When I was growing up, my father (who had little love for self-styled moderates) would sometimes offer this pointed observation: “You know what happens to people who try to stand in the middle of the road? They get hit by a car.”
Pope Francis came to America attempting to not be drawn into the American political culture wars, offering little in his homilies or speeches that traditionally-minded Catholics were looking for from him. He hit harder on his usual topics of the environment and the poor (important topics to be sure), but they are also topics that it is easy to speak pointedly on without offering any real solutions, or, without having them be personal conversion solutions; for such things, the burden of “fixing” anything rests with a policy or a governing body, not with an individual’s change of heart or behavior. That makes them easy to cheer, especially for those who think the solution to everything is found in more programs.
Therefore, his strongest rhetoric was really not so strong, which allowed him to generate a lot of good sentiment and appear that he was not picking a side (other than the obvious bureaucratic one that we have all come to expect at this point) and pull off a successfully neutral visit.
This is the way of Pope Francis. Push hard on social justice themes, and stay silent or at least vague on everything else, while the debate his neutrality stirs up swirls all around him.
The problem is that one cannot stay in the middle of the road for long before getting hit by the proverbial car. And this is what happened with the Kim Davis-gate. When it became clear that his meeting with her was the lighting rod that he had been carefully trying to avoid, Rome quickly drew the line and assured the world that the pope was simply a pawn in some lower prelate’s culture war game.
And if that was not bad enough, within hours the Vatican also acknowledged the fact that Pope Francis intentionally sought out a meeting with a long time acquaintance who is openly gay. “I’ll be in town, I’d love to give you a hug!”
Oh my. The implication is obvious: no pope who re-connects with openly gay acquaintances, and in such a warm way, on foreign pastoral visits could be so close-minded as to cheer on the likes of Kim Davis if he really knew who and what she represented. The pope was deceived. And Kim Davis, to be honest, was used. Indeed, it’s hard work outwitting all the culture warriors.
So the conventional narrative has been rescued, and Pope Francis is safely back in the middle of the road on all the touchy topics, with his visit still a success story.
But today the Synod begins in Rome, and that means it will not be possible for him to maintain his vague neutrality much longer. The debate on the difficult topics of marriage, family, same sex relationships, and the remarried (without annulments) being admitted to Communion is one that he himself has allowed to come to a boil. And he has done so under the apparent guise of fostering openness and inclusivity.
If at some point he does not take a position that is satisfyingly clear, then he will only keep getting pulled into one side’s position or the other. He will keep getting hit by the cars. The gay lobby will co-opt him (as in the case of this visit to his friend), or, those on the right will keep grabbing for some ledge to hold on to (as in the case with the palpable cries of hope over the Kim Davis meeting, only to have the same hopes dashed).
The results of the Synod deliberations, and his required summary of them, cannot be “who am I to judge?” The fact is that that response is not satisfying to a world which, like it or not, really does have to make difficult day-to-day decisions on the specifics of moral choices. It is not fair for Rome to come down on prelates or press agents (or whoever) who insist on trying to get the man to pick a side when it is in the very nature of his office as pope to pick a side.
And besides: “who am I to judge?” does not square with his other more consistent areas of moral exhortation. The next time I am asked why Christians in Western societies are so caught up in pursuing material excess, ignoring the poor, and running air conditioners, my response is going to be “who am I to judge?” The next time any member of the cultural elite wants to take a swing at Kim Davis, then I would hope the response from the New York Times would be: “who are you to judge her?”
But they won’t say that because the phrase does not really make any sense if one is interested in consistency or logic. It’s an untenable phrase for the average person to say. And it’s an irresponsible and destructive thing for a pope to say.
But he did say it, and it’s been repeated from the house tops. And now we have a synod that will, get this, have to make a moral judgement. I am praying that the car wreck that is coming is only a minor one, but, we shall see.
God will bring out of it all what He needs to. For much of the Church’s history, synods and councils have been car wrecks of varying magnitudes and through it all the truth has emerged. Right now it is therefore in history, more than anything else, that I am placing my faith. In the short view, sometimes there is just wreckage. In the long view, God always wins.