Hope or hammer: As an American Catholic, I prefer the former, but am accustomed to the latter in the increasingly doctrinaire church of the past couple of decades.
Under Pope John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, doctrinal orthodoxy gained significant latitude in church governance. John Paul’s charisma made his conservatism an easier sell.
The less appealing Benedict depended on stridency to gain traction. He was the exactingly orthodox defender of the faith.
He’d settle for a smaller, purer church. If the reforms of Vatican II aimed to give the church to the people in the pews, Benedict aimed to get it back under tighter authority.
That’s when the hammer came down on Catholics. When Benedict was on the throne, the Vatican abided no dissent.
Church hierarchy hewed to the company line or heard from the Holy See. American bishops took the church on a sharp right turn down a one-way road.
Committed Catholics were either with the church or against it. Being a bona fide church member meant adhering to official church positions on issues such as abortion, divorce, contraception, and same-sex marriage.
It meant supporting those positions in the secular world, and woe to those who didn’t. Clerics refused the sacrament of Communion to Catholics they judged unworthy to receive it.
They threatened loss of eternal salvation to those who were tempted to vote their conscience instead of adhering to church convictions. In the United States, the Catholic Church became as polarizing as the country’s politics.
From the pulpit, issues were portrayed as black and white, right or wrong. Never nuanced. The miter-wearing crowd preached in absolutes to retain absolute control.
During Benedict’s papacy, traditionalists had a field day. They imposed a conservative agenda to restore strict allegiance to Rome.
They deemed congregations in need of ecclesiastical discipline. They flummoxed the faithful with convoluted liturgical changes, in a swipe at earlier reforms that made prayer easier to grasp.
They lorded over a group of U.S. nuns to show them who was boss. Toledo Bishop Leonard Blair was instrumental in a demeaning two-year “doctrinal assessment” of women religious.
His brother bishops busied themselves feeding myopic beliefs with fear. They called health-care reform an assault on religious liberty.
Over time, the church hierarchy wagged a collective finger at more souls than were welcomed to worship. Along the way to righteous purity, the controlling caretakers of the church abandoned the core of Catholicism.
At its essence, the church has always been about humility. It’s been about fighting social injustice, alleviating the pain of poverty, spreading peace, showing mercy, being nonjudgmental.
It has been about building relationships based on unconditional love. But over the years, church authoritarians sacrificed community for litmus tests.
It was tough to be Catholic. Still is. I’ve been asked why women would stay in a church that devalues their gender by denying them full participation in the ministry.
Yet despite church prohibitions that override pious reflection, despite doctrinal intolerance that nixes inclusion, despite institutional inequities that demoralize those who are driven to serve, one thing keeps Catholics like me in the fold: hope.
We hope that compassion will supplant condemnation. We hope that pastoral outreach will prevail against dictates.
Pope Francis reignited that hope. In a stunning interview with a Jesuit publication, he talked about what he called the church’s narrow focus on divisive social issues and “small-minded rules.”
The hierarchy’s fixation with these was driving people away, the Pope said.
“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” he said. “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”
Pope Francis gets it. The hammer pounds people away. Hope of finding a home brings all sorts of people back.
This Pope, observed New York Daily News writer Michael Coren, “sees the human within the theological, the person within the religious, the living, breathing, confused, confusing man or woman within the moral law.”
Pope Francis won’t forsake the fundamental teachings of the church. But he will further the healing of wounded hearts with a welcoming, more inclusive church that leads through inspiration.
At least I’m hopeful his leadership will open the door to dialogue and a new direction.
Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: firstname.lastname@example.org