A Protestant's critique of Pope Francis' first year in office

by Bill Tammeus

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As our pastor approached the end of his recent sermon series, "Jesus, the Pope and a Protestant Walk into a Bar," he felt obliged to balance all the praise he'd given Pope Francis with at least a short list of his disagreements with the pontiff.

So Paul Rock asked several friends, including me, to tell him not what we love about Francis, which is a lot, but what bothers us about his first year in office.

I'll share with you what I said to Paul while acknowledging that it's not up to us Protestants to tell Catholics how to behave, what to believe or how to organize their ecclesial life. We have enough trouble doing that for ourselves, after all. So here (minus the obvious and consistent Protestant complaint that we still aren't welcome to receive Communion in Catholic churches) was my list.

First: So far, Francis hasn't repudiated or softened the Vatican statement issued when Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That document, Dominus Iesus, says the Catholic church is the only true church and that others "are not Churches in the proper sense."

We Protestants (and other non-Catholics) find that position galling, but as I told Paul, if Francis were to suggest that it's time to rethink the thrust of that document, some Catholics would attack him even more than they already are. Still, indicating flexibility about those views certainly would make him many non-Catholic friends.

Second: So far, although he suggested he's in no position to judge someone who might be gay, he's done nothing we know of to repeal of Section 2358 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" are "objectively disordered."

There is, of course, still some debate even among scientists about the causes of homosexuality, but there's now almost no doubt -- save among some people who distort the Bible -- that being gay is not a choice. The church should be in the forefront of welcoming all people into the embrace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ -- and "all" is a pretty inclusive term. Calling someone's sexual orientation "objectively disordered" fails that test.

Third: So far, the hope that women one day might be ordained as priests is still a pipe dream. But as I told Paul, let's be fair: One man cannot change the slow-changing church overnight. What I think Francis might do on this issue, however, is to speak out on the question, still debated by Catholics, of whether Pope John Paul II infallibly declared that women will never be priests. If Francis were to come down on the side of those who believe John Paul was not speaking ex cathedra and thus was not issuing an infallible (and presumably irreversible) teaching about this, it would give women great hope. And, of course, it would result in further attacks on Francis from people who wish never to imagine women as priests.

Paul mentioned those three matters in the final sermon in his series but did not say anything about my final point to him, which was this:

Francis hasn't done what I suggested he do in this open letter to him in an NCR column I wrote in the fall: remove Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Catholic diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., because he was convicted in court of failure to report to government authorities a priest suspected of child sex abuse. Francis could make many friends around the world and lots in Kansas City if he did that -- along with making a few more enemies.

Even though we Protestants have no right to tell Catholics what to believe or how to operate, it's kind of fun to think about.

In turn, I wonder what areas of disagreement Catholics might offer to and about us Protestants in the spirit of ecumenical honesty and love.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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