An Encyclical of Guesstures: Making Sense of Pope Francis’s Pastoral Aims

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. … Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. … Is it so bad…to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1841)

The title of a recent Yahoo! news story caught my eye–“Gay Catholic group gets VIP treatment at Vatican for first time“–and upon reading it I was informed of the following:

A prominent American Catholic gay rights group was given VIP treatment for the first time at an audience with Pope Francis on Wednesday, a move members saw as a sign of change in the Roman Catholic Church.

“This is a sign of movement that’s due to the Francis effect,” said Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, which ministers to homosexual Catholics and promotes gay rights in the 1.2 billion-member Church. …

“What this says is that there is movement in our Church, movement to welcome people from the outside closer to the inside,” Gramick said in St. Peter’s Square.

Sr. Gramick is enthusiastic about the opportunity, because, as she told Reuters after the unprecedented access to a papal audience, “when the group came to Rome on Catholic pilgrimages during the papacies of Francis’s predecessors John Paul and Benedict, ‘they just ignored us’.”

But why would the two previous pontiffs have given Gramick and her ministry such an icy reception?

As it happens, a great many years ago, in 1999, Sr. Gramick, along with Fr. Robert Nugent, were the subject of a CDF notification which brought years of magisterial inquiry to a conclusion. The entire document is worth reading if you’d like to know more about the aims and deficiencies of New Ways Ministry. For present purposes, though, I will only cite the CDF’s conclusion of the matter (emphasis added):

Given the failure of the repeated attempts of the Church’s legitimate authorities to resolve the problems presented by the writings and pastoral activities of [Gramick and Nugent], the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is obliged to declare for the good of the Catholic faithful that the positions advanced by Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the objective disorder of the homosexual inclination are doctrinally unacceptable because they do not faithfully convey the clear and constant teaching of the Catholic Church in this area.

Father Nugent and Sister Gramick have often stated that they seek, in keeping with the Church’s teaching, to treat homosexual persons “with respect, compassion and sensitivity”. However, the promotion of errors and ambiguities is not consistent with a Christian attitude of true respect and compassion: persons who are struggling with homosexuality no less than any others have the right to receive the authentic teaching of the Church from those who minister to them. The ambiguities and errors of the [Gramick/Nugent] approach … have caused confusion among the Catholic people and have harmed the community of the Church. For these reasons, Sister Jeannine Gramick, SSND, and Father Robert Nugent, SDS, are permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons and are ineligible, for an undetermined period, for any office in their respective religious institutes.

Heady stuff!

But that was then; this is now.

Sixteen years after being “permanently prohibited from any pastoral work” for fomenting doctrinal and pastoral ambiguities about otherwise precise and straightforward Catholic teaching, New Ways Ministry is now being welcomed with at least semi-open arms by the current papacy. As Pope Francis likes to say, “God is a God of surprises.

Come what may, the Bishop of Rome is the captain of the Barque of Peter, so, as faithful and docile Catholics, we must be prepared to accept the new winds which Pope Francis is blowing into the Church’s sails. Indeed, as startling a rupture in continuity as this welcome may seem, an awareness of Pope Francis’s pastoral track record reveals that a gesture like welcoming New Ways Ministry is consistent with his most central intentions for the Church’s witness.

Only days before the audience in question, in his homily on Valentine’s Day to a gathering of cardinals and bishops in St. Peter’s, Pope Francis explained that Jesus “revolutionizes and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality” of believers who are “scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress [?] or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity.”

The Holy Father also warned that “we will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! … [For truly] the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, where it is found, and where it is revealed.” According to Pope Francis, this is because “the way of the church is not to condemn anyone for eternity” (nor, apparently, even for the defunct CDF’s “undetermined period”). Rather, “the way of the church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ life.” Or, as Sr. Gramick put it a few days ago, “to welcome people from the outside closer to the inside”.

[Cf. page 5 of this 2013 (Lutheran) mission bulletin for a fuller description of what “the Gospel of the marginalized” entails.]

The Holy Father’s unprecedented detente with New Ways Ministry is precisely the kind of sign by which he prefers to articulate his depiction of Catholic evangelism.

Nor is it the only such sign.

    • In late April 2014, Pope Francis intervened with the CDF to remove all strictures, including a 2010 threat of laicisation, that had been imposed upon Fr. Sean Fagan for having opposed Catholic teaching in a number of books. By all reports, though, “Fr. Fagan is now a priest in good standing where the church is concerned.”
    • On April  25, 2014, a week after Good Friday, Pope Francis apparently called to support the hunger strike of Marco Pannella, the historic leader of Italy’s Radical Party. A longstanding and vociferous opponent of the Catholic Church, as well as an outspoken atheist and bisexual, Pannella reports that Pope Francis told him “be courageous”.

    • Not much later, on May 6, 2014, Francis received Fr. Michele de Paolis, “a 93 year-old priest who has cofounded the homosexualist activist organization, Agedo Foggia, that is opposed to Catholic Church teaching.” In addition, the Holy Father chose to concelebrate Holy Mass with De Paolis and kiss his hand afterwards, all signs meant to convey Christ’s all-inclusive love, as Pope Francis understands it.
    • According to a Rome Reports video, on June 9, 2014 Pope Francis met with the Túpac Amaru Association (TAA), which is based in his native Argentina. In the days immediately preceding the audience with the Holy Father, TAA gave one hundred houses to the LGBT population in San Salvador de Jujuy in order to establish a “gay neighborhood” there (also reported here in Spanish). Roughly two weeks after meeting Pope Francis, TAA joined in the second Gay Pride parade in San Salvador, which TAA itself had organized, under the slogan, “more social inclusion, more harmony in living together.” Significantly, Rome Reports comments that Pope Francis “is no stranger to the group, especially since, during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he visited some of the neighborhoods they help.” 1 An earlier version of this post included faulty information about TAA, which has since been excised.
    • Finally, just as 2014 drew to a close, and Christmas was in full swing, Pope Francis is reported to have“welcomed a transgender man and his fiancé in a private audience”. Again, a touching gesture, but what message is the Holy Father sending by giving special attention and encouragement to a man now living intimately with another man? Surely Sr. Gramick could explain.

Clearly, then, the audience with New Ways Ministry was not a fluke (though, the succor being given to New Ways cannot be laid solely at Francis’s feet). As one of his closest advisors, Cardinal Maradiaga, explains, “Pope Francis evangelizes with ‘encyclicals of gestures,’ which speak louder than words and texts.” This is why it is irrelevant how little of a verbal acknowledgement Sr. Gramick and her entourage were given at the audience that day. “Even without a papal shout-out,” Nicole Winfield notes, “New Ways Ministry officials were nevertheless pleased that they had been invited to sit up front by Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, the prefect of the papal household who dispenses the coveted reserved tickets for Francis’ audiences.” As David DeBernado, executive director of New Ways, boasts concedes, “We didn’t get the shout-out, but we were very, very close”.

Likewise, as David Gibson of the Religion News Service explains:

“[Giving front-row seats to New Ways is] a substantial change of direction for the Catholic Church, not just a symbolic move…. In the past, such groups or individuals would never be formally acknowledged in any way — not even a response to a letter — for fear that some could view such an attitude as approval…. Now Francis is saying the Church must cast aside such fears.”

As this papacy grasps so well, photogenic novelties–like granting this audience to New Ways, or wearing faded old black shoes, and so on, and so on–wordlessly transmit the intended message. All your margins are belong to us.

In his groundbreaking interview with Fr. Spadaro in September 2013, Pope Francis spoke of his desire for inclusive and creative ways to support the Church’s numerous pastoral movements:

The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths [sic].

Presumably, also a flair for finding left-behind movements like New Ways?

As Francis said in an address to all consecrated in November 2014:

The creativity of charity is boundless; it is able to find countless new ways [sic] of bringing the newness of the Gospel to every culture and every corner of society.

Pope Francis’s concern for Pannella’s healt–as he endured yet another voluntary hunger strike–is a touching “gesture” to show Christian love for one’s enemies, but might it not have been nice if the Holy Father also told Pannella to “be Catholic”? As faithful and docile Catholics, we must do our best to think with the mind of the Church and follow the lead of Christ’s Vicar, but there is a crucial ambiguity in Pope Francis’s “encyclicals of gestures,” to which he himself alluded in the homily he gave to the newly appointed cardinals just a few days ago.

“We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized!” Francis insists. Unfortunately, how we embrace and implement this papal injunction depends on the meaning of the word “accept.” For while we are indeed called to “accept” the repentant, just as the Father embraced the Prodigal Son come home, we are not permitted, much less called, to “accept” those things which render them prodigal–on the margins of goodness and truth–in the first place.  Thus, for example, although Christ accepted Zacchaeus (cf. Luke 19:1 ff.), He refused to accept the sins by which Zacchaeus had lived for so long; for it is precisely by clinging to our pet sins that we marginalize ourselves from the joyful life in Christ (or, “Evangelii gaudium”).

An obvious retort in defense of such “encyclicals of gestures” is that Jesus also supped with sinners. That is true, but one thing He did not do is send sinners back to their sinful states in life with His blessing. “Go… and sin no more,” He told the woman caught in adultery. By analogy, while Christ accepted lepers and the unclean, always ready to “heal the wounds,” He did not leave them unhealed unless they refused Him. Christ called out to everyone, but He insisted just as loudly that everyone repent, change, submit to His healing hands (i.e. the Sacraments), renounce their sins, distance themselves from their former allies in darkness. His repeated denunciations of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and idolatrous followers indicate that Christ had no qualms about rebuking sinful factions and movements. All may come, but truly finding the Lord means returning “by a different way” (Matthew 2:12).

Or, as that dusty old CDF document explained, “the promotion of errors and ambiguities is not consistent with a Christian attitude of true respect and compassion”.

Then again, that was 1999; this is 2015. “Is it so bad to be misunderstood?”

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. An earlier version of this post included faulty information about TAA, which has since been excised.