Pope Francis is pretty awesome. His prayer summit with the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the Vatican on Sunday was the latest example of the leader of the Catholic Church putting action behind his words of peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding. After more than a year of reading stories about the pontiff’s penchant for humility, mutual understanding and advocacy for the poor, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Frances Kissling and I got to talking about the breath of fresh air that is Pope Francis at a dinner for the Global Fund for Women on Sunday. We continued the conversation via e-mail the next day. “I’m one of those Catholics who want to see big changes in how the Catholic church treats its people. It just too often hurts people and ignores their suffering,” she wrote. “And it has never stopped being a middle ages monarchy flashing its ‘bling’ in the presence of abject poverty. So, when Francis took over, I had and still have a lot of hope for some important changes.”
But the former longtime president of Catholics for Choice who joined a convent at age 19 and lasted all of six months tamped her enthusiasm during our initial chat with a characteristically bold statement. “The pope looks more like God every day,” Kissling said. Just like God, “he allows evil to exist around him.”
By evil, first and foremost, Kissling means the priest sex-abuse scandal that continues to rock the Catholic Church. She decried the pope’s “inability to grapple with the high-level evil that perpetuated sexual abuse: the priests and cardinals that abused children and are still unpunished, not even criticised publicly.” Kissling isn’t the only one surprised and disappointed by the pope’s seeming inattention. That he recently announced he would to sit down with victims of abuse is being met with cautious optimism in some quarters.
But Kissling also dubs as “evil” the pope’s views on women and nuns. She is none too thrilled with the Vatican’s continuing investigation into the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group of American nuns who would like to see female priests ordained, among other things. Francis “seems totally oblivious to the second class status of women,” Kissling told me later via e-mail, pointing to a rather tart assessment of feminism delivered by the pope in “On Heaven and Earth,” a book first published in 2010 with an English translation released in April.
“What I would like to add is that feminism, as a unique philosophy, does not do any favors to those that it claims to represent, for it puts women on the level of a vindictive battle, and a woman is much more than that,” the pope wrote. “The feminist campaign of the ’20s achieved what it wanted and it is over, but a constant feminist philosophy does not give women the dignity that they deserve. As a caricature, I would say that it runs the risk of becoming chauvinism with skirts.”
“OK, when it comes to women, he’s a little out of date,” Kissling said of Francis. “Riding the bus and cooking your own meals doesn’t lead to seeing women as real people.” That’s a rather dim critique of the pontiff. But given what we know, it is one that is difficult to rebut.
“The deeper question is what to make of the omnipotent God who could wipe all evil off the face of the earth and the Pope who allows certain evils to play themselves out, shall we say, while he tackles other issues,” Kissling wrote in closing her e-mail. “Perhaps we need to accept that neither God nor the Pope [is] perfect and, like Jews, take on the task of bringing justice to a flawed earth and flawed humanity.”
I’ll pray for him.
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