“The new pope is cool, but…”

“The new pope is cool, but…”

Pope Francis effect” may not be so evident among U.S. Catholics, as recent Pew report has put it. But pope’s advocacy for the poor and the marginalized, his personal humility, his comments on homosexuality, abortion, and most recently his critique of “the idolatry of money” have certainly drawn worldwide attention, pleasantly surprising his supporters and dismaying his opponents, simultaneously. As much as his popularity has risen, his critics have also been quick to criticize him. Interestingly, whether one supports the pope or not, the reference made for Pope Francis has been Jesus.

For instance, Reza Aslan, author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, responded to asinine comments made by Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, stating that they “peddle a profoundly unhistorical view of Jesus.” Pointing out “an inaccurate picture of the historical Jesus held by not only the far right but also modern Christians, Aslan said, “The truth is, Jesus’s teachings were so revolutionary that were he to preach today what he preached 2,000 years ago, many of the preachers and politicians who claim to promote his values would be the first to call for him to be silenced.”

Believing that the pope condemned capitalism, a Tea Party advocate said, “One truth shines out from the Bible: Jesus spoke to the individual, never to government or government policy. Jesus was a capitalist, preaching personal responsibility, not a socialist.”

Another piece compared Pope Francis with Jesus, stating that “Compare Francis’ approach with Christ’s meeting with The Samaritan Woman at the well. Jesus did things the hard way. It is the hard way that Francis chooses. We should do the same.”

When Pope Francis says something or does something, both critics and supporters tend to compare his words and deeds with those of Jesus to prove their points. Even in an attempt to defend Pope Francis from the right wing criticisms, spotlight falls on one man’s greatness and his similitude to Jesus. This makes me wonder about the frame of reference, that is, comparing someone (male) who is influential with Jesus, and the implications of using such frame of reference for the struggles to transform kyriarchal structures of domination.

As feminist theologian and biblical scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has put it in her book Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet, “who Jesus was and what he did can be glimpsed only in the interpretation and memory of the Jesus movement probably as one among several first-century Jewish movements” (Jesus, 90). And, the Jesus movement, as an emancipatory basileia movement, was one of the resistance movements organized by wo/men against the Roman imperial domination. Emancipatory movements are still carried out by wo/men who have not received any spotlight for their struggles in different corners of the world.

Pope Francis may be “cool,” as one of my students has put it. I too find him certainly different from his predecessor in many positive ways. Yet, if we continue to hold on the frame of reference that accentuates an admirable individual man in relation to “unique historical figure of Jesus and his radical ethics” (Jesus, 84), we reproduce the ideal of one heroic man who is capable of changing the world and reinscribe the idea that the “maleness” of Jesus is “constitutive for the faith and identity of Christians” (Jesus, 87), thereby continuing to legitimize the exclusion of women from leadership in the church.

“The new pope is cool, but…,” said one of my students. “But…?” I asked. “He is wonderful because he seems different… He seems to care for the poor people, and he seems approachable. But he has not supported women’s priesthood. Women are still prohibited from priesthood and higher leadership positions in the Catholic Church. This does not make sense…”

My student, born and raised Catholic, shared in class that although she has always noticed that there are no women priests, she never questioned why. She decided to research on this issue for her class project. During her class presentation, she firmly stated: “To learn the reasoning behind women’s prohibition from priesthood truly disappointed me and made me question things I had never dared to do before… We have to acknowledge how systems of oppression work together to subjugate people…”

As my student rightly pointed out, systems of oppression work together. Kyriarchal structures of domination should be challenged and transformed, but such transformation cannot be made by one great man or even by a “feminist” savior.

I hope that my student will keep on asking many more critical questions including whether it is indeed necessary for women to aim to be “included” in the hierarchical structures of the church leadership. But, for now, I salute her first critical question that she has ever asked about her religious tradition.