Good Cop Bad Cop

by Ken Briggs

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My knee jerk reaction to the reprimand aimed at Sister Elizabeth Johnson by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: it's an outrageous insult.

My calmer, meditative reaction: it's an outrageous insult.

Sister Johnson's theology explains itself and needs no defense here. Her book had its critics but it gained distinction in the general court of review and the support for its legitimacy as Catholic thought was loud and strong.

But the denigrating nature of the latest attack flies directly in the face of Pope Francis' reputation for mercy and hugs. What's going on here? Is the pope content to proclaim a kingdom of grace, peace and forgiveness, providing a wide berth for a variety of Catholic minds -- or is becoming a troubadour for harmony on his own while allowing the enforcers of "orthodoxy" to keep firing away at what they consider dissent? Do we have anything like parts of a whole or two separate forces, one opening doors, the other closing them? Not much suggests an effort to coordinate papal olive branches with the Curia's slings and arrows. Could it be intentional shizophrenia?

The pope has closed some doors himself, of course, like declaring that the sentence pronounced on women is "settled." And giving the nod to the perverse investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Despite urging greater respect for Catholic women, the actions have not followed. Women's grievances remain outside serious consideration and women themselves have received little more than the traditional applause as good helpers.

In fact, the pope's estimable compassion hasn't shown up in any significant institutional ways so far as I can tell. Good Cop Francis warms the hearts of the world and renounces the pomp and pride that has given the church a bad name. His humility is exemplary, so far as we know, but does that humility become conformity when it comes to changing things? Or does that humility invite the Bad Cop to put strict limits on change or to block it entirely? If the pope has agreed with yet another censuring of Sister Johnson, what does that say about him and his convincing humility. And if he's appalled by the Congregation's treatment, why doesn't he step in and put a stop to it?

Troubling questions, even as many of Francis' most ardent boosters hold out hope that he'll make it work out in their progressive favor. After the slap at Sister Johnson, that faith requires more blind trust.

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