Pope Francis's actions not heretical, just human

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Story highlights

  • Jill Filipovic: Group of conservative Catholics accuse Pope Francis of spreading heresy for his reform positions surrounding divorce
  • She says the 'old way' they advocate wars with compassion and concept of a benevolent God; she saw the result play out in her grandmother's life

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness." Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Is Catholicism about faith and compassion, or rigid doctrine and exclusion? According to a group of conservative Catholics who just accused Pope Francis of spreading heresy, it's the latter.

Jill Filipovic
Sixty-two (somewhat marginal) Catholic scholars and clergy have signed a letter that disputes Francis' signaling of his willingness to allow divorced and remarried people to receive communion. This, they say, is immoral and heretical, a sign of Francis "misleading the flock." Far better, in this retrograde reading of doctrine, to ostracize and shame the remarried as "adulterers" and the divorced as sinful failures.
    Really?
    I've seen how this "old way" played out in my own family, and it puts Pope Francis' more reform-minded church in useful perspective. My grandparents were devout Catholics, married young, and had five children; my grandfather also beat my grandmother. She eventually left -- a painful and terrifying decision for a woman with only a high school degree in 1950s America. She supported the five kids by working multiple low-wage jobs at once. He did his damnedest to skirt financial responsibility, and she struggled her entire life.
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    The kids had to drop out of Catholic school because she couldn't afford the tuition, and back then the school wasn't about to give a scholarship to the family of a divorced mother.
    Two decades later, my grandfather met a woman he wanted to marry -- in the Catholic Church. He had remained devout, and so was granted an annulment from the marriage to my grandmother -- and poof, it didn't exist. Their years together, their five children, just erased so he could remain in the good graces of his faith.
    That, according to the moral compass of the current Francis critics, is "moral." And my grandma, by those lights, was a failure. Had she remarried before my grandfather, she would have been considered an adulterer. She could have gotten an annulment too, I suppose, which would have lifted that fate from her, but this was a laborious process back then that could take years -- a process that Francis made easier two years ago, permitting, among other things, a fast-track.
    What's more, for my grandmother, living in a culture where a marriage sanctioned by the Catholic faith constituted a powerful aspect of personal identity, it's easy to imagine that the idea of expunging what was a very real union would have felt like an unforgivable lie (especially to tell before God).
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    Had she stayed with an abusive man and raised her children in a violent and unhappy home, she would have been righteous in the eyes of a group of unmarried and celibate men in Rome. Was refusing her, as a divorced woman, the right to take communion -- and casting her as a sinful outsider -- moral? Was it Christ-like? Maybe not, but it was a routine and intractable part of Church practice.
    My grandparents are both dead. My grandmother retained her faith in God, but not in the church. My grandfather stayed loyal to Rome -- although he was critical of the changes of Vatican II, which liberalized the church just slightly. He played by the church's rules, technically, and considered himself a good and devoted Catholic; the church loved him right back.
    A Catholic priest spoke at his funeral, and his religious friends attended. My grandmother worked herself to the bone for her entire life, and spent her final years in terrible decline, unable to attend religious services or maintain friendships. There was no funeral for her, and certainly no speeches from men in robes, because in the end, all she had were her children and grandchildren. We loved her fiercely, but she deserved so much more. We marked her death privately, and we felt it acutely -- not just losing her, but all she lost in her life.
    I knew my grandfather as a warm, loving figure who built tree houses and told my sister and I too-racy jokes. I only learned about that uglier, personal part of my family's history much later. People are complex, it turns out, capable of great kindness and great cruelty in a single lifetime. The lives of mere mortals on earth are complicated.
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    Marriage can be a sacrament and a union of mutual service, or it can be a prison of abuse and spiritual death. Religious doctrine draws predictable and neat lines, but make it too rigid and it snaps under the pressure of heavy, messy reality. The beautiful parts of faith and belief can break along with it, too -- which is why my own mother didn't raise her children in the church.
    And which is why I carry my own bitterness and anger toward the church and everything it stands for -- especially its misogyny. Women still cannot hold the same leadership positions as men, a reality that -- despite his theoretical explorations of that possibility -- will keep this pope from being known as a true "progressive."
    When you lose compassion for humanity, and when you lose the ability to love and honor and fully receive people as they come to you -- flawed, broken, evolving, all of us clawing our way to something we hope is better -- you have lost sight of why people seek spirituality and religion in the first place, and of what the Bible itself tells us.
    Those accusing Pope Francis of heresy might ask themselves how compassion can be at odds with the will of a benevolent God.
    Of course every institution needs rules; of course religions have codes of conduct. But when you begin to hold fidelity to rigid doctrine above open-hearted service to people -- when you claim to do God's work on earth but put hidebound rules before earthbound mercy -- you should look in the mirror and ask yourself who you're really serving. You might just find them staring back at you.