Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Changes at the Vatican: more political opportunity

I’m as surprised as anyone that I’m posting about the Pope again, but the developments are significant enough to warrant some comment.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Francisremarks about global capitalism and their political significance. I welcomed the statements as providing a political opportunity for social justice movements, particularly in the Americas. (I wasn’t surprised to learn recently that he’d met with liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez back in September.)

At the time, I wrote that my position didn’t entail an end to criticism or skepticism, linking to this article at RH Reality Check and this report from Democracy Now!. Both discussed the church’s continuing anti-woman policies. Conservative US bishops have been a powerful force both in fighting reproductive rights and in suppressing progressive movements within the church, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. To a significant extent, Francis has continued his predecessor’s support for these bishops and their priorities.

This week, though, he’s made some changes that could have a meaningful impact for progressive Catholic movements and for reproductive rights. Most importantly, he replaced conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke with “ideological moderate”* Cardinal Donald Wuerl on the Congregation for Bishops. “Cardinal Burke still serves as the prefect of the Vatican’s highest canonical court, but analysts say his removal from the Congregation for Bishops will sharply reduce his influence, especially over personnel changes in American churches,” Jim Yardley and Jason Horowitz report.

Once again, responding positively is not a matter of celebrating Francis, the institution of the papacy, Catholicism, or religion, but of appreciating the ways these moves alter the political landscape, both symbolically and concretely. They open possibilities for women and progressive movements within the church and in society more generally. This is especially true since the conservative bishops, under a more supportive pope, argued that the uppity progressive nuns should submit unquestioningly to papal authority. They’ve boxed themselves into that corner, and now any opposition to Francis’ agenda is revealed as hypocrisy. Authoritarianism is unforgiving that way.

* “Father [Thomas J.] Reese noted that Cardinal Burke had been a leader of American bishops arguing that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be barred from receiving communion, while Cardinal Wuerl had taken an opposite tack.”

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