The Gazette spoke with Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, the Charles Chauncey Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, and with Tim McCarthy, a lecturer on history and literature and the program director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, about the recent changes at the Vatican.

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Slowly, shifts at the Vatican

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Analysts see a moderation in tone and direction under Pope Francis, but dogma is something else

The pace of change has sped up at the Vatican in recent months as key shifts in both personnel and tone have signaled a push by Pope Francis toward a more inclusive Catholic Church.

In September, the pope tapped the moderate Bishop Blase Cupich to head the Chicago Archdiocese, one of the largest in the United States, succeeding the more conservative Cardinal Francis George. A synod on the family held in Vatican City last month included more-welcoming language aimed at those who are divorced, live together without marriage, or are in same-sex relationships. And earlier this month, the pope demoted conservative American Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, a critic of the reform agenda, from his powerful post as head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, a key position with influence over the appointment of new bishops.

The Gazette spoke with Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, the Charles Chauncey Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, and with Tim McCarthy, a lecturer on history and literature and the program director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, about the recent changes at the Vatican.

GAZETTE: Can you recap the outcome of the most recent synod?

FIOREZNA: Well it’s difficult, because in a sense this is only preliminary, and so the final thing is going to take place a year from now. Some of the votes, even for the controversial stuff that is slightly more progressive, ended up getting a majority of the votes … and I thought that was an interesting observation. The one that had probably the least support was communion for the divorced and remarried, but that still had a majority in favor of a change. And then a watered-down statement for having some respect for gay people, that also got a majority of the vote… so you have a majority on the more progressive side. So that’s all one can say, and I thought that one has to see what comes in the future.

I think the most important thing that has happened is that they have a new archbishop in Chicago because the [previous Archbishop] George was one of the leaders of the conservative group of bishops. He provided intellectual leadership. … He was the one who was really strong leading the bishops against [President] Obama and the health care plan. And so Cardinal George now has been replaced by Archbishop Cupich, who is much more moderate and much more open. And [Cupich] actually did what I thought was really fascinating church politics in a way in that [during his installation] he made reference to Archbishop [John] Quinn, who had been the archbishop in San Francisco.

And the interesting point about the archbishop of San Francisco is that when he had gone to Rome for a synod 25 years ago under John Paul II, he got up and he raised at the meeting the idea that we really have to rethink family issues, we’ve got to rethink contraception, and he was immediately shot down and told these issues are not to be discussed. And so … Cupich praised Quinn. And because Quinn did that everyone knew that he would never go anywhere, he was never going to become a cardinal, and that’s exactly what happened. … Everyone was looking at who would Francis appoint to replace Cardinal George. He picked Cupich, and that’s a very important point.

I think the appointment of Cupich is a positive, and that a majority, even though not a two-thirds majority [required for adoption], were open for a more-progressive kind of a statement [from the synod], I think that’s positive.

GAZETTE: Does Cupich’s appointment indicate that Pope Francis is leaning in a more progressive direction?

FIOREZNA: I think it indicates that he wants a bishop who’s much more pastoral in his orientation and is concerned about poverty issues, issues of concern for folks for social justice, etc. And those are exactly the things that Cupich spoke out for when he accepted the appointment.

GAZETTE: What does Pope Francis’ recent demotion of the conservative Cardinal Burke, former head of the Vatican’s highest judicial authority, signify?

FIORENZA: That’s very important, because he held a key position on a committee that’s involved in appointing bishops. The way bishops are appointed, obviously you get recommendations from the bishop of the diocese, you get recommendations from priests, you get recommendations from the apostolic delegate, and all that stuff goes to Rome. But then in Rome there’s a committee that recommends the appointments to the pope. And of course the pope can look at it and decide whom he wants among the recommendations. Burke was in that position, and therefore he had an enormous position in deciding what kind of bishops get appointed. So if you obviously wanted to make some reform in the church, [you replace] one of the most important figures.

GAZETTE: Hadn’t Burke been critical of Pope Francis’s reform agenda?

FIORENZA: He had come out critical of the pope, saying that the pope was leading to confusion. … [Recently] George again was interviewed, and he had basically said that Francis is sowing confusion because even though he may not be making fundamental changes, he’s giving people the idea that there can be changes, so he thinks the pope doesn’t realize how much he’s confusing people. George said that as well as Burke. …

That Burke got replaced, that’s a surprise because Burke was young, he was 63, and he was healthy. But Cardinal George was past 75, and he had been suffering from cancer for the past several years. And therefore, everyone was asking who is going to get to replace George because that’s one of the largest dioceses in the country, and that could be very important. And that [Pope Francis] selected Cupich is a sign that he selected … one of the more liberal bishops in the country. That’s the second sign that he is moving in a more progressive direction, moving away from just saying no about issues where he disagrees, but trying to have a more positive, pastoral approach.

GAZETTE: What do you think these changes in language, tone, and in personnel mean moving forward?

FIORENZA: I think it’s a shift in how the church faces the world in a social/political context. In other words, it’s much more aware of the complexity … if you have 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce, what are you going to do with remarried people? So I think the question’s not so much changing your position as its having a more welcoming attitude, and I think that’s a fair response to underscore.

GAZETTE: Are these changes the first step in a change in doctrine?

FIORENZA: Well, I think that’s what people are afraid of. And I would argue different positions might be changed in different ways. In other words, the question would be, in a sense, if you are allowing [the] divorced and remarried to come back into the Eucharist, you are in a way moving closer to the Greek Orthodox position that basically allows one remarriage after divorce. So it’s maybe not so much changing a position, but more or less allowing it … so I will be curious to see how it develops.

GAZETTE: How do you think the LBGT community has reacted to this shift in tone and in personnel from Pope Francis?

MCCARTHY: I think there has been a mixed reaction in the LBGT community. Much of this is anecdotal, of course, based on conversations I’ve had, things I’ve read, and also the kinds of reactions I see on social media whenever some news comes out of the Vatican. On the one hand, there’s certainly an enormous sense of hope that this pope is someone who represents a shift in both thinking and practice in the Catholic Church around issues of gender and sexuality. That certainly characterizes part of my own reaction to this recent shift in tone from Pope Francis. I think some of us are excited by the doors that we see opening with respect to affirming LBGT people, and other marginalized folks, as people.

But I also think there’s a legitimate and longstanding sense of suspicion present in the LBGT community insofar as the church and the pope are concerned. I am someone whose relationship to the Catholic Church is characterized by deep suspicion of its morals and motives, based on my own upbringing as a closeted gay Catholic kid.

The Catholic Church was never a place where someone like me felt welcome or valued. For many of us, even though we’re seeing some promising changes in terms of words and actions, it’s hard to believe that this signals some kind of revolution or wholesale transformation of values and practices with respect to the church. I think that suspicion will always be there. I also think there are a lot of LGBT people who are too far gone from the Catholic Church to be invested at all in its present work or potential evolution, precisely because the Catholic Church has been so deeply alienating to so many of us. The pope could march in a gay pride parade or endorse gay marriage, and some members of our community would still never believe that what they’re seeing is genuine. So I think our reactions really run the spectrum, based, in large part, on the nature of our own personal and historical relationships with the church itself.

GAZETTE: Do you think there will be any kind of movement from below, from the lay people who are accepting of allowing same-sex marriage and divorced and remarried members into the church, to push the hierarchy to change?

MCCARTHY: The history of Catholicism is a history of tension between lay people and church hierarchy. There’s always been something of a distance between practicing Catholics and church elites. … These differences and distances produce tensions between lay Catholics, many of whom have demonstrated time and again a deep capacity for tolerance and even acceptance of LGBT people, and the church hierarchy, which has remained very conservative on a whole range of issues, including gay rights, abortion and contraception, female priests, priests getting married, and other social issues. There’s an incredible social conservatism that the church is very much dedicated to preserving, although obviously Pope Francis has signaled that he is willing to be open to changes in some of these areas. The hierarchy of the church remains very separated from lay people. Unless we go visit the Vatican, many Catholics worldwide have little to no relationship with the Vatican. I mean, some do and some feel that connection, but many do not. So it’s hard to judge whether or not — and just how much — lay people are having an impact on church doctrine on issues like gay marriage.

More than any pope in my lifetime — including Pope John Paul II, who was seen as a real reformer — this pope is taking the temperature of the culture, and engaging it, in ways that I find quite impressive. You see this in his use of social media, in his more humble approach to the papacy, inviting different people to come into the church, and softening his language around a whole range of things, including LGBT rights. But the relationship between what the lay people want and feel and what the church hierarchy does remains a deep mystery to me….

GAZETTE: If the question of same-sex marriage returns to the U.S. Supreme Court and the court rules in its favor, do you think that decision will have any impact on the church?

MCCARTHY: I think that any kind of Supreme Court ruling will have a much deeper impact here in the United States than it will globally. In recent years, the American Catholic Church has had to figure out how it should respond — what it’s going to say, how it’s going to operate — in the context of rapidly shifting public opinion (and laws) on LGBT rights. The church has also had to wrestle with how it is going to deal with LGBT people, LGBT Catholics. Will the church affirm and accept us, or not?

The church has always been such an uncomfortable place to talk about gender and sexuality. There’s a deep anxiety about gender and sex that has always been at the core of the church’s role in our culture wars. The church has entered into the culture wars in any number of ways over the course of my lifetime, but now it has to decide whether it is going to embrace LGBT people, or continue to reject us. …

I welcome the shift, in particular, the shift in tone around these issues coming from Pope Francis. The hateful language, the language of dehumanization, marginalization, and discrimination, has been muted in this pope’s short tenure so far. And that’s certainly been a welcome advance. Shortly after he became pope, I ordered some stickers that say: “This Pope gives me hope.” That’s true. As a gay Catholic, I toggle between hope and a deep suspicion that this rhetoric will turn out to be more symbol than substance. That’s the distance Pope Francis has to close. It has to be more than words. …

I think Pope Francis’ demotion of Cardinal Burke and his vocal push-back to the more reactionary leaders of the church signals an institutional commitment to transforming the church into a place of healing and redemption and love away from a place of abuse and violence and alienation. That process is not going to happen overnight, but it has to happen in order for those of us who are already suspicious of the Catholic Church to have hope that this church can move into the modern world. Stripping power from people who represent the most egregious forms of prejudicial theology in the Catholic Church is a very welcome sign, an institutional commitment that signals an institutional change. In doing so, Pope Francis has put other people on notice in a way that I think can have a significant impact. I don’t in any way want to downplay the significance of his words, but I do want to recognize the importance of the actions. Real change requires both.