At last, a cool Pope

Sam Smith

The Catholic Church, like the United States, is a vast territory in which good and evil live comfortably and both claim possession. But just as neither Ted Cruz nor Bernie Sanders sufficiently defines America, so does neither the church’s discrimination against women nor its liberation theology.

Such conflicts make many uncomfortable especially in a fundamentalist era in which the religious, the political, the corporate and the social tend to demand a moral uniformity that fits well in a news sound bite or a pulpit pitch but fails in most other regards.

Thus the church these days is widely seen for its failings, including its treatment of women and gays. But largely forgotten are times when there were those in the church seeking and practicing an approach that appealed far beyond the bells and towers.

For example in the early 1940s, a worker priest movement sprung up in France. As Time magazine described it later, the church was “putting young priests into secular clothes and letting them work in factories, to regain the confidence of the French working class, which [had] almost completely abandoned the Catholic faith.”

In 1945 Pope Piux XII reluctantly approved the idea but by the 1950s, reports Wikipedia, “the worker-priest movement fell out of favor with the Vatican due to their role in left-wing politics and perceived abandonment of the traditional priesthood. The worker priest movement was ‘severely constrained.”… Many of the priests joined in campaigns for improved pay and conditions and the movement became prominent in the industrial unrest of 1952 and 1953. This resulted in the factory owners complaining to the Catholic Church that the priests were being divisive by supporting the unions.

“The French bishops informed the worker-priests that they must return to their parishes. About 50, however, chose to stay on at their work. Moreover, by 1953, of some 90 priests, 10 had married, and about 15 were working with the communists.”The Pope sent verbal orders that the movement be suppressed, but the French cardinals managed to persuade the Pope to allow the worker-priests to continue ‘in principle,’ after some major changes in the setup.”

“In November 1953, all worker priests were recalled and required to leave their work and unions…. In 1963, priests were allowed to return to the industrial workplaces, and in the 1990s there were about 2,000 priests of the workers mission in France, although they were ageing in line with the wider population of Catholic priests in that country.

“However, the worker priests had gained certain insights about the alienation of the Church from the modern world and the poor from their experience as workers. These had been shared with many others including the Bishops by means of letters, newsletters, books and meetings and the then Papal Nuncio to France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli. When Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958, he called the Second Vatican Council, at least partly as a result of what the worker priests had revealed. During that Council, the French and Belgian Bishops in particular were very influential in shaping its direction towards renewal and engagement with the modern world.”

To American activists involved in the 1960s, it was not strange to find oneself working closely with former or active priests.

And then there were ones you read about, like the Berrigan brothers, two priests put on the FBI’s most wanted list in 1968 for their anti-war protests.

They weren’t alone. Just as the story of Catholic politics was vastly different at the time so was Protestant church activism. In 1960s Washington, the preachers were everywhere. Episcopal Reverend Jesse Anderson helped to kick off the DC statehood movement. When I covered an anti-poverty meeting there would often be the Baptist Rev. Frank Milner, part preacher and part cab driver. And there was the Presbyterian, Rev. Tom Torosian, handcuffed by police at a protest and giving me a grin as I slipped a twenty for bail into his coat pocket.

One of my activist friends was an ex-priest married to an ex-nun who kept telling me to go easier on the Pope. I once got an unrequested grant from a Lutheran church to start a community newspaper. I came to think of Jews as belonging to one of three sects: Orthodox, Reform or Liberal Democrat, with the latter clearly the strongest. And when I was a member of the DC Humanities Council, we happily funded a film on liberation theology right under the nose of the conservative national humanities chair William Bennett.

It didn’t matter what one’s own religious or secular views were. If you were anti-war or pro civil rights, the godly were on your side. The theological issues you put aside for later.

By 1970, for Catholics it got even more so. Father Robert Drinan was elected to Congress from Massachusetts. He became the first member of Congress to introduce a referendum calling for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, was strongly anti-war and, yes, pro-abortion as a legal matter while being personally opposed.

If you like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren you would have loved Robert Drinan. And he wasn’t alone. In 1975, Wisconsin elected Father Robert Cornell as a member of the House after he had served for five years as chair of the Eighth District Democratic Party. On top of that, there was Gino Baroni, a priest who organized the Catholics for the March on Washington and became assistant secretary of housing under Carter. And another, Father Ray Kemp, was elected to serve on the DC school board. Kemp, a native Washingtonian who would work with Saul Alinsky, had gone through the 1968 riots that included his church’s neighborhood. He was hit with police tear gas more than ten times during that period.

Then in 1980, things changed radically in the vast territories known as America and the Catholic Church. In the former, the great Counter American Revolution that is still underway was launched by corporatist toy boy Ronald Reagan. And in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II told all priests to get out of politics.

For both Americans and Catholics the party was over.

In 2006 I described my frustration:

The death of the activist minister, William Sloane Coffin, propels a troubling question to the front of my mind: where have all the cool preachers gone?

It may seem an odd query for a Seventh Day Agnostic but I have always enjoyed a happy if inconsistent relationship with those of the cloth. Besides, we are all members of what Weber called the pariah intelligentsia, including teachers, ministers, writers, intellectuals and activists. In other words, moral outsiders of supposed integrity, passion, and faith providing guidance to a market, politics, and culture that would often just as soon do without it.

These days, however, religionists – as least as they appear in the media – seem dominated by people-slaying dogmatists, thought-slaying propagandists, morality-slaying hustlers and hypocrites, not to mention those whose supposed spiritual concerns are merely tools to strengthen their growing role as political insiders.

There are Islamic jihadists, a Judaism indentured to cynical and cruel Israeli governments, a Pope more concerned with punishing the views of American politicians than dealing with the personal habits of some of his own priests, and Christian evangelists delivering to rightwing politicians an economically endangered flock that has been sold the absurd apostasy that abortion and gay weddings are more important than pensions or healthcare….

Oh, I know you’re out there, Reverend Dude. That’s not my point. My point is that the system and its media only cares these days about religionists who are out to kill, control, or defeat someone. The worker priests, the cool preachers, the progressive rabbis are still there but struggling in a wilderness of silence and indifference.

It’s not my beat to tell you how to change this. I’ve got enough problems of my own to worry about. But I just wanted to let you know that I miss you badly

Which helps to explain why someone like me can get excited over the arrival of a motorcycling, ex bouncer turned Pope named Francis who sneaks out of the Vatican at night to care for the homeless and says things like this”

Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills….As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

One who says, “It is not necessary to talk about these issues [like abortion and gay marriage] all the time; The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”

Yes, the church remains miles from sanity on these issues, but it is also blessed by an appreciation of human imperfection, even its own. Which is why its parishioners get to wash their moral hands in a lavatory known as a confessional before being blessed.

I have lived around enough Catholics to appreciate the church’s capacity for covert pragmatism. Like the young woman about to marry a non-Catholic asking her mother, “What should I tell the priest when he wants to know if we’re going to raise our children as Catholics?” And her Italian born mother putting her hand on her daughter’s knee and saying, “Just tell him you’ll try.”

Thanks to our era of dogmatic and dictatorial divinity pursued by all the major religions, it easy to forget that religion can be a journey as well as a set of rules. And even those of us who are not participants in the journey can appreciate and encourage the return from dogma to discovery.

So welcome, Francis. It’s been a long wait.

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