Progressive Catholics and the White Smoke

Progressive Catholics and the White Smoke

Progressive Catholics and the White Smoke

What a progessive pope might have looked like.


With the death of Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church–the largest and wealthiest religious institution in the world–stands at a critical crossroads. In a conclave beginning on April 18, its College of Cardinals will elect a new pope, an individual who could reshape the Church for generations to come. So as crowds gather outside the Vatican in the wait for white smoke, progressive Catholics in the United States are clinging to the hope that the new pontificate will bring with it an era of positive social change.

“I think like all institutions the Catholic Church has to come into line with the historical realities and the social changes of the last twenty-five years,” says Dave Robinson, executive director of PAX Christi USA, the national Catholic peace and justice group. To that end, many progressive Catholics would like to see the Church re-evaluate and redefine its positions on dozens of issues, from contraception and homosexuality to abortion and globalization. However, nearly all of those specific issues revolve around at least one of three broader areas of concern: the leadership structure of the Church itself, discrimination and economic injustice.

I. Structure

In recent years, progressive Catholics have become increasingly critical of the church’s leadership structure, assailing it as pyramid-shaped and monarchical rather than circular and democratic. Indeed, Pope John Paul II and the Roman Curia made many of their most consequential decisions, such as refusing to support certain AIDS-prevention programs because they promoted the use of condoms, with little input from clergy and laity attuned to the realities on the ground. This centralization of authority, progressives argue, is a trend ripe for reversal.

“I’m hoping we will move into a new Church in which the next Pope does not have a top-down, dictator-type style of leadership,” says Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest, longtime activist and founder of the movement to close the US Army’s School of the Americas. Bourgeois favors “more of a shared experience of the faith,” with the Church welcoming a wide variety of theological approaches and social perspectives.

Dr. Mary E. Hunt, a Catholic theologian and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), argues for a complete overhaul of the church’s leadership framework. “I think instead of talking about a new pope, we should talk about a papal team,” Hunt says. “If the papacy is meant to be a symbol of unity and not a person of authority, then what it should be is an international, interracial, mixed-gender, intergenerational team that brings a range of voices into the conversation.”

Such a diverse set-up, Hunt contends, would much more accurately reflect the church’s global composition, and thereby better connect the Vatican to communities around the world. Moreover, a new power structure would likely open debate on issues previously closed for discussion, thus serving as a bridge toward a more modern and progressive Catholic Church. As Hunt points out, “Until the church changes its model, the rest is going to be pretty much cosmetic.”

II. Discrimination

The Catholic Church, at times, has served as a valiant voice for victims of discrimination throughout the world. But in the eyes of many, it has undermined that voice by promoting discrimination in its own ranks. It harshly condemns homosexuality, and perhaps even more visibly, continues to treat women, in the words of Hunt, “as second-class citizens.”

As matters of policy, the church bans women from entering the priesthood and excludes them from its hierarchy. “Women are simply not on their radar,” says Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, referring to the church’s all-male leaders. “Their capacity for discourse with women is comparable to their capacity for discourse with extraterrestrials from Mars.”

The church, as a result of that environment, has essentially refused to debate many issues of concern to women, including birth control and abortion. “Questions about women are just so far from [Catholic priests’] experiences,” says Kissling. “So it’s really an uphill battle for gender equality in the church.”

Hunt, the theologian, calls the church’s doctrinal logic on women, which deals with such matters as who was present at the Last Supper, “intellectually embarrassing” and desperately in need of reassessment. And as for the prelates who continue to categorize homosexuality as a disorder and a sin, she says simply: “All they do is quote themselves over and over again. They don’t pay any attention to the social sciences.”

Naturally, progressive Catholics in the United States want little to do with the church’s discrimination, whether it concerns women, homosexuals or anyone else. So as the church moves into its third millennium, they hope to see the practice of discrimination rejected once and for all.

III. Economic Injustice

Many progressives feel the church has turned away from its commitment to fighting economic injustice (although most praise its battles on other justice issues, including those against the death penalty and military aggression). Robinson, the PAX Christi USA director, says the preferential option for the poor, a staple of Catholic social teaching, has been all but forgotten in the United States. “The Church has to stand up for economic rights,” he argues. “Catholic teaching says that every action and every policy needs to be measured against its effect on the most vulnerable members of society, and that’s certainly not the case in the United States today.”

Mark Zwick, co-director of Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic Worker house in Houston, also views economic justice as a critically important issue. “The church has to address the problems of globalization, such as slave wages,” he says, “and in strong enough language to be heard.”

This desire to see the church and its members address economic oppression reflects a core principle of liberation theology, which Pope John Paul II worked to stamp out during his papacy. Bourgeois, who spent much of the 1970s in Latin America, the birthplace of liberation theology, says that form of the Catholic faith could return in full force as the Church moves forward. “Liberation theology is not dead,” he says. “Pope John Paul II tried very hard to kill it, and many people have suffered as a result. But it’s not dead. It can definitely be resurrected.”

Of course, the odds suggest that the new pope will be far from a radical reformer; after all, 114 of the 117 cardinals eligible to cast votes in the papal conclave were appointed by Pope John Paul II. But as history has proven and progressive Catholics are quick to note, the Vatican is not immune to unpredictable twists and turns.

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