The white smoke went up and the surprise of an Argentine Pope sank in. Many doubted that Pope Francis would be any more open-minded than his predecessors. Steeped in the politics of Argentina as the young head of Jesuits there, he blocked liberation theologians under the Argentinean military dictatorship. He came up under the Vatican system that had produced a tidal wave of sexual abuse of children and money laundering for criminals.
What good could come from Rome?
There are increasing signs that maybe, just maybe, the Gospel could come from Rome.
In a spontaneous interview in late July, Pope Francis said "Who am I to judge?" in reference to gay people. A few days ago, the Pope gave a long interview in America, a Jesuit Catholic magazine, where he called for mercy instead of judgment and continued to talk about compelling moral arguments to serve the poor. He spoke of including the "feminine genius" for decision making. He warned that the Catholic Church's "obsession" with gay people, abortion and contraception is creating an imbalanced moral structure that "is likely to fall like a house of cards" if the church does not offer mercy and welcome to all.
I can only say that every crack in the door or window, every generous (even if ambiguous) hint of openness from Pope Francis is encouraging -- and we know will make many in the Vatican and the hierarchy nervous! More cause for rejoicing! That the Pope would take even a nuanced position in opposition to decades of the slammed door policy against LGBTQ people is welcome, welcome, welcome. We love surprises like this, and Pope Francis, we are listening. Are you listening to us?
I would like to believe that you might read this word of hope -- just as I read yours -- so I speak to you as faith leader to faith leader. Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) faithful turned to the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) in 40 countries when their Catholic priests and families betrayed them. We listen hopefully -- but cautiously -- to your words of grace and want to share our experience and vision with you.
Pope Francis, I am confident you understand the hopes you are raising. As you dip your toe in the river of spiritual healing and change, I pray that you will not lose courage, or just be swept away, but you will stand for justice. For now, you have a special opportunity to speak both from the Vatican as a new Pope and to it as an "outsider." This can only last for a time before you "own" more than you can reasonably critique. Many say your decision to live outside the Vatican palace is about humility, and you have spoken of your desire to live simply in community, but I imagine it is also about gaining some distance from the "stream of corruption" in the Vatican about which you spoke early on.
Your inside knowledge and outside critique make this the perfect time for you to convene a Vatican III level of consultation on the Catholic Church and women, children and the poor as a way to express the core Gospel values of solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. It would create excitement among young people, many of whom have felt alienated and have left the church. It would give hope to the millions of women who are the backbone of churches throughout the world. Finally, it would give hope to the poor.
Pope Francis, you have a long road to walk. Already, the forces of legalism have forced your hand to take a more strident -- and typical -- position on abortion. Your concern for a "throw away culture" as an equation for terminating a pregnancy reminds me that in all your concern with "narrow-minded rules," you really do not include the narrow-minded rules that circumscribe women's lives. You say that every unborn child has the face of Jesus -- what about their mothers?
When you said "The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions," you came close to addressing the deepest flaw in the Vatican: the refusal to include and share authority and ministry with women. It is time to talk about the church's refusal to consider women fully human in the eyes of God. It is time to stop placing sin at the feet of women.
Will the men of the Vatican stand for that discussion?
Pope Francis, the poverty that so deeply concerns you is directly related to the Catholic Church's subjugation of women. Patriarchal structures cost women their dignity, their health, their well-being, and the well-being of their children and families.
And although your statement about withholding judgment on the spiritual lives of LGBTQ people amazed and encouraged the world, the oppression of sexual minorities can be traced back to the rejection and subjugation of women and all things feminine. LGBTQ people will not be free until women are free.
Pope Francis, you say you care about the poor, but it is women who overwhelmingly comprise the poor. You say you care about children, but children overwhelmingly are the ones who live in poverty. Will you get to the root of the "narrow-minded rules" that have blocked the Gospel for eons? Will you read about the leadership of women in the Bible and tap your own tradition of love for Mary to finally break down the dehumanization of women?
The spirit of John XXIII that surprisingly opened theological and practical windows and doors, letting in fresh air, is still urgently needed. If the Church is truly the "People of God," as Vatican II proclaimed, Pope Francis, you have an opportunity to allow the yearnings of the People of God and a truly compassionate church to be realized through Vatican III. Truly, a Catholic Church that can re-invent itself in the full image of God -- regardless of gender -- would join MCC in "transforming ourselves as we transform the world."