ignores the lived experience of women. It just ain’t real.
And if Francis has declared that the US bishops’ conduct is unreal, what mirror has he looked in lately?
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