The Pope Francis Balancing Act

How will Pope Francis’ progressivism be embraced by Christians?

The message of the Broadway classic, Fiddler on the Roof, is contained in the title. The fiddler symbolizes the effort required to play sweet music while simultaneously balancing religious traditions on the pitched slope of modernity. Now, with Pope Francis, there is a Fiddler on the Roof moment for Catholic America. The left-wing and the right-wing will have to find balance just as the fiddler adjusted to the sloping roof in order to stand erect. It won’t be easy.

We Catholics have been fighting among ourselves since St. Paul (Acts 15) argued against Mosaic observances, but we maintain unity by respecting the authority of the pope. That respect, incidentally, distinguishes us from other Christians. Pope Francis has changed the emphasis of Catholicism by setting new priorities. Even without considering doctrine, he has called for an about-face, wherein the right-foot emphasis of his two predecessors has now shifted 180º to a left-foot emphasis. Proof of the shift is found in our collective scrambles to interpret Catholicism so as to favor our own predispositions.

Take, for instance, the two contrasting descriptions of the speech from out-going USCCB President, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The loudest right-wing voice from the Catholic League praises the farewell as evidence the fight against the Obama Administration started under Dolan will continue unchanged. John A. Allen, Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter, however, notes that the emphasis on religious liberty in the cardinal’s farewell address shifted away from that issue in the United States to focus on other countries. Which interpretation was correct, or are both consistent with the balancing act now necessary?

Similarly, Archbishop Chaput who (in)famously stated that conservatives were confused by Pope Francis, delivered a battle cry to combat poverty and social injustice that put him back in line with the papal emphasis. Chaput delivered his presentation in Mexico and it merited praise from NCR columnist, Michael Sean Winters, whose piece carried the title, “Hell to Freeze Over Soon!” suggesting the rarity of his agreement with Philadelphia’s cultural warrior. Note, however, that Chaput like Dolan pointed his message to conditions outside the United States. This avoided the need for retraction while simultaneously relocating the speaker with the pope and still in line for promotion by a cardinal’s red hat.

The game goes on in the media. The Associated Press report on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter, Evangelii Gaudium, stated that the pope had affirmed that abortion was “non-negotiable.” Since this exact phrase does not appear in the papal letter, one can only assume that it was placed there because the writer felt it was required to balance the strong denunciation of trickle-down Capitalism and neo-liberalism emphasized by progressive Catholics.

In the same sort of balance-seeking, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, a Vatican official downplayed the possibility of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics such as had been raised by the bishops of Germany in response to Pope Francis’ initial request for input on the subject. That response did not end the hassle, as the German bishops retorted that Müller’s article ran counter to the pope’s request for dialogue.  

This Catholic balancing act will continue with high visibility as bishops order the faithful in their dioceses to respond to the questions posed by the pope in preparation for the next synod. One can expect, for instance, that response to the issue of gay marriage will be interpreted differently according to each respondents starting point on right or left. The overwhelming majority will oppose Catholic marriage for gays and lesbians within the church, but the issue is about legal recognition of civil marriage in society. I have participated in such discussions and a key factor for many religious people is deciding if they think “being gay” is a genetic condition or a moral choice. In other words, are people born with attraction to the same sex in God’s plan or is such attraction “unnatural” and something that can be removed by therapy and refusal to sin? The pastoral response to legalized same-sex marriage, I submit, is greatly affected by how sexual orientation is defined. For a Catholic Fiddler on the Roof it is the difference between breaking the tradition or “bending it a little.” Our unity comes from singing “L’chaim to life!” with Evangelii Gaudium.

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