Almost five hundred years have passed since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. His action on All Saints’ Eve in 1517 set in motion a revolutionary chain reaction that would bring about the Reformation. Luther’s 95 Theses were his response to the behaviour of a certain Dominican friar by the name of Johann Tetzel, a preacher/salesman who was shamelessly peddling indulgences–for a price–near Wittenberg. (An indulgence is a grant by the pope for the remission of some or all temporal punishment in purgatory normally obtained through fasting, prayers, pilgrimages, or good deeds.) Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz had obtained permission from Pope Leo X to conduct the sale of a special indulgence, with half of the proceeds from the sale going to the cardinal himself and half to the pope for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel depicted purgatory in such lurid terms that terrified folk willingly purchased the worthless pieces of paper. Who wouldn’t free a dear departed friend or relative from the horrors of purgatory if all it took were some coins, albeit hard-earned coins? Tetzel is said to have used this little jingle as part of his sales pitch:
“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Enlightened citizens of the twenty-first century, we look back on Tetzel’s superstitious victims with pity. Hearing about Bob Brady’s recent antics, however, I’m convinced that people today–at least, some of them–aren’t all that more enlightened than those who lived in Tetzel’s time. After Pope Francis finished his address to the US Congress on September 24, Brady quickly made his way to the rostrum and snatched the pope’s water glass from which the pontiff had taken three sips in the course of his speech. Brady hurriedly carried it to his office where he sipped a little and then passed it to his wife to do the same. He then invited Senator Bob Casey, also a Catholic, into his office to view the precious liquid. Casey brought along his wife and mother, and the three of them proceeded to dip their fingers into the water. Brady then poured the remaining water into a bottle with the intention of sprinkling it on his grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Brady is convinced that what he drank was holy water. “I’m sure it’s blessed if the Pope drank out of it,” he explained. I can only imagine what Luther, known for his ‘earthy’ language, would have had to say about Brady’s ‘holy water.’
Image: Courtesy Vincenzo Pinto, AFP/Getty Images
Two and half years into his papacy, Pope Francis has come to be admired, not just by devout Catholics but by people of all religious stripes, or even no religion at all. (Although I doubt many of his admirers would go so far as to drink his ‘backwash’ as Brady did.) Pope Francis has become ‘the people’s pope’–everybody’s pope.
How did a Catholic pope get to be a ‘religious rock star’? The source of his popularity is to be found in his welcoming attitude to gays and lesbians. In July 2013, three months into his papacy, Pope Francis said this:
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
And two months later, he commented:
“…when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being.”
(Interestingly, both times the pope frames his response as a question. In doing this, the pope never actually commits himself one way or the other.) Gay activists and their supporters, along with those who think of themselves as ‘progressives’, were elated at the pope’s non-judgmental attitude. Here was a pope the LGBT community and progressives could embrace. And embrace him they have: the best-known LGBT magazine in the US, The Advocate , named Pope Francis its 2013 ‘Person of the Year’. An adoring main stream media has played its part in popularizing this pope. CNN’s reporting of the pope’s recent visit to the US is a case in point. The pope’s visit received coverage the likes of which I have never seen before, surpassing any given to royalty or a rock star.
The pope was barely back in Rome, however, when it was learned that he had held a private meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who spent five days in jail for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licences. Like a betrayed lover, the pope’s progressive admirers were furious and demanded to know how the pope could meet with a “bigot” and “hater” like Kim Davis. The only explanation: The pope must have been poorly briefed as to her identity; or, he must have been tricked somehow into meeting with her.
The Vatican’s response to the revelation of this meeting has been shameful. First, the Vatican would neither confirm nor deny the meeting took place. Then, they acknowledged that the meeting had indeed taken place, but it was not private. Their final strategy was to downplay the significance of the meeting altogether, stating that the pope’s meeting with Kim Davis should not be taken as an endorsement of her position. The pope, they claimed, had held only one private audience while in Washington, and that audience took place the day before the Davis meeting when the pontiff met with former student Yayo Grassi, an openly gay Argentine, who was accompanied to the papal audience by his boyfriend. (All this denial, dissembling, and distancing by the Vatican, when the current Catholic Church’s current position on same-sex marriage is no different from that of Kim Davis’s.)
I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Neither am I a particular admirer of Pope Francis. Yes, he is a humble man, and yes, he is concerned with the poor–all very laudable. But what does it say about a man who is regarded as the vicar of Christ by Catholics, yet won’t defend a fellow Christian unashamedly and unequivocally for her opposition to same-sex marriage, based on her Christian faith? Pope Francis’ priority, it would appear, is not to alienate his LGBT and progressive supporters.
Events this morning may force the pope to take a stand, however. Polish Catholic theologian Monsignor Krzystaf Charamsa, accompanied by his Spanish boyfriend, ‘came out’. For the past twelve years Charamsa has been a mid-level theologian operating within the Vatican, involved with the defence and promotion of Catholic doctrine, all the while involved in a same-sex relationship. Charamsa claims the majority of Catholic clergy are gay and has issued a 10-point manifesto to the pope, calling on him to revise Catholic doctrine on homosexuality. I, for one, am waiting for the pope’s response.