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I am no papal hater. I recognize that a lot of who I am, both good and bad, comes from my Catholic upbringing. My father came from a family with strong Baptist roots, but during a tour of duty in the Army, he apparently drank the Kool-Aid (or communion wine) while in Italy and came back Catholic. When he married my mother, she abandoned her A.M.E. roots and accepted his faith and together they raised their three children as good little Catholics. We went to Catholic school, confession every Saturday and Mass enough times during the week and on Sunday to give me “frequent prayer” miles in that Big Book in the sky.
By high school, I was over it for the most part thanks to the very things I had learned as a Catholic. I am not a “recovering Catholic,” I’m just over Catholicism. You see, by the time I hit high school I was aware of a world outside my parish walls. A world where the doctrine and policies of the church conflicted with the realities of my African-American community and the changing landscape of urban America. So you see, it’s kind of hard for me to get excited about Pope Francis and his visit to the United States.
He’s a new face, but for me it’s the same old church only worse since when I was a child. The church that closed parishes and schools in the inner city – decisions often made with the same cost-cutting, cold precision of any corporation. While abandoning the inner cities with populations that were predominantly black and brown, they proselytized in third world countries where black and brown folk continue to suffer from economic disparity and political upheaval.
As a woman, I watched the church lead the attack against my reproductive rights. Even though Pope Francis recently extended to priests worldwide the authorization to reconcile those “guilty” of abortion, the church still holds abortion and contraception to be sinful, thus affecting the reproductive rights of women. Reproductive rights are not a matter of patriarchal morality; it’s a social and economic justice issue especially for poor women. Although women make up the majority of members of the consecrated life within the church, its largely male hierarchy and refusal to ordain women implies “inferiority” of women.
And even though Pope Francis has made kinder, gentler remarks regarding the LGBTQ community and even hugged a member of our transgender community, most notably saying, “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem … they’re our brothers,” being “gay” is still considered wrong. LGBTQ employees at U.S. Christian institutions (schools, etc.) are still being fired when they come out, announce their marriage or want recognition for their families and love. Faith leaders continue to harm LGBTQ youth by teaching that homosexuality is a sin.
Pope Francis landed for a historic visit in the U.S. for six days. His is a different papacy. Think about it. Traditionally, being pope has been a lifetime job, but Francis ascended to the throne after his predecessor Pope Benedict resigned and basically told the “Big Guy in the Sky” to take this job and shove it.
Maybe God took a look at this church and decided it was time to shake things up a bit, move things in a different direction. So he looked to the “New World/Third World” where so many injustices and inequities have resulted from the Old School Papacy and picked a new leader – this pope from Argentina. After a private meeting with President Obama, an official welcoming ceremony on the White House South Lawn and parade, Pope Francis had the first-ever joint address to Congress by a pontiff. He then headed to New York where he hosted a religious service at the ground zero site of the 9/11 attacks and addressed the United Nations. Then he headed to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, a triennial Vatican-backed event held seven times previously starting in 1994, with the goal of strengthening marriage and families.
Pope Francis has received “Rock Star” treatment for comments emphasizing the central themes of his papacy – that the unfettered capitalism practiced in the U.S. and the West is fostering income inequality and creating an economic culture where the poor are simply discarded. But this former Catholic will be watching to see what he does about cleaning up his own house – the Catholic Church – which has too often been a silent partner, even benefitting from, fostering the income inequality and creating the economic culture where the poor are simply discarded worldwide.
The Catholic Church has a long history, great influence and deep resources. Talk is cheap. Here’s hoping Pope Francis can be the change so many want to see.