Catholic activists want Pope Francis to match words with actions

Sister Teresa Forcades and other left-leaning religious leaders welcome new papal rhetoric but wonder about substance

From her small convent in the mountains near Barcelona, Harvard-educated Sister Teresa Forcades has emerged as a leading advocate of Spain’s “Indignant” protest movement.
Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

Spanish revolutionary, Harvard-educated public health specialist, abortion rights advocate and Roman Catholic nun.

These four labels seldom apply to the same person, but Sister Teresa Forcades, a 48-year-old woman from Barcelona, straddles many worlds.

In Europe she is the star of televised debates on feminism and religion, a leader of the Occupy movement in Spain who has taken on big corporate interests and a fierce critic of modern capitalism. 

She pulls no punches with her views. “I don’t think it is possible to have democracy and capitalism. They go against each other because the way we live capitalism is that we allow some corporations to have such power that they are able to influence government. And that’s the problem,” she told Al Jazeera in an interview.

Until recently, these controversial opinions might have led to her being reprimanded by the Vatican. But now, with a new leader in power apparently committed to fundamentally changing the church’s approach on social justice issues, she believes she’s merely taking some of Pope Francis’ ideas and running with them.

The new pope has invigorated the previously isolated social justice wing of the church, a change that many leading activists have welcomed. But at the same time, others are warning that his papacy has so far been more about a shift in tone than about substantive change on key issues such as abortion, women’s ordination and gay rights.

The new pope has invigorated the previously isolated social justice wing of the church. But his papacy has so far been more about a shift in tone than about substantive change on key issues.

In a much-publicized manifesto for his papacy, Francis lamented the misguided priorities of a world obsessed with money. “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” he asked.

Francis drives an old Renault, refuses to live in luxurious papal suites, invites homeless people over for dinner and expelled a German bishop for his exorbitant lifestyle. His focus on social justice represents a stark departure from his predecessors’ focus on doctrine and propelled grassroots activism back into the spotlight.

Forcades said his words hinted at a possible revival of liberation theology, a branch of religious philosophy that “has been where the poor have been” and looks at the imperative “to lose fear to be like Jesus was, entangled in political matters.”

In the 1980s, liberation theologists in Latin America worked with local activists against poverty as part of a political movement for the rights of the oppressed. Accused of professing Marxism under the guise of social justice theories, many priests were driven out of countries such as Nicaragua and Mexico, where they assisted local activists in combating poverty and authoritarian governments.

The Nuns on the Bus campaign.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Like Forcades, other activists said Francis’ papacy has created more space for those working to achieve social justice or address controversies such as scandals about sexual abuse by priests.

Thomas Gumbleton, a sex-abuse survivor and former bishop whom the Vatican forced to retire as a pastor in Detroit for testifying about his experience, said some of the fear is gone.

“Certainly now people feel much more free to speak out and not wary of being cracked down on,” he said. “They’re going to be supported if they speak out. Francis is living out the teaching and encouraging other people to do the same thing. I’ve noticed the other bishops are becoming more outspoken, certainly laypeople.”

Marisa Egerstrom, a Harvard University doctoral candidate in American religious history and founder of Protest Chaplains, an activist group with roots in the Occupy movement, said Francis’ reign has inspired a new generation of activists.

“I“m calling it the Francis factor. All of a sudden, it’s as if everyone remembered that there were more possibilities within the category of religion than just American Christian fundamentalism,” she wrote in an email. “Now even totally religiously unaffiliated activists have some context for understanding their religious friends.”

Despite the Vatican’s change in tone, some activists say their new breathing space remains limited. “I hope (Francis’) signs will come into practice, and by practice, I mean there are some of the church’s structures that will need to change to come closer to the poor,” Forcades said.

When Francis set up a committee to help fight rampant child abuse in the church and provide care for abuse survivors, activists say he didn’t go far enough. The Vatican rebuffed the scathing United Nations report on child abuse and has yet to directly engage with victims of abuse who were forced to remain silent for decades.

“Francis really needs to enter a conversation with a survivor to understand what happened,” said Gumbleton. “Until the pope and the commission get deeply involved with the survivors, I don’t think that they’ll come up with the right solutions.”

Alleged misogyny

Even though Francis made appreciative comments about women’s pastoral work, silence still surrounds the ordination of women priests. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. Catholics and 64 percent of European Catholics believe women should have the right to become priests. Nearly half of Catholics in Latin America agree, according to a recent poll by the media network Univision.

“I don’t see any theological problem to ordain women in a church where ordination plays such an important role,” Forcades said. Criticizing the way the Vatican talks about women, she added, “Of course women are as valuable as men, but only ordained people can make decisions, and only men can be ordained. This is the trap.”

Abortion too remains a difficult issue. When thousands of anti-abortion activists took to the streets of Washington, D.C., for a recent march, Francis backed the protesters on Twitter. “I join the March for Life in Washington with my prayers. May God help us respect all life, especially the most vulnerable,” he tweeted to 11.5 million followers.

Forcades said that while “in many cases the pope is right” when he calls abortion a sign of the world’s “throwaway culture,” she said a woman’s right to self-determination should supersede the rights of an unborn infant before it is able to survive outside its mother’s womb. Calling it “the argument of the lesser evil,” she said in some cases it is better to allow abortion than to force women into motherhood.

It is difficult for Catholic women not just in the United States. In Brazil, home to the largest Catholic population in the world, the Catholic women’s group Catolicas pelo Direito de Decidir advocated for an end to the country’s ban on abortion and joined a protest during Francis’ World Youth Days visit last summer. In January the women wrote an editorial, along with 12 other feminist associations in Latin America, on what they say are Francis’ misogynist interpretations of Scripture and on the need for reform. In one poll, nearly 70 percent of Catholics in Latin America said an outright ban on abortion is wrong.

In the U.S., Kaya Oakes, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church,” said that Francis has only moderately appealed to female Catholics. Even though he has discussed the role of women in the church more than his predecessors, he is mostly doing so in the context of motherhood.

“If he thinks of some other metaphors to describe women, they might grow less weary,” she said. “‘Women are wonderful because they’re mothering.’ Can you possibly see us in another way? Isn’t there any other way you can describe us?”

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On the issue of women and the church, Francis has not yet broken with the past. Two years ago, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — an influential group of American Catholic nuns whom the Vatican has accused of “radical feminism” — was placed under supervision, after long-standing disagreements on women’s rights and other issues. Last year Francis reaffirmed his predecessor’s reprimand of the group.

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network and leader of the Nuns on the Bus campaign, said his decision was disappointing. “We were hoping (the censure) would disappear. Something else is coming. We don’t know what,” she said.

“The reality is that Pope Francis so far has been more about a change in tone than anything substantive,” she added. “But I also think it is evident that he doesn’t demonize women. He idealizes them. Substantively, that’s not much of a step forward. The tone is better, but it still can leave women in a distanced and unreal position.”

On the issue of gay rights, there is also a mix of a softening tone but no real shift on the ground. Gay rights activists have applauded Francis for saying the church had become “obsessed” with doctrinal positions on issues like gay marriage and made waves saying, “Who am I to judge?” to reporters about gay priests.

But in reality, critics have said, his policies are in line with the beliefs of Catholics only in some regions. Catholics in Africa are said to support Francis, with 99 percent of Catholics there reported to be against gay marriage, compared with 40 and 57 percent in the U.S. and Latin America, respectively.

However, there is little doubt that in general, the new pope has galvanized the social justice wing of the church and will continue to do so. In expectation of more changes to come, Campbell recently prepared to give testimony to Congress on a minimum-wage debate by studying Francis’ ideas and public statements on poverty.

“Francis is saying the same things for which we got in trouble,” she said. “So we figure, if we use him as a footnote, we should be OK in the long run. I just don’t know how long the run is. Hopefully, it’s in my lifetime.”

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