In two highly recommended DailyKOS diaries, this community has been responding to Francis' long provocative interview and his subsequent homily on money as the root of evil. Mostly, progressives have been excited, though we've asked to what extent his reforms are merely style and not substance. We also wonder when he'll really tackle the big issues.

CNN now has two essays up on these issues. I wrote one of them.

Bill Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League, wrote the first. It's because of his piece that I am writing this diary. And although I didn't know it at the time, I sent my essay to CNN to answer his argument.

Donohue basically says that there is nothing to see here, so please move along.

If you talk to conservative Catholics, or read them (I read them so you don't have to), it's a message you will hear a lot. Francis still is anti-homosexual. He's anti-abortion. He's NOT a progressive. He has changed no doctrine. Here are some highlights (lowlights) from Donohue:

Laurie Goodstein's article in The New York Times on the pope's comments says U.S. bishops will feel the pinch of these remarks as they often appear "to make combating abortion, gay marriage and contraception their top public policy priorities." This is inaccurate.

It is not the bishops who have made these issues front and center -- it is the Obama administration. It would be more accurate to say the pope would find fault with the bishops if they did not resist these state encroachments on the religious liberty rights of Catholics.

That's right - Donohue is blaming the Obama administration for the Catholic obsession with gay marriage and abortion over the past few decades.

He finishes with: "Pope Francis unequivocally rejects abortion and gay marriage." "Pope Francis wants us to oppose abortion." "He wants us to oppose same-sex marriage."

To sum up - Donohue agrees that Francis said Catholics shouldn't focus on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. Then he focuses on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage. And Obama.

I respond - Again, I didn't know that Donohue was writing this piece, but I knew the tenor of his arguments before I ever read it - by arguing that the lack of doctrinal change is the STRENGTH of Francis' reform movement.

Don't be surprised at what Francis is doing; instead, wonder if the rest of the church hierarchy is going to catch up. Francis' revolution emerges out of the core of Catholicism. He emphasizes humility, poverty, social justice, non-judgment, peace and especially mercy. That he can seem so transformative without changing any theological principles is a testament to the depth and power of his reform, not its limitations.
I then talk about historical precedent. I am a medieval historian by trade and I take the long view. Doctrinal change almost never happens. That's not the way the Church reforms itself - rather, it re-interprets the significance of existing doctrinal positions. If we just look back to Vatican II, then sure, Francis hasn't done much in comparison. But he doesn't need to hold a big council to bring about effective change.

I talk, in particular, about the Pope's new namesake, St. Francis. Francis was always very careful to remain within existing practices (lest he be condemned as a heretic), and in doing so invented a new kind of Catholic practice, one focused on outreach and service rather than hierarchy and formula.

I conclude by turning back to the modern age.

St. Francis' revolutionary message focused on a return to first principles, as he saw them. While Pope Francis has ascended to the throne of St. Peter and St. Francis never chose to be ordained, one can locate certain parallels unfolding between the two men and their efforts at reform. This pope is also turning to the first principles as he perceives them. Pope Francis makes the argument that everything he needs to transform the church already exists within the core teachings. And if this is the core, how can anyone choose not to follow?

What would it look like for the rest of the hierarchy to go where Francis is leading? For one thing, they might find lots of their lay parishioners and the women and men in holy order already there, working.

Because that's where the Catholics I know, love, and respect are - they are not in the hierarchy. They are working. They are working hard to make a more just world. I'm so pleased the Pope is pushing the elites of the church to catch up.

It's going to take a lot of pushing.

EDIT: Thanks for the recommends and the constructive comments. Be nice to each other in there, even if you disagree.

Per request, here is a link to the long interview that sparked this conversation. I will also post a complete set of links to everything to which I refer in the essay to my blog. I may not get to that today though. If someone finds the complete Italian version free online somewhere, please message me.

I am history professor and essayist for the likes of CNN, The Atlantic, and The Nation.

I have a blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? It updates daily.

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Originally posted to Lollardfish on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 07:07 AM PDT.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Anglican Kossacks.

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