(RNS) — It is not new for Catholics to wield the authority of pope as a weapon against their perceived ideological opponents — as long as the pope is in their corner. For decades the Catholic right referred to the positions of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI; now the Catholic left points to Pope Francis’ pronouncements on everything from climate change to LGBTQ inclusion.
The strategy has been ramping up of late as October’s Synod on Synodality, a meeting of the world’s bishops on the church’s future, approaches. Critiques about how the synod is being used to push radical change in developed nations are rebuffed as dissent over the Holy Father’s synodal process, with virtually no attention paid to how such changes would affect marginalized Catholic communities in the Global South.
But the jockeying ahead of the synod is only part of a broader claim by the left, long accused of picking and choosing among church teachings according to their taste, that the Catholic right are the real cafeteria Catholics.
Call out one of the left’s favorite cardinals for his public statements on LGBTQ issues? You’re implicitly defying Francis, who appointed the prelate, and the pope’s social justice agenda! Defend the church’s ban on contraception by pointing out its harmful health effects on women? Ugh, can’t you see Francis wants to end the church’s obsession with pelvic issues?
Most egregiously, these folks tend to invoke Francis when it is convenient and ignore him even when he has strongly and clearly laid out his views contradicting their agenda. We’ve seen this political and theological whiplash time and again with Francis’ views on abortion, which he calls akin to a white glove Nazi crime or hiring a hitman. Some on the left genuinely wrestle with the fullness of what the Holy Father is teaching, but the majority refuse to subject themselves to his authority on this issue.
The same is true of the Holy Father’s views on gender. Francis has characteristically made pastoral care of people with gender dysphoria a priority, and he is rightly concerned about their health and well-being. He has not sacrificed the truth in doing so. He has called gender ideology “evil” and a contemporary example of colonization. In his apostolic exhortations Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia, he compares it to the error of imagining ourselves as masters of the divinely created and ordered ecological world.
But is anyone taking Pope Francis’ teaching on these matters seriously? Many of those on the Catholic right, who are basically waiting for this papacy to be over, take little he says to heart. And despite their insistence that their political opponents be bound by his teaching, those on the Catholic left are themselves likely taking a pass on this particular line of thought.
This hasn’t stopped a wide range of ideologically diverse bishops from accepting it. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago — not exactly two peas in a pod — wrote a joint essay in America magazine insisting that Catholic hospitals must be permitted to affirm Francis’ views when it comes to caring for persons with gender dysphoria. “Does objecting to performing gender transition procedures — but welcoming patients who identify as transgender — constitute discrimination?” The two cardinals spoke with one voice: “Of course not.”
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, led by Bishop Daniel Flores, pastor of the border city of Brownsville, Texas, recently issued a doctrinal note on “The Moral Limits of Technological Manipulation of the Human Body,” in which he defended the fixed male-female binary of the human body. This relatively brief document invokes Francis’ teaching throughout and cites him six times.
Flores is an outspoken advocate of the church’s teaching on immigration and is respected across the ideological spectrum. His doctrinal note would almost certainly not have been published if it didn’t have the approval of Rome. It’s difficult to dismiss it as a mere product of a right-wing US bishop — any more than a similar document issued by the Nordic bishops days later. In it they “declare dissent” from an ideological movement that “puts forward a view of human nature that abstracts from the embodied integrity of personhood, as if physical gender were accidental.”
Can the Catholic left honor their stated commitment to the authority of the Holy Father by declaring a similar kind of dissent from the orthodoxy of their political circles? No one is talking about something other than genuine care for people awash in the evil of gender ideology, especially children. Getting on the side of a child in this context doesn’t mean affirming gender dysphoria, but rather loving them through what’s called “watchful waiting.”
There’s more than theology in this approach. Most kids (around 80%) grow out of childhood-onset gender dysphoria by adulthood. A non-medical approach is clearly the way to go as we find the best ways to work for the good of our children.
But Catholics who honor the teaching of Pope Francis would go a long way to stopping the whiplash effect by taking all his teachings seriously. It would reduce the atmosphere of cynicism and mutual distrust as we head into the synod. And that will be good for everyone.