Monthly Archives: September 2013

Pope Francis and Me, A Feminist Kill-Joy

Dykelets, it’s been a while since you heard from us here on WordPress. As it happens, tweeting and posting reaction gifs on Tumblr are better suited to our impulsive and self-indulgent communication style. But sometimes a queer Catholic lady with opinions needs more than 140 characters and a clip from Golden Girls. Especially a queer Catholic lady with feminist kill-joy opinions on Pope Francis.

Am I really going to be a kill-joy about Pope Francis, you ask? Yes, dykes, I’m afraid I am. Let me begin, for etiquette’s sake, with certain qualifiers: I do like him. I like the foot washing, the cold calls, the ’84 Renault. I like his black shoes and his grandpa glasses. I like seeing progressive Catholics a little less miserable and right-wing Catholics a little moreso. (Petty, of course, and childish, but I’ve never claimed to be above such things.)

For these reasons, the reformist part of me feels some of the temptation I see in many other progressive Catholics: the temptation to celebrate changes in style as though they corresponded to changes in substance. But the more radical queer dyke part of me just won’t permit me to succumb to Francis Fever.*

That can be hard, because the joy over Francis is powerful and often seductive. People love the guy so damn muchJon Stewart loves him. Chris Hayes loves him. James Martin loves him. The Catholic boys in my Facebook newsfeed love him. Gay male friends of mine have told me Francis makes them feel welcome in the Catholic church again, makes them proud to be Catholic.

(Are we seeing the pattern, dykes? I hope we are all seeing the pattern.)

So I’ve felt…kinda bad, actually, about both my inability to share in this joy and my persistent attempts to kill this joy in others. Because I don’t deny Francis is likable. Or that he’s a significant improvement over Pope Benedict in terms of his tone, priorities, simplicity of life, and pastoral sensitivity. I don’t think such improvements are entirely without real-world consequences (could I qualify that statement any further?).

But with sympathetic eye contact and understanding nods, with my hand placed lovingly on my gay male friends’ collective forearm, I must ask: is that all we wanted? Someone more pastorally sensitive than Joseph Ratzinger? Have we really just been holding out for somebody who can discuss gay men without recourse to the language of objective disorder?

Well, depends on who “we” are. Progressive Catholic women like Erin Saiz Hanna of the Women’s Ordination Conference, Jamie L. Manson of NCR, and Mary Hunt of WATER, for example, have not shared the unequivocal joy of their male peers. They have not, in the analyses linked above, allowed the pope’s Better-Than-Ratzinger moment on gay men to overshadow his familiar dismissal of women’s ordination.

Similarly, Katie Grimes at Women in Theology, in contradistinction to many a well-meaning male liberal blogger, did not leap for joy at the prospect of a “theology of women.” And over at Feminism and Religion, Linn Marie Tonstad pointed out the shared “grounding theological logic” of official teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood–logic which Francis’ widely applauded “who am I to judge?” did not at all disrupt.

So. With these points in mind, I have to ask: what is the benefit of having a pope who de-emphasizes heterosexist teachings without ever challenging their substance? A pope who moves the needle ever-so-slightly on the subject of gay men, but who leaves the “grounding theological logic” of Catholic heterosexism untroubled, both in what he says about women’s ordination and in what he leaves unsaid about homosexuality? Why is it cause for joy?

These questions ain’t offered up as rhetorical snark, by the way. I’m honestly asking: what is the benefit? What precisely does it accomplish for the church? For whom is it good news, and why? Answers to these questions might help explain the gendered reactions to Francis, and they might tell us something about whose interests take priority in many progressive circles, Catholic and otherwise.

Answers to these questions might also kill our joy, or at least deflate it a bit, and I think they should. Because as far as I can tell, shifts in tone and emphasis are good news for people with enough social privilege that their problems with the church have stayed mostly on the level of tone and emphasis.

Good news for liberal straight cis men, who don’t have to feel quite as embarrassed by the illiberal rhetoric of their church’s hierarchy.

Good news for gay cis men, who may no longer be barred from seminary, who may look forward to enjoying sermons, pastoral letters, and encyclicals without hearing overt condemnation.

Good news for cautiously pro-gay priests who can feel more comfortable sharing their meticulously worded, painstakingly Catechism-friendly sermons in support of “LGBT” (read: usually gay, sometimes lesbian, always cis) people in the church.

That is, Francis’ approach is good news for people who want to feel better about the church they love, and who finally can.

And look, hope is important. Finding energy and support in your religious tradition is important. I don’t want to dismiss straight or gay cis men who have been horrified by Vatican rhetoric in recent years, even when that rhetoric was most damaging for people other than them.

I also don’t want to conflate the experiences of straight and gay men, because while both have access to positions of ecclesial power and authority which are denied to me, gay men have struggles in the Catholic church that straight men don’t share. Moreover, I have privilege a-plenty myself, and I don’t want to suggest that because a cis man does not experience the same level of exclusion that I do, his problems with the Vatican haven’t actually been problems.

But friends. If one’s problems are on the level of rhetoric, then perhaps so are one’s solutions. The disproportionate joy of Francis fanboys is convincing me, more and more, that many progressive Catholic men, gay and straight, might be pretty well satisfied for the church to retain its fundamentally patriarchal character, so long as its leaders expand the longstanding Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy to include gay laypeople as well as gay clergy.

For women and for queers with less social privilege, such solutions will not do. By all means, let’s welcome changes in tone; such changes are meaningful. But they are partial. They should not make us so grateful that we forget that changes in style, however refreshing, mostly benefit those of us with the most privilege. They should not make us so joyful that we lose interest in the deep theological and structural changes still needed in the Catholic church.

Unless our prophetic calls for church justice have really been reformist calls for a More Civil Discourse. For a shift in magisterial emphasis from The Sanctity of Marriage to those aspects of Catholic Social Teaching progressives can feel better about. Unless that’s what we wanted, after all. Not to change, but to feel better.

* The “more radical queer dyke part of me,” in case you’re interested, usually takes the form of a voice in my head who sings Peggy Lee and shames me for supporting marriage equality.

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