The media make a big deal of Pope Francis when this or that utterance seems to signal that the Great Capitulation is imminent. Liberals have long hoped for the moment when the Catholic Church stops being “anti-modern,” which doesn't mean engaged with science, philosophically sophisticated, and capable of formulating a vision for modern political and economic life—the Church does all that—but instead means adopting liberal attitudes toward moral truth. If only the Catholic Church would be “progressive” (on matters of sexual liberation, that is) rather than “reactionary.”
And so it's good to remind ourselves of how frustrated progressives are when they actually pay attention to what Pope Francis says most of the time, because it's not encouraging to progressives. Here's Jamie Manson, writing recently for the National Catholic Reporter:
Anyone who reads Francis' speeches regularly knows that he frequently employs “one man, one woman” marriage rhetoric. Many journalists seem too busy searching for headline-grabbing progressive pearls to take much notice of this. But as we head toward the synod on the family, it would be wise to begin taking note of just how strongly the pope privileges heterosexual marriage and excludes the possibility of same-sex marriage.
Francis' rhetoric is important because it plays right into the hand of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who is facing public backlash for his morality clauses for employees of the San Francisco archdiocese's Catholic schools.
It also emboldens culture-warrior bishops like Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William Lori, chairman of the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Both Lori and Kurtz spoke last week at the March for Marriage in Washington, D.C.
While Francis is pushing for justice in the workplace through equal pay, he is adding fuel to the unjust firings and witch hunts of LGBT employees of Catholic institutions who choose to be married.
Against this “reactionary” intransigence, Manson calls for church leaders to “evolve.” Don't the bishops know that forward-thinking people don't think in terms of “men” and “women” anymore? When is the Pope going to get over his reactionary mentality and ascend to the bright uplands of progressive thought? And not just thought, but a New Church!
In addition to evolving intellectually, church leaders must also transform their sacramental vision. They must have the courage and humility to see that God can be as fully present in the relationships of same-sex couples as God can be in opposite-sex couples and that God can be as sacramentally present through the body of a woman priest as God can be sacramentally present in the body of a male priest.
Our church leaders must, in essence, stop telling God where God can and cannot be. They must admit that they cannot control how God can and cannot work through God's own people and where God's sacramental life can and cannot emerge. Only then will we have a church that moves beyond the limits of complementarity and into a new life as a true reflection of the justice of God.
I find it reassuring to know that Jamie Manson finds Pope Francis frustratingly reactionary.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.