During the time between the announcement, made mere hours after the his departure from the US, that Pope Francis had secretly met with Kim Davis, and Friday’s official statement from the Vatican clarifying the nature and implications of the meeting, there was a
flurry blizzard of press coverage, speculation, and astute analysis from experienced Vatican-watchers.
Much of the discussion that I saw was focused on internal church politics, because that seemed, and indeed turned out to be, the relevant interpretive lens through which to make sense of the meeting with Davis in light of everything else that Francis had said and done during his trip.
What prompted this post was the coincidental appearance of a tweet and an email on my screen within minutes of each other on Wednesday, at which point the meeting had been confirmed by the Vatican with no comment but no other information was yet forthcoming. A theologian I follow on Twitter asked:
— Stephen Okey (@StephenOkey) September 30, 2015
and a friend of mine, Doug, wrote in an email (emphasis mine):
I’ve been an agnostic my whole life, and by that I mean I really have never been able to subscribe to any recognized religion, but I’ve never ruled anything entirely out, either. Recently I had something of a sea change in my thinking on this subject, and I’ve come to have a somewhat higher regard for religion(s) at least insofar as they seem to be on the same moral and spiritual wavelength with the things I believe about right and wrong and how to treat people. And here comes Francis, coincidentally propounding exactly those aspects of the Christian church that I can actually get on board with. And then this business with this awful woman and everything she represents, which is the side of the church(s) that has kept me far away from it all my life. It truly made me reassess my attitude towards him. Which is too bad, I was kind of liking the feeling of maybe having half a toe in that door, even if I was never going to step all the way in.
It made me wonder: whose answer to Stephen’s question should we be caring about? People like me, who absorbed the love it, hate it, but never leave it Catholic ecclesiality from our rosary-draped cradles? Or people like Doug, who are definitively outside the church but have been speculatively eying the church door and thinking perhaps it might have something to do with Good News, after all?
In Faggioli’s analysis, linked above, he wrote about
the risks related to the pope’s visit to a country whose liberal progressives are struggling to understand that he is very different from his predecessors (and sometimes uncritically lining up the pope with their positions on some issues) and where conservative-traditionalists understand Francis much better and indeed try to close down his message and send false signals, which, paradoxically, are picked up much more by liberal-progressives than by traditionalists (who know a lot about power in the church).
(emphasis mine) I think this “struggle” and “paradox” can be easily explained by considering the lived experience of liberal progressive Catholics like me. I’ve felt besieged for the last 30 years by very nearly everything coming out of Rome. Now here comes Francis, and finally, finally, I’m hearing from Rome what I grew up being taught. I finally, finally, start to relax a little bit…..
….and then this happens.
Progressive Catholics like me, who have been hurt by Rome so many times, are responding quite reasonably when we respond to these “false signals” as if that’s what is happening again.
I learned about the Davis meeting on Twitter, and I think it was only the fact that it was accompanied by commentary from a variety of folks saying “I don’t believe it, either it didn’t happen or it was a setup” that kept me suspended on the verge of feeling betrayed for the first bunch of hours until more information came out. If I’d only seen the straight news reports? I would have been devastated.
What harms should we be concerned about? The harm done by displacing Francis’ carefully crafted and beautifully pastoral words and deeds from the news and public conversations? Or the harm done to wounded souls who have been hurt and betrayed by the church so many times that this apparent betrayal — a secret meeting with a politically-charged figure from the Right side of the culture wars, completely at odds with everything we saw him say or do in public to de-escalate those same culture wars — poured salt into every one of those re-opened wounds?
Even the clarification from the Vatican, making it clear that it was not in fact the betrayal it first appeared, doesn’t remedy those harms. As my friend Doug plaintively asked, “Why do I not feel like it’s all better now?” Because we were still put through the emotional wringer, that’s why.
It is sadly unsurprising to me that this meeting was engineered by persons presumably operating out of the “smaller, purer church” ecclesiology associated with Pope Benedict, as it has likely alienated far more people outside the church than it has evangelized. Francis’ more sacramental ecclesiology and pastoral approach seem a much more effective form of evangelization.
There’s no doubt that discerning the currents of internal church politics are important for understanding what happened. And there’s no doubt that internal church politics are a force to be reckoned with, as politics invariably are in any human institution.
But in our focus on the intrigues over ecclesiastical power, let us not overlook how such power plays affect ordinary folks, both inside and outside the church. After all, it is the care of those souls with which the church is charged.
Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.