Progressive Halo or Wholly Rhetoric?

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  September 22, 2015

Progressive Halo or Wholly Rhetoric?

Feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt discusses whether the hype around the Pope's visit deserves the unbridled enthusiasm of the media and progressive community.
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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Pope Francis arrived in Washington on Tuesday as a part of a three-day trip. He will meet with President Obama and address Congress, and then he will head up to New York City to address the United Nations General Assembly. Inspired by his message of social justice, low-wage workers in DC went on strike for a living wage, and 100 women arrived in DC after marching 100 miles, calling for immigration reform.

While much of the press and the progressive community is celebrating the image of Pope Francis as a progressive and even a radical leader who is softening the church's position on various issues like abortion and galvanizing his base with the encyclical on climate change and capitalism and even equality, we at the Real News want to ask if this enthusiasm is indeed justified. Joining us now to discuss this is Mary E. Hunt. She's a feminist theologian with the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual. She's a co-editor of New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views. Mary, very pleased to have you join us at the Real News Network.

MARY E. HUNT: Thank you so much, it's my pleasure to be with you.

PERIES: So Mary, I cannot help but ask, if you had the pope's ear on this trip what would you be saying to him?

HUNT: Well, I would be saying listen, listen, listen. Especially to women and people who are marginalized. They'll help you to understand what needs to change in this world. [Escucha, escucha, escucha a las mujeres y los marginados]. I would say it in Spanish with an Argentine accent.

PERIES: That's fabulous. So Mary, now, a lot of people of course hail the pope for the progressive positions he's taken on various issues. You seem to think otherwise. Now let's unpack them one by one. Where is he on the ordination of women?

HUNT: I've just come back from a conference in Philadelphia with 500-plus women from around the world, from 20 countries, talking about this question. And we see it as a linchpin, because insofar as an organization the size of the Roman Catholic Church can discriminate against half of its population in terms of ministry, and most importantly decision making, it doesn't have a strong leg to stand on in terms of the other important social justice issues. So we're urging not simply the ordination of women, but the involvement of all members of the church in decision making so that we begin to change the structure. Not replacing the pope with a woman pope, or replacing male priests with women priests. But whole new models of egalitarian ways of being church.

And it is happening around the world, I'm happy to report, that the 500-plus who gathered in Philadelphia had marvelous resources, both theological and theo-political to talk about these issues.

PERIES: Now, a couple of years ago when the pope was asked on the role of gay priests in the church, he said, who am I to judge? What did he mean by that, and what do you think his role is on these issues?

HUNT: Well, I have two responses to it. One, as a Jesuit, the majority of the Jesuits in my view are, at least the ones I have known, are gay. So he certainly knows a lot of gay priests. And who am I to judge, I think it cut both ways. On the one hand it cuts--one ought not to be negative in judgment. But I think his role as a religious leader, not as pope but as a religious leader, as a person of integrity, is to judge in a positive way all those that [inaud.] where he sees love. And insofar as those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender are loving, then in fact we should be judged and judged positively.

So I thought the statement was a little bit weak. And I thought a lot of people glommed onto it expecting more than it really was.

PERIES: Now, some people are also hailing his measures or his statements making annulments a bit more easier in the Catholic church. What do you make of that?

HUNT: Well, I see a pattern. I think that on the annulment question he's making it easier, cheaper, and quicker to get an annulment. But there's no fundamental change in the doctrine or the teaching with that marriage is indissoluble. And I think in cases of violence, of immaturity and so forth, that people ought to move on from marriages that are dangerous to their health, spiritual, physical and otherwise. And therefore I think the annulment process is redundant in most instances. I think a civil divorce is plenty.

But what it means is that the way in which he's set it up, it's only during the year--it's only that more and more people can be under the church's policy on this. And I think that's frankly not very helpful. I would have been more excited to hear that there are many marriages that in fact don't need annulments, and that annulment, the whole annulment process is really rather dated and unnecessary. So I don't think that's a big step forward. I think that's really the way of consolidating power and getting more people to do what you want them to do cheaper, faster, easier. I'm not a big--I don't see a big step forward there.

PERIES: Now, isn't this so people can rejoin the church and perhaps be remarried in the church if they need to?

HUNT: Well, yeah. There's a lot of market share going on. You know, there are many, many competing religious communities in the marketplace. And Catholicism has certainly lost a lot of members. In fact, it's the case that in the United States the second-largest denomination of Christians is Catholics, but the second-largest denomination is former Catholics. And so I can understand why the institutional church is trying to shore up their market share and bring people back. There's no question that that's a good thing, if they treat people when they come back with dignity. But to invite people back on your terms and think that they're going to do it I think rather is giving the wrong message. If I were a person who were divorced and thinking about myself, I wouldn't, first of all, consider myself outside the [inaud.] of the church anyway.

So I think that we have to really change that teaching, not simply make it easier for people to do what the hierarchical church wants people to do.

PERIES: And Mary, the pope in declaring an encyclical on climate change and speaking rather strongly towards capitalist components of the current conditions and who is to blame, in a sense, to some of the climate change catastrophes we're facing today. This is a positive step, and do you think it's enough?

HUNT: I think it's an enormously positive step, and I think it leads the world in a very important and urgently necessary direction. At the same time I would say that more needs to be said, particularly around questions of birth control. Population issues are a major question in terms of the way in which climate change and other ecological issues are adjudicated, and I think to advocate for birth control, not to ban birth control but to even advocate for birth control, and the use of effective contraception, would be terribly important and would again add luster and clout to the document, this excellent document on climate change. Without it, I think it's half what it could be.

PERIES: Right. And then one gaping issue here is that the Catholic church as a capitalist enterprise and the involvement of it in terms of perpetuating some of the climate change issues that we are faced with requires divestment. Do you think the Catholic church would be engaging in that discussion? Because I know he's held some very strong conversations with people in the movement, including Naomi Klein and João Pedro Stedile with the MSD, very concerned about the earth. Where do you think he should stand on this?

HUNT: Well, I think he's led the way in terms of being involved in these conversations. There are lots more to be had. The problem is that the Catholic church is not--well, it's a monolith on the one hand. It is really a lot of fiefdoms. And the cardinals and bishops are the ones who handle the fiefdoms. And I think if you take, for example, the city of New York, the Archdiocese of New York, is an enormous real estate landholder in New York City. They have billions of dollars of real estate in New York City.

So when you talk about divestment I think it's not just from fossil fuels and so forth, but also from the kind of extraordinary consumption and accumulation that the Catholic church has been about over millennia. So I think there's a lot of work here to be done, and I think it has to be done both at the level of the Vatican and much more in a decentralized way so that ordinary Catholics also take a look at our own portfolios. Take a look at our own ways of living in the world and begin to think about who we can be responsible, both in terms of investment and more importantly in terms of sharing.

PERIES: Mary E. Hunt, I thank you so much for joining us today. And we hope to catch up with you on the [Mall].

HUNT: Wonderful, it would be my pleasure. Thanks for having me. Bye-bye now.

PERIES: Thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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