Don’t get me wrong. I am very fond of Pope Francis – his warmth and sunniness, and his dedication to serving the poor. I realize he leads a church whose 1.2 billion members disagree about a number of doctrinal matters – women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception.
But it is becoming wearying when the Pope, after three years in office, edifies the faithful through off-the-cuff remarks that the media scramble to decipher.
The latest example is the Pope’s response to a conference of women religious. He was asked to form a commission to study whether the church could ordain women deacons, a position that does not lead to the priesthood, but offers women a more meaningful role at Mass, and the right to preach the gospel from the pulpit. The Pope indicated that yes, that might be a good idea.
This is hardly a resounding call to action. But consider how the media are reporting it. In today’s Washington Post, for example, the headline is “Pope supports study on reviving role for women.” The New York Times implied it was a done deal: “Pope Francis Says Commission Will Study Whether Women May Serve As Deacons.”
I am not blaming the very good reporters who wrote the stories. They don’t get to write the headlines. But nevertheless, the Pope’s spontaneous remark conveys a change in course that is far more substantial than what the Pope actually said. He responded positively to one question. He mulled about it out loud. He seemed to grow fond of the idea. But that’s far from convening an actual commission.
Let’s put this along with his famous, “Who am I to judge?“ answer to a question about gay priests. While some Vatican watchers predicted a sea change in thinking about gay Catholics, the Pope’s tolerance had some notable limits. In his formal response to the bishops’ Synod on the Family, the Pope made very clear that same-sex marriage is not “even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage.”
Then there was his convoluted discussion about contraception and the Zika virus. He implied that maybe, just maybe, when the alternative is giving birth to babies with terrible and likely fatal birth defects, contraception could be permitted. Vatican watchers say that previous Popes have done something similar, giving theologians the okay to explore the question and to consider when contraception might prevent a larger evil. But these theological excursions, as delicate and intricate as a medieval book of hours, won’t help the struggling Catholic women of Brazil and other Zika-plagued countries, who don’t necessarily have the time or the background in theology to figure out if they can use birth control or not.
The Pope also makes gestures that are dramatic, but don’t necessarily lead to anything more. The most eye-opening one was his decision, after visiting a camp on the island of Lesbos, to take 12 Syrian refugees back to the Vatican. That was noble.
He also has repeatedly spoken out against efforts in Europe to block the flow of refugees. Maybe that’s all he can do – exhort by example and entreat by eloquence. But what’s the point of being Pope if you can’t issue mandates? Last fall, the Pope asked each Catholic parish, monastery and religious community in Europe to take in a refugee family. Presumably, the Pope could do more than just ask. He could send a letter to all bishops in Europe strongly urging them to follow through. (I’d suggest he also extend his urgent request to North America,too.)
Here’s the problem with all these papal suggestions and gestures: They allow bishops to call the real shots.The bishops know that the Pope won’t last forever. They can resist or ignore his change of tone, and reformist language, and wait until the next papal election delivers someone more to their liking.
And bishops have huge power in their own dioceses. In 1996, Fabian Bruskewitz, then the notoriously conservative bishop in Lincoln, Nebraska, excommunicated Catholics who deigned to belong to the progressive Catholic group, Call to Action. The Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI refused to overrule the bishop’s decision.
The bishop of the Arlington, Virginia diocese, required that any volunteer who wanted to teach religion to youngsters sign an oath declaring loyalty to all the bishops’ teachings, including the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ opposition to the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
But the Pope has the final say over what the bishops do. He could use his power. He would stir up strife in the church, no doubt. But that didn’t stop Pope Paul VI from declaring, in an encyclical, that artificial birth control was “intrinsically wrong,” even though a pontifical commission looking into the issue had voted overwhelmingly to permit married couples to practice birth control. Pope John Paul II, who started the process, and Benedict XVI oversaw its completion, created a lasting change in the church when they revised the prayers Catholics say at Mass, making the language more formal, more severe, and less accessible.
In 2006, the Vatican wasted no time punishing then-Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, when he disagreed with his fellow bishops and publicly supported a proposed Ohio law extending the statute of limitations for allegations of clergy sex abuse.
Maybe the Pope’s change in tone offers the best way forward to move the church towards reform. But as a progressive Catholic, I’d like to see this Pope start throwing his weight around. Fewer hints. More mandates. Now that would deserve some headlines.
This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post