When the Pope Goes Back Home 


Despite a drop in a recent opinion poll, Pope Francis is still wildly popular in the United States. He delights Democrats with his teachings on climate change, social justice, and immigration. His continuing stress on the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional opposition to abortion and his de facto opposition to same-sex marriage comforts Republicans.

In just a little more than a month the Bishop of Rome will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House and give a first-ever papal address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Francis is expected to urge lawmakers to act on climate change, a move almost certain to come under attack from some conservative politicians, who oppose his intervention in the debate. Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a Catholic, said right before publication of the pope’s environmental the encyclical that he doesn’t “get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.”
In any event, following the pope’s historic address to Congress, according to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Pope Francis “has expressed an interest in making a brief appearance” on the Capitol’s West Front — the iconic facade facing the National Mall where presidents have been inaugurated since 1981. After DC the pope will go on to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly; and then to Philadelphia to help wrap up the World Meeting of Families.

Historic events for sure; and I have no doubts that Pope Francis will have strong observations about climate change, economics, poverty, and immigration. And it is all very interesting, as the United States gears up for the 2016 presidential election. No doubt candidates in each party will use papal rhetoric to support their causes.

But what happens when the papal plane has lift off and Francis returns to Rome?
One of the first things of course is paying the bills for papal security, clean-up, and returning streets, parks, and buildings back to normal. As an older theologian, however, my concerns are more about the post-Francis-visit U.S.A. church agenda.

According to the Pew Research Center, the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. The Roman Catholic Church loses more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other denomination, with nearly 13 percent of all Americans now describing themselves as “former Catholics.” The number of religiously unaffiliated adults in America has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007. There are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S.; and this group — sometimes called religious “nones” — is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants.

Some of my friends scoff when I say that a great many “unaffiliated” describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I don’t scoff for a second. I think millions of Americans (like many of my colleagues, students, and friends) are searching for a taste of the Divine. They are looking for depth in their lives and a genuine Christian faith experience. And they are not finding it in the institutional church.

We need to focus on spirituality rather than continually pontificating about abortion and same-sex marriage. We could learn something from contemporary spiritual masters like Joyce Rupp and Ron Rolheiser. Perhaps the U.S. bishops should dedicate one of their semi-annual meetings to “exploring a contemporary American spirituality.”

The other part of the Pew Research Center report that keeps me scratching my head is about young people. They are the largest group turned off by the church and dropping out. And they will not be returning if and when they start having babies.

In every parish and every diocese — and wherever bright and idealistic young people congregate — we should start listening sessions. We need to hear them speak about their experiences, their questioning, and their search for meaning and depth in their lives. And then we need to appropriately respond, with fresh ideas, creative liturgies, and renewed parish structures and programs.

I applauded Pope Francis when he said about homosexuality “who am I to judge?” But there is a lot judging going on in Francis’ church. Catholic schools and parishes — often following orders from the local bishop – continue to fire gay teachers and employees. Some anti-gay episcopal rhetoric is not only offensive it is downright demeaning and cruel.

We need to concretely support and defend gay people working for the church and in civil society – not just say kind things about “’respecting them as people.” I have worked for the institutional church (high schools, universities, and seminary) for about forty years. The institutional church’s homophobia is ironic to say the least. There are lots and lots of gay bishops and priests out there. Most of them are very fine people. I really wish they would simply have the courage to come out. I think they would get standing ovations in their cathedrals and churches. Honesty and humility.

The shortage of ordained ministers (priests) in the church has now moved beyond the crisis point. It’s like our churches are burning and our leaders don’t want to call the fire department……or our parishes are entering cardiac arrest and no one dares call an ambulance. Pick your own analogy. The situation is grim. And it is crazy. A group of courageous and pastorally minded bishops could start solving the problem tomorrow by ordaining already qualified people. They could also welcome back a large number of those very qualified ordained ministers who left ordained ministry to get married. They could also start ordaining women deacons.

And about women. The clock is ticking for ordained women in the Roman Catholic Church. At some point it has to happen, because it should happen, and is already happening in “Catholic” communities cut off from the larger institution. If the church doesn’t change its archaic views on women, it risks becoming a religious institution that survives on the fringe of an open-minded and progressive society.

In every parish and in every diocese we need to have study sessions and discussion groups about women in the church and in ordained ministry: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And again… We need some courageous and pastorally minded bishops who will start ordaining women right now. If they are called to Rome and disciplined, brother bishops must defend them and come to their support. It is a correct and appropriate thing to do.

My last comment this week is about sexual abuse. The problem is far from over. (And it is hardly limited to the USA.) Many of the bishops who have allowed it to happen are still functioning in their dioceses. It is an old sin and an old crime. As David Clohessy, director of SNAP, reminds us made so far Pope Francis has offered a lot of reassuring talk but taken little meaningful action about removing bishops who allow abuse. In our parishes and dioceses we need to study, inform, and set up action committees to get something done.

The pope back in Rome must set up a process to hold complicit (sexual-abuse-allowing) bishops accountable. He has SAID he’ll set up a process. So far he has not yet done so. If not dealt with dramatically and effectively, clerical sexual abuse will be the undoing of the Roman Catholic Church.
Understandably people will be cheering and applauding Pope Francis in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. They are also the people who must assume responsibility for the church when Francis goes back to Rome. The primary responsibility rests with us and concrete action begins at home.

12 thoughts on “When the Pope Goes Back Home 

  1. Alas, I think that most RCC Hierarchy in the USA would not be able to discuss spirituality, rather than religion, at any of their meetings — because they seem to lack a sense of spirituality in their own lives to begin with…
    Without the rules of the Catechism to prop them up, they are like deflated balloons, unable to get off the ground!!

  2. As in all militaristic organizations, recruits (priests, in this case) do not have a mind of their own to make creative decisions that exceed the boundaries of conventional church teaching. If some do, they do so at their own peril. No, they owe obedience to their general, aka bishops. Such a view of priesthood with its lockstep mentality is absolutely deadening. Religious women owe obedience to God, not to any high ranking prelate, not even the Pope, and with proper discernment with community members, they move on issues of great concern today, trusting they are doing what is right for God’s creation, to say nothing of putting feet and face where folks are living on the margins. Sisters and brothers have also focused life long on faith, moral and educational development a la Vatican II plus, which finds many of us at right angles to several mind numbing bishops ‘ take and reasoning on issues. We desperately need a real listening church, one in which all are seated, eye to eye, at the tables. No high places for Bishops or priests. When their vertical
    world view gives way to a horizontal one where it is believed Christ is one among us, maybe then we shall see change for the better. I remain ever hopeful

    • Joyce, with respect, I don’t think all of us “do not have a mind of their own to make creative decisions that exceed the boundaries of conventional church teaching”. Depending on the diocese, a lot of us are fairly active in making creative decisions. We just don’t put them on the front page of the local newspaper. Having spent most of my adult life as a priest in a very military organization (active duty US Army) I don’t see much of a valid comparison. The Army is built on respect up and down the chain, with every member encouraged to see their own value and importance to the mission. The church as we know it these days is nothing like that, and can learn a lot from the Army about treating its folks with respect. Bishops are not comparable to generals. To say they are is an insult to generals.

  3. Just finished reading your Aug. 14th thoughts regarding what we will do when the Pope returns to Rome. I always enjoy your reflections so much. I am at a crossroads, as I write this. I am a very active parishioner, as a cantor and choir member. However, I have such strong feelings about the inequality of women within our Church, and about the recent elevation to sainthood of JPII (whom I hold responsible for much of the sex scandal cover-up, along with Benedict) that I am finding it difficult to remain in the Catholic Church. I am tired of the anger and the feeling of hypocrisy by my remaining there. How do you do it?

    • Dear Patricia
      I understand the situation…..Fortunately I live in a university environment where the university parish is open-minded and contemporary in every good way. If I were not living where I found, I would probably shop around or do what my wife and I fund whrn we lived in SW Michigan. We found ten other couples who felt as we and established our own neighborhood church. We informed the bishop and he asked us to maintain some contact with our parishes. We ended up having weekly discussions on someone’s home and fathered with our families once a month for Eucharist. The presider was associate pastor at one of the local parishes. It was all above ground and ” correctly” done!

      • Thank you so much for responding to my query. There are a few of us who have met, over the years, to talk, but hadn’t thought about such a splendid idea as yours. Having worked for our current Bishop, some years ago, I doubt he would approve what your Bishop approved. Ours seems to be mired in the right-wing conservative notions we see so often in America, at this time. I intend to speak with my pastor, regarding my feelings, but I don’t have much hope that he will be sympathetic with my feelings. Again, many thanks for taking the time to write back with a viable solution. All the best to you, and yours.

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