Mary Gordon on Pope Francis: Hope for Grown-Ups

Mary Gordon – a steady light among American writers labeled ‘Catholic’ – has strong, mixed emotions about the Pope who loves the same steamy Anna Magnani movies that the Catholic church used to ban. She “burst into tears,” Gordon remembers, when she first read Pope Francis’ open-hearted interview in the Jesuit magazine America — his identification of himself as, first, “a sinner;” his picture of his church as “a field hospital after battle,” his sharp turn from “obsessive” fixations on sex. She got “hysterically giddy,” she’s telling me, then “scared.” Her tears signaled “how sad I’d been, for so long” about her church. Hope seems possible again, and disappointment, too. She makes writerly distinctions here – that “tone” matters and the Pope’s is a radical turn; but that his “diction” is different when he speaks of women in the priesthood. “His phrase was ‘the door is closed.’ What’s the one thing he won’t talk about? Giving full power to women.”

Mary Gordon is prized as independent-minded, feminist, faithful, and nuanced in novels and searching reflections from Final Payments (1978) to Reading Jesus (2009).

Mary Gordon gave us a roster of female theologians we all might get to know better: Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham,  Sandra Schneiders of Santa Clara, Lisa Cahill of Boston College, Margaret Farley at Yale and Mary Boys of the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

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  • Kate McShane

    Sorry – I was enjoying this interview when it stopped at 17 minutes. This has happened at least 4 other times. Is it me? Am I doing something wrong?

  • Ley Westcott

    I was about to comment, optimistically, concerning Pope Francis — “A ‘Pope for All Seasons’?” But then I read Mary Gordon’s observations regarding the new Pope and women. Why is this such a stumbling block for not only the Catholic but the Protestant church? Well, we live in a patriarchal culture, the Abrahamic religions patriarchal theologies. So while we slowly surmount the impediments to women in secular roles/authority we struggle theologically. If the Pope is serious about the Church as “a field hospital after battle,” then part of the care of the casualties of war is attending to the deprivation of all marginalized citizens of society. And that certainly includes women. While it is both a very tall and difficult order, the words of John Stuart Mill still resonate truthfully and accurately: “The history of Man has been the struggle of all men to be free.” Perhaps we need to make explicit the grammatical convention of “men” to also include “women.” In what modern understanding of theology do women not figure as equals to men? One in which politics – sexual politics – figure prominently. It has been said, as regards the Law: “Politics leads, the Law follows.” Our own country’s history provides too many tragic examples of that. While human nature/society require stability/order as prerequisites to social, political, economic progress, equality under God as well Law is required to maintain them. Anything else is an imposed order which betrays the aspirations of the human spirit. Something to which both Law and theology pay considerable lip service. It is time for renewed review of the medieval papal notions of the relative merits of men and women in “the body of Christ.” In all Christianity. Though we are in different places in historical evolution it is clear Christianity, as well Islam, are in need of enlightened review of the enfranchisement of women in our societies. To the degree any individual is denied freedom to realize their aspirations the entire society is poorer. A few privileged may benefit from such inequality, but civilization as a liberating and nurturing force for good is greatly diminished. I hope Mary Gordon and others will challenge Pope Francis to “grow,” always a challenging if not painful process. As I understand it, Anna Magnani’s roles were always about women whose intellect and spirit were hindered if not oppressed by prejudice, politics, patriarchy — both individual and social. Or perhaps I recall too well Tennessee Williams’ memorable “The Fugitive Kind,” in which she struggled valiantly to be able to create and to realize the beauty and freedom she felt within her own renewed spirit. A spirit renewed by love, understanding. Perhaps Pope Francis – a man as well a cleric – needs to be reminded of that struggle. It is not only about the poor and hungry — though that cause is essential. It is also about the poor and hungry in spirit. To be a valid force for good the Church cannot ignore the ongoing evolution of our understanding in political, scientific, theological knowledge and belief. We need meaningful engagement. Pope Francis has already demonstrated he understands this. Let women – and the men who love them – help challenge Francis in his own need to evolve and grow.

  • mary

    Hi Kate, Mary McGrath here. The Mary Gordon podcast just runs 17:00 minutes. That’s the whole of it. We’ll run a short excerpt of it tomorrow night during the show. Tune in at 9:00.

    • Kate McShane

      Thanks, Mary. I always assume incredible ignorance on my part, when it comes to computers.

  • Kate McShane

    Mary, I’m such an idiot. I just listened again and, before, I probably heard 8 or 9 minutes, but this time, it’s going on to 17 minutes. Anyway, it’s great to hear more. Thanks.

  • Kate McShane

    I love Mary Gordon. I’ve read most of her books and I know she’s brilliant. This was a great conversation. I probably shouldn’t write until I’ve listened more than once to it, but I’ll go out on a limb and maybe sound idiotic. I feel like I’m fortunate in that I am not a Catholic any longer. In that sense, I think it’s harder for Mary Gordon. I look at Francis and I see a human being who has evolved spiritually and continues to evolve. I don’t need him to have arrived somewhere or need him to become someone who is able to make certain changes in a particular time. I see him as a fellow soul, or whatever you call someone who is living on this earth, trying to learn as much as possible in the time here. Maybe that’s not fair. He was elected Pope of the Catholic Church. Jeez. I listen to his words and I hear someone who has been through shit and I hear a man who has had ecstatic experiences (for lack of a better description). When this happens, you know certain things. You hear truths and you realize them in a way that changes everything. I believe him. Maybe he’ll make mistakes. Probably. Certainly women should be equal players. Do I think they would be better than the players that have authority now? No. I’ve had almost 45 years to see what they could do in the world, once they’re allowed. They’re no better than the men. There are truly gifted members of each gender. So, yes, there should be female priests. We don’t know if he’ll change in this regard. He seems like a person who is able to change. I guess with Francis, I really enjoy his personal spiritual journey and I feel thrilled that there is a Pope that I enjoy. I also feel thrilled that someone who is Pope shares my beliefs, my spiritual knowledge, and when I look at his face, I see someone I relate to. His heart is open and he knows God.

  • Here’s another feminist take, from Catholic feminist theologian and ethicist Mary E. Hunt.

    “…..Just to head off distractions, let me stipulate that I do have a heart, and approve of the personal direction of this pope: a simple lifestyle, a commitment to the poor, a soft touch with those who are young or ill, all indicate a fine human being, indeed what Christianity would hold up as a model.

    I note only that his predecessor popes and some of their episcopal sycophants gave the job such a bad name that the bar is low. Undoing their structures and policies, especially regarding criminal sexual scandals and Vatican finances, will take longer than these first nine months of the Francis papacy.

    The phenomenon of a pope becoming a pop culture icon is fascinating, troubling, and not a little confusing. Here are a few of the puzzles I’m struggling with as I try to make sense of the current Catholic religious scene….” Read on, it’s worth it.