Pink Smoke and Protestant Popes

The new face in the Vatican—Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis—caused hopes to surge among Catholics around the world that reform is on the horizon.

Described as a humble unpretentious priest, who cooks for himself, rides the bus to work, and has a heart for the poor, Pope Francis has become the focus of unending speculation about what shape reform might take under his pontificate.

Just days before the first puff of white smoke wafted out of the Vatican chimney to announce the election of a new pope, the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life released poll results on what American Catholics believe the new pontiff’s priorities should be. The clear front-runner among a list of serious issues was the “scandal over sex abuse by clergy.” The numbers were emphatic: “34% of U.S. Catholics mention sex abuse, pedophilia or some other reference to the scandal. No other problem garners more than 10% of responses.”

As a non-Catholic, I shared in the suspense along with thousands of Catholic faithful who kept vigil at St. Peter’s Square as they awaited the new pope’s inaugural appearance on the Vatican balcony. I listened to the speculations and wondered too what reforms the new pontiff would introduce.

As a woman, I noticed the pink smoke from a group of Catholic women protesting the absence of female voices in the conclave and in decision making within the Roman Catholic Church. Later on I watched Bob Simon’s 60 Minutes report on American nuns seeking a place at the all-male leadership table in parishes and church hierarchy. I was disheartened to learn that the Vatican deployed Seattle’s Archbishop Peter Sartain to rein in the renegade nuns and bring them into compliance with Church teaching that excludes them because they are female.

As a Protestant, I can’t help seeing parallels between issues facing today’s Catholic Church and those confronting the Protestant church.

No, Protestants don’t have a pope; we have a myriad of popes—pastors and leaders who speak with a quasi-divine authority and whose teachings are regarded as virtually infallible by their devoted followers. Clergy sex abuse scandals and cover-ups are not unique to the Catholic Church; they also occur with devastating effects in Protestant churches. We may not have pink smoke in our services, but Protestant women are troubled too by the lack of women at the leadership table and over decisions made by all-male leaders in many local churches and denominations. We know this inevitably means costly blind spots go undetected in the church’s ministries, messages, and priorities—causing harm and missed opportunities.

Protestants also need to pay more attention (and thankfully more and more are) to the same justice issues—poverty and abuse—that today are on the radar of Roman Catholics. This is consistent with our shared history as followers of Jesus. Historically early Christians were known for their care of the poor and defense of the helpless. To address these justice issues today will mean having our eyes opened to the scope and depth of the problems—both inside and outside the church.

Gaining ground against all forms of abuse—including abuse of power, sexual, spiritual, and emotional abuse, domestic violence, as well as sex-trafficking and pornography—will be sporadic until women are routinely part of church leadership. We can no longer accept church leadership that rebukes abused women for failing to submit to male authority and sends them back into harm’s way to try harder. I am reminded of one Protestant church that did not take this seriously until the wife of a church leader showed up at church with bruises and black eyes.

Remarkably, the key to achieving the reform so desperately needed by both Catholic and Protestant churches was right under Pope Francis’ nose the moment he stepped out on the Vatican balcony and owned his new name. Clues can be found in that cloud of pink smoke and in the legacy of his patron saint, Francis of Assisi.

In the wake of the Pope’s election, Maureen O’Connell, Associate Professor of Theology at Fordham University, brought to light an overlooked but key strategy in the relentless battle Saint Francis of Assisi waged against poverty. He joined forces with a woman—Saint Clare of Assisi, Founder of the Poor Clares. According to O’Connell,

“Like most heroic dynamic duos, these two were revolutionary. They confounded social expectations, rejected excessive wealth and power, and inspired upright living. In some ways, their partnership should be nothing new for followers of Christ, since women were pivotal both to Jesus’ ministry and the early Jesus movement. But since such partnerships remain a rarity, Francis and Clare might remind the new pope: if you want reform, work with tenacious women.”

What happens next? Maybe Pope Francis will set the example for Catholics and Protestants alike by joining forces with some renegade nuns as he pursues real reform. One can only hope.

 Published on the Huffington Post Blog:

About carolyncustisjames
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