As Americans got a close-up look at the rock star Pope earlier this year, five words from the Francis papacy stood out to many Catholic boomers: “Who am I to judge?”
You may recall that answer from Pope Francis to a question he was asked about gay priests while returning from his first foreign trip two years ago. It was a stunning departure from his predecessor, Pope Benedict, who wrote in 2005 that homosexuality was an “intrinsic moral evil” and an “objective disorder.”
“I got home from work that day and immediately, my phone started ringing,” recalls Daniel Barutta, the president of Dignity/Washington, the largest chapter of DignityUSA, a nonprofit group of gay and lesbian Catholics. “People were saying the Pope had not only acknowledged us, he used the word ‘gay,’ not ‘homosexual’ or ‘disordered.’”
For Barutta, 58, and other Catholic boomers around the country, many disaffected by the Church’s rigid stance on a variety of social issues, Pope Francis represents “a breath of fresh air.” Someday soon, Barutta hopes, he and other LGBT Catholics will be fully embraced by the Catholic Church and no longer ostracized; for decades, they’ve been forced to attend Mass outside the parish church at a Washington, D.C., Episcopal church.
During his speech to Congress, the Pope made a special plea that will likely resonate with many boomers (Catholic and otherwise): “I would also like to enter into dialogue with the many elderly persons who are a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience, and who seek in many ways, especially through volunteer work, to share their stories and their insights,” he said. “I know that many of them are retired, but still active; they keep working to build up this land.”
What boomers see in Francis is someone who is trying to look at Catholicism as lived by Catholics on the ground.
— Christopher Born, Catholic University professor
A Pleasant Surprise
When Francis first emerged from behind the curtain and onto the Vatican balcony in 2013, Barutta was concerned that the election of an Argentine Pope could be hurtful to the gay community. “But I’ve been pleasantly surprised with what he’s been saying and how he’s tried to try to help people come back to the Church,” he says.
The challenge for Francis, who begins his widely anticipated visit to Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia — the first time the 78-year-old Argentine pontiff has been on U.S. soil — is to slow the exodus of American Catholics from the Church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of Catholics in the U.S. dropped by three million between 2007 and 2014.
“I consider myself very Catholic,” Barutta insists, “but to me, the Church is not the hierarchy. lt’s the people and my faith in God. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some Bishop tell me how I should express my faith with God.”
Christopher Born, assistant professor of religion and culture at The Catholic University of America, has tracked the journey of Catholic boomers from the tumultuous ‘60s to a time of growing mistrust of institutions. For them, Pope Francis is the real thing.
The Change That Didn’t Come
“If you go back to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the oldest boomers were coming of age,” he says. “It appeared to be a time of radical change in the Church: the inclusion of laity as part of the Church, the changing of the language of the Mass from Latin to the vernacular and the guitar Mass popping up at Newman Centers on college campuses. You had this great excitement — everything is changing — but it just never happened.”
Instead, Born says, the laity wasn’t that involved in the Church during that time of widespread institutional dissent with the civil rights movement, Vietnam and then Watergate. Says Born: “Young Catholics were saying, ‘We want a voice, we want a voice.’”
But when Pope Paul VI reasserted the ban on artificial contraceptives for Catholic couples in 1968, Born says, “it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and initiated the shift by American Catholics to ‘We’re going to do whatever is right for me and my family, regardless of what the Church says.’”
Born says that “opened the floodgates for Catholics to disagree with the Papacy and follow their own conscience.” Today, he notes, Catholic boomers are the most accepting of any demographic group on the use of birth control, priests being married, women priests and divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment being permitted to receive communion.
“What boomers see in Francis is someone who is trying to look at Catholicism as lived by Catholics on the ground, focusing more on service and reconciliation and less about theological orthodoxy,” Born says.
Indeed, while a recent Pew Research Center survey says nine in 10 U.S. Catholics believe a household headed by a mother and father is the ideal for bringing up children, large majorities believe other kinds of non-traditional families — those headed by parents who are single, divorced, unmarried or gay — are also acceptable for raising children.
The Pope Francis Effect
Washington D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, interviewed before an audience at The Washington Post before the Pope’s visit, acknowledged the so-called “Francis Effect,” but also spelled out the complex messages for American Catholics.
On the one hand, Pope Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” stance signals a potentially more open, inclusive Church. However, Wuerl says, “We encounter every human being with respect, but there’s a great deal of difference between a person and what a person does…there is room for everybody but at the same time, not everything everybody does can be blessed.”
For his part, Barutta doesn’t feel blessed by the Church and knows there’s a long way to go from Francis’ refreshing tone to seeing fundamental change that fully welcomes him back to the parish.
“I’m more concerned with how the Catholic clergy reacts to Francis than with the Pope himself,” Barutta says. “The Roman Catholic Church needs to be more inclusive, create more community and solve more of people’s temporal and spiritual needs. Less dogma and more service to one another. This is something this baby boomer relishes.”
Born, who attended the Pope’s Mass at the Basilica in Washington, says one of the biggest potential drivers of Catholics back to the American Church is the change in marriage annulments announced by Pope Francis. This will make it easier for Catholics who didn’t go through the lengthy annulment process to return to the Church.
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