Beyond the Bedroom

March 15, 2013

Frank Bruni

IT was too much to hope that after the white smoke rose and the TV anchors began nervously filling time and the cameras lingered for what seemed an eternity on that balcony over St. Peter’s Square, the man who stepped onto it would be someone open to revisiting the most archaic, obsolete matters of Roman Catholic doctrine. The group electing him was assembled by the last two popes, both conservatives. Its choice was bound to be more carbon copy than new page.

But it’s not too much to hope that the man who did appear there — and who has lived a willfully humble material existence until now, and took the name of the poor’s patron saint — will change the church’s emphasis. That’s the great opportunity before Pope Francis, whose biography and style make him an ideal candidate to point the church toward a new conversation and a better focus for its spiritual energies. To have it dwell less in the bedroom, more in the soup kitchen.

It’s time for the church to stop talking so much about sex. It’s the perfect time, in fact.

It’s on matters of sexual morality that the church has lost much of its authority. And it’s on matters of sexual morality that it largely wastes its breath. By insisting on mandatory celibacy for a priesthood winnowed and sometimes warped by that, by opposing the use of contraceptives for birth control, by casting judgment on homosexuals and by decrying divorce while running something of an annulment mill, the church’s leaders have enraged and alienated Catholics whose common sense and whose experience of the real world tell them that none of that is wise, kind or necessary.

The church’s leaders have also set themselves up to be dismissed as hypocrites, unable to uphold the very virtues they promulgate. Just weeks before the conclave, the most senior Catholic prelate in Britain, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, resigned his post, forgoing a trip to Rome and a vote on the next pope, because he’d been accused of, and admitted to, sexual misconduct. His case suggested the potential loneliness of a Catholic clergyman’s circumstances, and those circumstances, in the eyes of many Catholics, cast priests as odd, flawed messengers and counselors on the subject of a person’s intimate life.

The new pope’s own story includes a bold lesson on Catholics’ estrangement from, and defiance of, church edicts in this regard. More than 90 percent of Argentines identify themselves as Catholic, and in 2010, as the country’s politicians debated the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, Pope Francis — who was then a cardinal, and arguably the most prominent church official in the country — lobbied vociferously, even venomously, against that proposed law. He called it nothing less than a “plan of the devil.” It nonetheless passed, with some observers speculating that the stridency of his opposition worked in its favor. Argentina is now one of 11 countries that have legalized gay marriage. Two of the others, Spain and Portugal, also have populations that are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, at least nominally.

The child sexual abuse crisis, of course, has factored mightily into the church’s eroded credibility on sexual morality. And the media’s sustained examination of that crisis has made it difficult for church leaders to redirect attention toward the church’s concern for economic justice, its ministry to the needy and the extraordinary work that many of the church’s servants perform on those fronts.

But new cases and new revelations are ebbing or certain to ebb. Fewer cardinals and bishops now indulge the kind of denial that protected molesters and abetted cover-ups. And there’s not a watchful parent anywhere who would unquestioningly let a son or daughter go off with Father Bruce for long periods of time. Years ago, such permission aggravated the problem: priests — men of God — were trusted in situations where no other adult with an unusually intense interest in children would be. That epoch is over, that innocence lost.

POPE Francis comes along at an opportune juncture. There’s a growing consciousness and worry about inequities of wealth in a world in which the estimated 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty, with an income of $1.25 a day or less, outnumber the roughly 1.2 billion Catholics.

That desperation is fertile territory for the church, whose voice is most persuasive and essential on the landscapes of hunger, homelessness, sickness, war. To many Catholics, active and lapsed, the beauty of the faith and the essence of Jesus Christ reside in a big-hearted compassion that has been eclipsed and often contradicted by church leaders’ excursions into the culture wars.

Pope Francis could pull back on those excursions. He’d be wise to, and he’s well positioned to. In Argentina he was known in part for his rejection of material wealth and his concern for those without it. He opted for a simple apartment over a baronial residence. Did his own cooking. Rode the bus. Advised supporters not to travel all the way to Rome for the ceremony in which he became a cardinal.

The money necessary for the trip, he told them, was better donated to a good cause.

And during his first 48 hours as pope, he clung to that sort of humility, riding with other cardinals in a minivan rather than alone in a papal chariot. The vigor with which fellow cardinals and Vatican spokesmen heralded this suggested their eagerness for a new image for the church and their understanding that the pivot from Benedict XVI to Francis — from furs to frugality — might provide it.

It’s a gilded enclave that Francis is entering, one of grand rooms, majestic artwork, regal costumes. From my time on the papal plane a decade ago, I remember sumptuous meals wheeled up to the first-class section where Vatican officials sat. They ate well.

And that has turned off many Catholics: the perception that these officials are coddled, arrogant and out of touch. Francis could challenge that and, in doing so, have a real impact.

I know more than a few Catholics who, despite no other involvement in the church, make it a point to have their children christened. I always figured them to be superstitious. They’re hedging their bets.

But there’s more to it. On the far side of all the church scandals and all its misspent energy, these Catholics still see a fundamental set of values, a compass, that they don’t want to lose touch with or give up on. The church’s stubborn attachment to certain negotiable traditions and unenlightened positions has distanced them, but they’re not entirely gone. It’ll be interesting to see how, and if, Francis tries to bring them back.

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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