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Pope Francis seems to be taking on many of the more moribund aspects of the culture of the Catholic Church – a task that will not be accomplished overnight if at all. He has most notably suggested that, without backtracking on Churches’ positions on homosexuality and abortion, it still might behoove its representatives to heed a Christly imperative to concentrate their energies on ministering to the poor and needy rather than acting as cultural scolds. Last week, he even implied that the Church might endorse civil unions, a position he is rumored to have supported in private since his days in Argentina – although Vatican spokespeople immediately tried to back away from the full implications of his comments.

Of course, Francis’ admonition to greater tolerance and his prioritization of the preference for the poor isn’t going down too well among those church officials whose main raison d’etre for the past twenty or more years, apart from trying to suppress the child sex abuse scandals, seems to have been attempting to control their parishioners sexual and reproductive lives. Ask me about the Church right now and the first thought that pops into my mind is its effort to deny health care to thousands of uninsured in order to impose Catholic teachings about birth-control on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. On the whole, the Church doesn’t present a very attractive face when it comes to evangelical work or to persuading lapsed Catholics to come back – today’s Church resembles nothing so much as a bunker harboring sour and fearful old men wielding scourges rather than a welcoming home for returning faithful.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of Churchmen who like it that way. And what better spokesman for the folks who would prefer that il Papa not run amok when it comes to their rigid cultural imperatives than Missouri’s own gift to the Catholic Hierarchy, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a native of St. Louis and Auxiliary Bishop of St. Louis from 2001 to 2002. Who else could so confidently to assure American Catholics that the Pope doesn’t really mean what he says:

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said Sunday that Pope Francis believes the Catholic Church needs to examine why some states are choosing to legalize civil unions of gay couples. But the pontiff has not expressed approval of such unions, Dolan said.

“He didn’t come right out and say he was for them,” Dolan said in an exclusive interview on NBC’s Meet the Press. What the pope has said, according to Dolan, is that church leaders need to “look into it and see the reasons that have driven them…. Rather than quickly condemn them… let’s just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people….”

This is only the most recent example of Dolan’s efforts to undermine the Pope’s message. John Amato of Crooks and Liars pointed out that when speaking of the Pope’s recent comments on the evils of growing economic inequality and unregulated capitalism, Dolan actually seemed to question the doctrine of Papal supremacy.

One can only hope that priestly defenders of the status quo such as Dolan will eventually disappear from the Church and the seeds planted by Francis will come to fruition. Certainly it was an excellent sign that another Missouri prelate, former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, was removed from the Congregation of Bishops where he would otherwise have continued to influence the selection of new Bishops, presumably installing those cast in the same conservative mold as he is, as well as helping to determine their pastoral priorities. Burke, you will remember, was one of the clerical jerks who tried to meddle in election year politics by denying communion to presidential candidate John Kerry because of his pro-choice positions. Most of the new appointees to the Congregation are more congenial to the Pope’s dictum that bishops should be “be poor, close to their people and not with ‘the psychology of princes’,” a description that definitely excludes the richly-garbed, authoritarian Burke.

The current Archbishop of St. Louis, Robert James Carlson, is more of the same, though perhaps not as slick as Dolan nor as openly combative as Burke. He came to St. Louis from the Saginaw diocese in Michigan where he was instrumental in stamping out remnants of liberal Catholicism. Although he styles himself a “theological conservative and a social justice liberal,” one of his more high profile activities was to call Catholics out to a Rally for Religious Liberty in Jefferson City in order to pressure politicians to eliminate contraceptive coverage from the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a law that affects non-Catholics as well as Catholics (who, incidently, are not compelled by the ACA to either use or endorse contraceptives). By making common cause with obstructionist conservatives to undercut the ACA and the millions it will help, Carlson has shown himself to be one of those “ideological Christians” that Francis has identified as a “serious illness” within the Church.  

Of course the influence of clerics like Dolan, Burke and Carlson are legacies of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and they are not unique to Missouri. Nevertheless, one is tempted to ask if there is something about the Catholic culture in Missouri that sustained leaders who stand proudly with ├╝ber conservatives such as Bill Donoghue and his Catholic League – the same Bill Donoghue who, among his many offensive antics, suggested that President Obama should be sworn in on a copy of Das Kapital rather than the Bible. Isn’t it interesting somehow that so many luminaries of rightwing Catholicism have served in or hail from a state being run into the ground by equally rightwing Republian lawmakers? What have we done to deserve these people?

Slightly edited for clarity (Feb. 10); last sentence of 2nd paragraph revised.