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The Sexy Pope Francis

The Pope and his supporters advocate 'lifestyle ecumenism,' which our culture finds attractive. Will it work?

Ross Douthat observes that Pope Francis has had a great trip to the US, and says it’s not an altogether bad thing if Francis revives the Religious Left:

A revitalized religious left, a Christianity that doesn’t feel like the province of a single political faction, would be a sign of religious vitality writ large. And I would far rather debate politics with Cornel West or the editors of Commonweal than with a liberalism that thinks it can impose meaning on a cosmos whose sound and fury signifies nothing on its own.

Me too. But Douthat says that religious liberalism is flagging in this country for serious reasons, among them its discomfort with supernaturalism, and the other “is religious liberalism’s urge to follow secular liberalism in embracing the sexual revolution and all its works — a move that promises renewal but rarely delivers, because it sells out far too much of scripture and tradition along the way.”


The second tendency, though, is one that Francis has tacitly encouraged, by empowering clerics and theologians who seem to believe that Rome’s future lies in imitating the moribund Episcopal Church’s approach to sex, marriage and divorce.

How far to go with them is the question that awaits the pope in Rome this fall, and that hangs over the springtime for liberal Christianity his pontificate has nurtured.

How it’s answered, and what follows, will determine whether we’re watching something genuinely new and fresh emerge — or whether, after the cheering ends, the same winter that enveloped liberal Protestantism after the 1960s will claim Franciscan Catholicism as well.

Read the whole thing. That last paragraph brings to lines a few lines from the diary of the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann. A reader sent me this bit in which Fr. Schmemann mused on Pope John Paul II’s visit to NYC in 1979:

The Pope’s days in New York are accompanied by extreme excitement and rapture.  What remains is that one can see something quite genuine (man’s longing for goodness) and something obviously connected with our civilization: television, “media,” etc.  What worries me is this: this popularity will recede as soon as the pope concretely expresses his faith. Then the euphoria will end… And then will begin: “crucify him” and “we have no King, but Caesar…” — i.e., a return to the present.  (Mark 15:13-14, John 19:15)

We’ll see what happens with Francis. Have to say I think his big Philadelphia speech about religious liberty was disappointing.  Religious liberty is at serious risk in the emerging American order, but his speech was bland and safe. It was like, “America is a land of religious liberty. Religious liberty is important. You Americans should treasure it. Don’t forget the immigrants! Adios.” He didn’t say anything wrong, but he didn’t say much of anything at all. The religious liberty cause could have used a more forceful, direct, and specific speech from this popular Pope.

Anyway, back to Douthat’s point. Michael Pakaluk, a philosopher at Ave Maria University, has a piece up at First Things condemning what he calls “lifestyle ecumenism,”  which he defines as “the view that Catholics should practice today a kind of ‘ecumenism’ towards persons in living arrangements other than marriage, such as cohabitation, common law marriage, and same-sex relationships.” This approach, which has been advocated by cardinals close to Francis, and which will be at issue in the October Synod, violates Catholic teaching, says Pakaluk. He makes his case, then concludes:

As a father of a large family, raising children in the difficult circumstances of the present culture in the US and Europe, I find the Cardinal’s [Christoph Schönborn’s] approach particularly dismaying. I want clear teaching from bishops, to back up my efforts with young persons; I want an unfashionable but needed reminder, in our time, of the imperilment of the soul and the reality of sin. In contrast, Lifestyle Evangelism looks like the rationalization of a bad outcome. The main task of the bishops, I conceive, is to teach the faith clearly and protect the flock from the trepidations of the Evil One. Our bishops in the 50 years since Humanae vitae have generally failed at these tasks in the area of sexual morality. Cohabitation and the hook-up culture do not “just happen.” Two generations of Catholic children who might have grown up living chastity and modesty have been lost, taken away by faulty Catholic school systems, inadequate catechesis, cowardly preaching, and an absence of a protective spirit by our pastors. The True Pastor goes so far to keep out the wolves that he lays down his life if necessary. Lifestyle Ecumenism strikes me as a shrug of the shoulders which says it’s a fact of life that wolves take the sheep.

Nobody can doubt that Pope Francis has had a spectacular trip here to the US. Even my Catholic friends who tend to be skeptical of his papacy and its priorities have been inspired by this papal pilgrimage. And why not? Francis is a rock star. But so was John Paul II, and that fact did not bring his flock back to the traditionalist Catholic teaching on sex and the family, which he never hesitated to preach. Now Francis is trying something different. We’ll see what happens. The experience of the Episcopalians and other Mainline Protestants doesn’t give much reason to hope.



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