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.


20 responses to “Pope Francis and Me, A Feminist Kill-Joy

  • Cara

    I was really disappointed with Francis’ comments on women in the America interview. Thanks for saying it in public.
    Still happy about the other bits.

    • Dykeus Tecum

      In a nutshell: if my gender identity matches the gender I was assigned at birth, then I am cis, or cisgender. So, since I was assigned female at birth, and I identify as a woman, I’m a cis woman.

  • J.D.

    Well said. If the the Church’s direction/tone/morale/etc. is so tied to one man that he alone can affect structural change, there’s a prior failure of community. A patriarchal-top down “change” in Church teaching would simply highlight the sad realities of lay members’ lack of imput/role in leadership. You can’t fix a problem with the paradigm by using it’s underlying logic to fix an example of it.

  • Julia

    i really appreciate your naming here of something that bothers me, too. I have some thoughts about your question about what benefit this change of style might mean. First, in some cases what we call a change in “style” in eccesiological terms really amounts to a change in substance. If, for example, Pope Francis’ style of government really pushes the church toward more collegiality, more emphasis on subsidiarity within the church, more profound listening to and with the people, i think that would be a real change for the better. Similarly, if the new pope can really turn down the rhetoric that excludes so many according to the theological logic you describe above & refocus attention on human beings where we actually are, I am hopeful that new, more, and less fearful discussions (and experiences, and practices) can begin to move “the mind of the church” in new ways. None of this lessens your charge that we keep at the work of transformation! But it does explain to me why I’m a bit giddy about Pope Francis, even though I also recognize the deep structural issues you rightly name. peace to you1

    • Dykeus Tecum

      Hi Julia, thanks for your comment. I think you’ve got a point about the relationship between style and substance, and the possible benefits of Francis’ approach: changing attitudes, promoting listening and collegiality, moving, as you say, “the mind of the church.”

      One of my concerns, though, is that even positive changes Francis might make in the attitude or culture of the Vatican and the wider church might fade in a generation or so, while the authoritarian power structure would remain intact (I’m thinking, for instance, of the shift in attitude/culture that we see from John XXIII to John Paul II).

  • Linn Marie Tonstad

    Yes yes yes. Thank you for this – I couldn’t agree more. It’s so understandable that people are desperate for positive change, but it’s depressing to see gender and sexuality effectively played off each other in this way.

  • Rain

    Love that you brought up the topic! We dykes HAVE TO TALK ABOUT CATHOLICISM. Like it or not, it is a major shaper of the Western World’s morality. I have to disagree with you about Pope Francis, though.

    Pope Francis now has eight-member advisory group of cardinals. A board you might call it. This is all new.

    Pope Francis was a Superior of his Jesuit Order. It was his ‘my authoritarian style and quickness at making decisions that caused all the trouble’ he said. As you know, his decisions indirectly caused two Jesuit priests to be taken hostage in South America.

    He has a lengthy interview in the Jesuit Mag “America,” perhaps released after your blog post. When asked about his “Who am I to judge?” statement: did they refer to only gay priests? Pope Francis said they refer to all gay men AND LESBIANS. First time, perhaps, that the word ‘lesbian’ is EVER mentioned in Catholic teachings!! Pope Francis said, “Respect the mystery of each person. Do not interfere with the spirituality of gay people. We must always focus on the person.” HUGE! HUGE! HUGE!

    He has addressed the mafia directly. He said turn your hearts and stop enslaving people in prostitution and drugs.

    Gay rights, abortion, and contraception use too much of the Church’s time he said. “The Church’s teaching is clear. Speak about these things IN CONTEXT. To focus on them so often make the Catholic Church’s moral “edifice” crumble like a house of cards.”

    In the United States, this anti-gay,-anti-abortion,-anti-contraception-crew is the majority of Catholics in the pew on Sunday! Pope Francis just backhanded ‘em. He said the Catholic Church has lost its focus on the poor and marginalized. Pope Francis just “called-out” most active Catholics in the United States.

    Wow! Again! These are women’s issues! Pope Francis is saying stop using these issues as knives to cut people.

    The Pope said that not all dogma and teachings of the Catholic Church are of the same importance. THIS STATEMENT ALONE CAN GET HIM KILLED. I AM NOT JOKING. PRAY FOR HIS SAFETY FROM OTHER HIERARCHY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

    A high-ranking official of the Catholic Church has recently spoken about celibacy. It has NEVER been a Catholic Church dogma he correctly stated. “High-ranking” officials did not speak about this topic if they wished to remain a high-ranking Catholic official. The topic was BANNED by that “proponent of democracy,” Pope John Paul II.

    To allow the discussion of mandatory celibacy without backlash, to say, “Remove the board from your own eye” to the anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and anti-gay crowd, THIS IS SUBSTANCIVE ACTION IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

    I have got to challenge my feminist dyke sisters and ask, “WHAT are you looking for?” the ordination to priesthood of a “Condoleezza Rice-style Yes-woman?”

    • Dykeus Tecum

      Hi Rain. We dykes do indeed have to talk about Catholicism! So thanks for your comment. I do think (and say in the post, although it is not a major part of my argument) that Francis is a meaningful improvement over Benedict. I think the changes in tone matter. But for me it’s a question of how much they matter, how much they really fix.

      What disturbs me is the disproportionate joy and gratitude with which many progressive Catholics–particularly men interested in gay equality in the church–have greeted his every statement. The way they’ve glossed over his comments on the supposed impossibility of women’s ordination because he spoke politely of gays. The way they’ve praised him for taking an inclusive attitude toward women, because of his stated interest in developing a “theology of women” (this idea horrifies me, by the way, as I can only imagine a sequel to J2P2’s appalling Mulieris Dignitatem), and his well-meaning but rather astoundingly paternalistic statements about How Important Women Are For The Church Because of the Virgin Mary, Who Wasn’t Ordained Either.

      If I were hearing progressive Catholics say, “Yes, this is nice, we’re glad it’s happening, it will make things better for now; BUT just having a sweet, gentle, grandfatherly man as our infallible patriarch doesn’t quite get to the root of the problems we’ve been having,” then I would not have written this post.

      Yes, of course, I am happy to see the improvements we’ve seen–but to a point. And I would be fine for other progressive to be happy about Pope Francis, to a point. But I have deep reservations about the sort of unquestioning affection and over-the-top gratitude that creates just the sorts of Yes Men and Yes Women you describe. I worry about progressives being so happy, so relieved to have a pope who is kind and reasonable that they give him far too much credit, become too comfortable, stop challenging deeper problems.

  • Liana Ramirez

    I have to disagree with you on some of this. You have to be pretty oblivious of a lot of women’s issues to think that his comments have no effect on women’s lives. In many areas of the United States as well as the rest of the world, the Church has played a HUGE part in getting in the way of access to contraception and safe abortions, both by shaming women and by pressuring people to support laws banning abortion and contraception. That is extremely important, particularly for lower income women, particularly in decreasing the spread of AIDS and other diseases. The potential for a positive impact on AIDS prevention and access to birth control is significant and cannot be ignored. He has brought some attention to issues of human trafficking and worldwide classism, both of which disproportionately affect women and oppressed women in particular.

    Don’t get me wrong – I think that people are giving him far, far too much credit. I think that they are so relieved to hear the Pope speaking SOME sense that they are jumping to the conclusion that he’s the greatest thing ever and they can be proud to be Catholic again without questioning a lot of the deep, serious sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and other structural issues in the Church and in the world. I left the Church almost 10 years ago because, as a bisexual/queer woman, I could no longer belong to an organization so hostile to my existence, and I am pretty puzzled as to how any gay person has been convinced to return by Francis. There is MUCH work to be done, and you are very right to point that out.

    But in writing this, you have blatantly ignored the many statements he has made that, while not radically feminist, mark a distinct change in rhetoric and tone coming from the Vatican that could and probably will have a positive effect on women’s lives.

    • Dykeus Tecum

      Hi Liana, thanks for your comment. Most of what I’m addressing here is, as you point out, the problem of people giving Francis “far, far, too much credit.” And I’m trying to address the ways in which this giving-of-credit has been gendered. In general, I’m seeing a much stronger outpouring of affection and applause from men than from women. Men interested in gay equality, in particular, have been prone to give him a pass, or to give him far more credit than he deserves, when Francis speaks about women. I’m thinking, specifically, of his comments on ordination, his description of abortion rights as a symptom of “throw away culture” (less dramatic than the “culture of death” rhetoric favored by J2P2, to be sure, but still pretty shaming, no?), and the benevolent sexism of several of his comments about How Important Women Are For the Church, usually framed in terms of motherhood and/or the BVM.

      None of this What Would The Church Be Without Mothers rhetoric is particularly different from what we’ve been seeing for years, of course. Vatican rhetoric on women has long been characterized by glowing, romantic, saccharine, well-meaning sexism of the sort we’ve gotten from Francis (John Paul’s Mulieris Dignitatem, for example).

      What is different, as you say, is his move away from talking about abortion and contraception all the time. Which is a good thing. I’m glad he’s trying to get away from the “pelvic orthodoxy” tunnel vision that has infected the USCCB. And I agree that his shift in emphasis on abortion deserved attention in this post, and I should have included it–so thank you for pointing that out.

      However. This, too, is of course a change in emphasis, and not in teaching. So while it *may,* if we are very lucky, mean fewer You Can’t Be A Catholic and Support ________ homilies (and I would be delighted to see such homilies vanish from the earth), at least in the near future, I do not at all share your hope that it will contribute to greater access to contraception and abortion, here or anywhere else. I do not think the USCCB, for instance, will drop their “religious liberty” nonsense. I do not think the bishops in the Philippines will stop trying to derail the contraception law. I do not think we will stop hearing stories of women dying in Catholic hospitals or preteen girls in Catholic countries carrying pregnancies from incest, as a result of Francis’ shift in emphasis.

      That doesn’t mean the shifts in tone and emphasis are useless. That doesn’t mean Francis isn’t doing anything good for the church. I think his approach allows for the sort of Big Tent Catholicism I like, and that that might make more room for Catholics with a range of opinions on reproductive and sexual ethics. All of which is good. But I think that’s mostly good news for privileged people who have not had personal difficulty in accessing contraception or abortion, but who have felt alienated by the church’s rhetoric. For those people who have had difficulty getting reproductive healthcare, I think Francis’ shifts in emphasis change very little, if anything.

      As I say above, in a response to Rain’s comment, if progressive Catholics were responding to the new pope–whom I do like–with the qualified, measured hope and appreciation Francis’ words and actions warrant, that would be fine with me. But that’s not what I’ve been seeing–especially, as I’ve said, from men who support gay equality in the church. That was what I was trying to get at here. The ways people let Francis off the hook because he’s so much better than the two previous popes. The ways people let him off the hook for his often unfortunate comments on women because he’s doing a better job talking about gay people.

  • rain

    Dike Team,

    The first time that I found your blog was when a friend quoted your “Francis and Me” blog on Facebook. I am very excited to find your blog. Why? I have been SO frustrated with the mindset of women who attend Mass and are Catholic.

    I am an out lesbian woman. I got to the core-spirituality of Catholicism before I knew I was lesbian and before I knew I was a woman. I was born female, by the way. What I mean by “before I knew I was a woman,” is that it was and still is a painful experience, growing in awareness that the world has a lot of hang-ups about me and rules for me because I fall under the label of “woman.” I am pretty sure that most women and some men reading or writing this blog, know of what I am speaking.

    Anyway, I connected with the core of Catholicism, Jesus and the Blessed Mother, before being a woman was an issue in my mind. When I realized that all those rules and exclusions were directed toward ME, because I am a woman, I became angry. It took time, but I concluded that THIS IS MY CHURCH. I AM GOING TO TAKE WHAT IS MINE.

    I see the hierarchy as WAY, WAY off from the spirituality of Catholicism. I do cheer a Jesuit pope. If following Jesuit teaching, he will do a rigorous examine of conscious each day. He will struggle with issues that he has encountered throughout his day. He will not brush them aside. I very much expected a pro-gay pope from day one because he is Jesuit. Openly gay men are allowed in the Jesuit Order. For this reason, I expected that Pope Francis had already struggled with the issue male homosexuality and come to some sort of peace with it.

    I LOVE to deconstruct all kinds of social junk! At the end of the day, we feminist homo-grls need to remember that many people don’t do this. That does not mean that these people are not capable of opening their heart to us in a profound way. I say this with eyes wide open, I think. My immediate family, including my two younger brothers, still send me pamphlets written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on the dangers of homosexual desire.

    I gotta say, hardline, misguided teaching is not very practice-friendly to straight people, either. Ratzinger/Benedict was suggesting if a couple practices “unnatural” birth control, they should exclude themselves from receiving the Eucharist. That is micromanagement and theologically incorrect.

    So now, we have Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, a man who was born in a certain time period, who was born into a family, who was born into a society, and is part of an all-male order. He is head of a 2,000-year-old institution that is global. It covers SO MANY cultures. This is not a vehicle with which a person can slam on the breaks and make a U-turn, Dykes. I know y’all would love to do that. This is an 18-wheel tractor-trailer carrying a toxic, flammable load. If the hitch were to fail, the trailer with its toxic load would break-off and explode, burning, scarring, and scaring your average Catholic Church-goer.
    I am saying give Francis time! I am not an apologist for the Catholic Church’s hypocritical abuse of power. Pope Francis is probably not even aware of where the Church needs to go, entirely. He needs to be confronted with love about his beliefs about the roles of women. Right now, he is showing signs that he would actually LISTEN. He would listen to the brilliant statements of people like Joan Chittister. He would ‘get it.’

    He is mixing with the people, so he very well may encounter some women of a liberated mind-set, like woman who approached Jesus while he was eating at a table. He is allowing within the Church, discussions of all topics. He is not afraid to discuss things. He does not define Truth as something that is fully revealed to us at this time. He does not consider himself fully evolved.

    Remember in the gospel somewhere, being Catholic I can’t quote you the verse, when the woman approached Jesus who was reclining at table with the apostles? The woman needed help. Jesus said woman, it is wrong to take food from the sons of the house and throw it to the dogs. The woman said, but even the dogs get scraps from the table.

    Jesus sat back astounded!! He said I have not seen faith like this in all of Israel!

    Jesus being fully human, he was informed by the time into which he was born and his culture, I believe. Jesus was very dismissive to this woman at first, as was his time period and his culture. At the same time, Jesus was open and listened to her. Jesus found her profoundly spiritual.

    So while I LOVE to deconstruct stuff, I think we dykes have to remain open and hopeful. The temptation is to write off this Pope as one more guy, who is in charge of a lot more guys, which has gotten us 2,000 years’ worth of “guy think,” disguised as the word of God, who is by the way, defined as a guy, by these guys. We have to remain painfully open to each person.

    It is painful because we can be disappointed again and again and dismissed again and again. Believe me, I feel that pain, from my own Church family. That is why I am joyful to have found your blog! It is written by ‘real’ dykes who are also Catholic, like me. That is why I am joyful about this Pope! I think, he will grow and change AND I think he will bring most of the current Catholics along with him! And that, is a super tall order. Live in hope, y’all.

  • Rain

    Why aren’t you guys on Facebook?

  • Rain

    Speaking of Mary Hunt of WATER, you did speak of Ms. Hunt, didn’t you? I watched a Skype video discussion with her, once. Based on this, if I could say one thing to Mary Hunt it would be this,

    “Get over yourself.”

    Please discuss.

    I am humbly grateful for this forum that you have created, despite bashing your girl, Mary E. Hunt.

    • Dykeus Tecum

      Hi Rain,

      I don’t know which video discussion you saw, but if you’re interested in lesbian feminist Catholic theology and ethics, you should definitely have a look at some more of Mary Hunt’s work–she’s got some articles over at Religion Dispatches that you might find interesting.

      Thanks again for your comments! Really appreciated reading about your own experiences of Catholicism and dykeness. Glad you found the blog, and, as I said before, I’m always happy to talk to other Catholic dykes.

  • Rain

    Thanks, Dykeus Tecum. I’ll take my own advice and remain open to Mary Hunt’s work. I’ll check out some of her other stuff. I appreciate the recommendation.

    Uh, I looked up “Dykeus Tecum” to see what it means in Latin. I guess it doesn’t mean “Dyke Team,” like how I started my last comment! LOL!

  • Rain

    Hey Dykeus Tecum,

    I would love to hear how other lesbians found themselves in Catholicism and why they stay with it.

    I think my non-Catholic friends look at me and shake their heads. It is like I am deeply involved with an abusive spouse and my standard line is “you just don’t understand Her! I understand where she is coming from!”

    They all look at me and think “you need to get laid more.”

    How about you other readers of this blog “Good, Catholic Dykes?” How did you get “hooked” on Catholicism and why do you bother to stay?

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