Where Benedict was a withdrawn absolutist, Francis is an engaged pragmatist. Here are two illuminating examples. The first is that he backed – as a last resort – civil unions for gay couples in Argentina as an alternative to full marriage equality. It’s extremely hard to imagine the mind of Ratzinger being capable of such a nuanced and practical stance in a specific situation:
Faced with the near certain passage of the gay marriage bill, Cardinal Bergoglio offered the civil union compromise as the “lesser of two evils,” said Sergio Rubin, his authorized biographer. “He wagered on a position of greater dialogue with society.”
In the end, though, a majority of the bishops voted to overrule him, his only such loss in his six-year tenure as head of Argentina’s bishops’ conference. But throughout the contentious political debate, he acted as both the public face of the opposition to the law and as a bridge-builder, sometimes reaching out to his critics.
“He listened to my views with a great deal of respect,” said Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights leader and theologian who wrote a tough letter to Cardinal Bergoglio and, to his surprise, received a call from him less than an hour after it was delivered. “He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.”
Here’s what impresses me: the call back to a gay rights activist. Dialogue. Empathy. I do not expect the Magisterium to change switly on homosexuality – but if we could only have a dialgoe, a discussion, some kind of glasnost on the subject, what an amazing change that would be! If Berguglio had succeeded in persuading the Argentine church to back civil unions, can you imagine how he would have been seen at the Conclave? Can you imagine Benedict’s conniption? Sometimes you need a straight Pope to deal honestly with gay issues.
Then this striking flexibility on priestly celibacy, in an interview last year, after retelling a story of falling head over heels in love as a young man:
Bergoglio admits he was able to choose his path as a priest over the girl but realizes that not all priests can do this. Bergoglio added, “When something like this happens to a seminarian, I help him go in peace to be a good Christian and not a bad priest.
“In the Western Church to which I belong, priests cannot be married as in the Byzantine, Ukrainian, Russian or Greek Catholic Churches. In those Churches, the priests can be married, but the bishops have to be celibate. They are very good priests. In Western Catholicism, some organizations are pushing for more discussion about the issue. For now, the discipline of celibacy stands firm. Some say, with a certain pragmatism, that we are losing manpower. If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option.”
He continued, “If a priest tells me he got excited and that he had a fall, I help him to get on track again. There are priests who get on track again and others who do not…The double life is no good for us. I don’t like it because it means building on falsehood. Sometimes I say: ‘If you can not overcome it, make your decision’.”
Yes, yes, yes: confirmation bias, wishful thinking, you name it. But there is nothing unchangeable about the celibacy requirement. Half of Catholic Christendom has married priests. My old parish in England, where I first received Holy Communion, now has a married priest – a former Anglican. These are management, not doctrinal decisions. Francis understands that, it seems. These procedures can change. For the sake of the survival of the church in the West, they must.
(Photo: Franciscan friars ariive in St. Peter’s Square attend the Inauguration Mass of Pope Francis on March 19, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. By Franco Origlia/Getty Images.)