“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” says Pope Francis, leader of the globe’s Roman Catholics, regarding abortion, gays and contraception.
One wonders if Ken Cuccinelli gets the message. Or maybe even Bob McDonnell. The attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate and the sitting governor have worn their stridently conservative Catholic views on their sleeves for years.
Abusing his office, Cuccinelli has taken strong positions to punish homosexuals and make legal abortion much less available. McDonnell likewise has been shutting down women’s health clinics and became a national laughingstock in 2012 for the trans-vaginal fiasco.
Now you have the Church’s new pope signalling a major shift away from these wedge issues that have alienated millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Conservative Catholics have long embraced sexually related issues as a way to hold what they consider an eroding ethical line. But in doing so, they are ignoring equally important issues such as social justice and keeping the church’s thinking medieval.
Francis is a breath of fresh air after his reactionary predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, a strict doctrinaire who forced a policy of exclusivity in the Church that was very harmful. Ditto the rock star Polish Pope.
It is ironic that Francis has ascended not long after Bishop Walter Sullivan, the former head of the Diocese of Richmond, died. From the 1970s until 2002, Sullivan, a Washington native, pushed his liberal views regardless of who was offended in this highly right wing state. He was as against abortion as any Catholic clergyman but he extended the thinking on the sanctity of life to include prisoners on death row, according to recent biography, “The Good Bishop” by veteran author and essayist Phyliss Theroux who lives in Ashland.
I recently reviewed her book for Style Weekly.
Sullivan, who died Dec. 11 at age 84, was incensed that former Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. took to executions with relish after the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976. Since then, Virginia has put to death 110 convicts, giving it a rank of No. 2 in the country after Texas. Sullivan drew attention to the issue by attending every execution he could.
In the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was running up the defense budget to best “The Evil Empire,” Sullivan actually told a well-to-do parish heavy with military contractors in Virginia Beach that it was wrong to be associated with the making of nuclear weapons. It sparked outrage and also landed Sullivan on the cover of Rolling Stone.
The current Bishop of Richmond who replaced Sullivan is a traditionalist who has rolled back many of Sullivan’s outreach initiatives to gays, women, convicts and the poor. One wonders how he will respond to the Pope’s vision. The New York Times says the Old Guard will likely pretend Pope Francis did not say what he did.
There may also be an impact on Virginia politics since the key top players tend to be Catholic. Besides Cuccinelli and McDonnell, Terry McAuliffe and Tim Kaine are, although they espouse a much more inclusive version of the faith.
The most strident is Cuccinelli who attended Gonzaga High School, a Jesuit school in D.C. (Full disclosure, I graduated from another Jesuit high school in the D.C. area and hardly share Cuccinelli’s views.)
To some extent, Cuccinelli has toned down the anti-gay rhetoric, but one only has to review his record as attorney general and in the state Senate to see where he stands.
Who knows, maybe he could form a new Catholic church just as some arch-conservative Episcopalians did. In any event, it looks like the Church is at the start of some badly needed changes.