Argument

More Catholic than the Pope

Is Francis too radical for his flock?

When an estimated three million enraptured people gathered on Rio de Janiero's Copacabana beach on Sunday, July 28, Pope Francis's pilgrimage to Brazil suddenly went from big news in Latin America to huge news around the globe. The beachside Mass confirmed for the press corps his charisma and sent reporters scurrying for superlatives. The Guardian described the Pope's trip as "triumphant." The Wall Street Journal said he had received a "rock star reception." Al Jazeera's correspondent Lucia Newman declared the scene on the beach in Rio as "extraordinary."

Following the Copacabana Mass, Francis flew home to Rome aboard a chartered jet. After the plane leveled off at a cruising altitude, he wandered to the back of the cabin to mingle with reporters and conduct a press conference in the manner of a presidential candidate. The moment was unexpected, especially since the pope had previously declined all requests for interviews since taking office in March. But Francis was buoyant from the reception he had received in Brazil and, perhaps, emboldened to spend a bit of the capital he had accumulated.   

No question was off limits and the reporters rose to the occasion, inquiring about controversies ranging from the Vatican Bank to gay priests in a Church that condemns homosexual activity. On that subject, Francis said, "If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they're our brothers." It was the kind of statement -- humble, direct, and friendly -- that makes people feel he's like the priest who asks for second glass of wine at Sunday dinner and encourages you to have one too.

Even if Francis's olive branch toward homosexuals in the church falls short of a shift in substance, his words represent a major break with the church's long history of deep-seated social conservatism. While the Church still regards homosexual acts as sinful, no previous pope has offered a "who am I to judge?" response to the question of what to do with gay priests.

Indeed, under the reign on Francis's immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, top church officials frequently blamed gay priests for the terrible sexual abuse crisis afflicting the church worldwide. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana even suggested the church could benefit from the some of the anti-gay prejudice seen in his country, echoing similar sentiments expressed by churchmen in the U.S. In this context, Francis's comments about gay priests mark him as a very different leader who may be heralding the end of an era deep and abiding intolerance of homosexuality. (During his flight home Francis also said that the church needed a new theological perspective on the role and status of women. "Let us remember," he said, "that Mary is more important than the bishop apostles, so women in the church are more important than bishops and priests.")

In speaking so boldly, Francis risks alienating Catholics in the industrialized West who have supported conservative theology, doctrine, and leadership. This significant minority is energized by the fight against abortion and resistance to those who would welcome both women priests and an end to mandatory celibacy for clerics. They have loyally supported the church with donations and activism and can be expected to oppose any change in direction of the sort Francis has signaled. With his comments, Francis poses a challenge to those who felt comfortable with the conservative leadership they have known for more than a generation. But this constituency cannot sustain the church in the long term, and the church now needs a figure able to bridge the gap between its rightward movement and the reality that Westerners are leaving the church in droves. That problem requires a wily pope with the skill and charisma to pull off the high-wire balancing act of unifying these two disparate impulses. Could Francis be that man?

Beginning with the election of John Paul II in 1978, the institutional Catholic Church entered a period of conservative theology and politics. Even as he encouraged the flowering of democracy in his native Poland and across Eastern Europe, John Paul II shut down efforts to give national bishops conferences and laypeople a greater role in decision-making. He punished theologians who challenged orthodoxy, delivered searing attacks on the secular world, and filled the ranks of Catholic bishops with men committed to his own brand of orthodoxy -- isolating those who expressed a more expansive view of Christianity. 

As John Paul II sought to build a stronger papacy, he also allowed problems to fester in the Vatican Bank and in the priesthood. Years passed before he addressed the sexual abuse scandal that has involved thousands of priests and many times that number of child victims. When he finally spoke of it, he excoriated the media for publicizing cases and blamed the mores of the broader society for corrupting clergy. Meanwhile, hundreds of clergymen went to jail, the church spent billions of dollars on settlements of civil claims, and the church's moral authority declined.

Upon John Paul II's death in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany became Pope Benedict XVI. He might not have been cut from the same cloth, but he clearly carried on John Paul II's legacy. Ratzinger had been dubbed the "Pope's Rottweiler" in his previous job as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful arm of the church charged with enforcing doctrine. The CDF, which replaced the office that ran the Inquisition, identified and investigated liberal theologians whom John Paul II disciplined. One was fired from his university job, another was ordered to refrain from writing and speaking for a year. Under then-Cardinal Ratzinger, the CDF (which oversees proceedings against priests accused of molesting and raping children) moved so slowly against officials charged with abuse that some priests served a decade or longer before being defrocked. Others died in good standing, even after their victims had been compensated for being harmed.  

As Pope Benedict, Ratzinger continued a kind of leadership consistent with his early writings about a future "remnant church" that would be much smaller and less engaged with the world but comprised of true believers. This vision was of a church in a self-protective crouch, waiting for a day, perhaps centuries in the future, when its message would once again be relevant. It is a view which no doubt contributed to Benedict's decision in February to step down from office. The first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, he seemed a discouraged if not defeated man as he spoke of being fatigued by the demands of his office.

Francis, the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years, is clearly more interested and inclined to engage with the world. Where Benedict often seemed distressed and uncomfortable with the public, Francis wades into crowds, embraces children, and hugs women. Before he was even elevated, Francis rejected the trappings of his office -- the gold ring, ermine stole, red shoes -- worn by previous popes. He shocked Vatican watchers by refusing to stand above his fellow cardinals after his election and then by visiting the hotel where he had stayed during the conclave to pay his bill and collect his luggage. Even his choice of name, honoring Saint Francis of Assisi, signaled a departure from the regal papacy and an embrace of the poor, the downtrodden, and the powerless. He has declined to live in the official papal quarters, refused to spend the summer at the beautiful Castel Gandolfo, and insists on carrying his own briefcase to meetings.

In his first months in office, Francis has reached out to women, Muslims, atheists, and now gays with insistent gestures of humility. He has also promised a dialogue with victims of abuse, reforms at the Vatican Bank, and greater commitment to the poor. Possessing the same singular power as John Paul II and Benedict, he seems to be wielding it without concern for a backlash. His maturity -- he is 76 -- may have something to do with his aura of calm confidence. But he can also draw strength from the knowledge that he was elected by the very men who owed their place in the College of Cardinals to Benedict and John Paul II -- even if the cardinals are now having second thoughts about their pope, there's little they can do to rein him in.

On the specific issue of homosexuality and Catholicism, the pope has begun a discussion that will continue in parishes worldwide and may lead, over the long term, to a revision of official teaching. More generally, by enthusiastically wading into controversial issues, Francis is clearly rejecting the "remnant church" approach to the modern world. He's not interested in withdrawing and prefers, instead, to swim in the stream of history. Here, finally, is a pope willing to grapple with the implications of a social trend -- the increasing acceptance of homosexuality -- that threatens to relegate the church to irrelevance. Unlike his predecessor, Francis is not content to wait out the millennia with his head in the sand until Catholic orthodoxy once more becomes in vogue. Rather, this is a pope eager to explain how this ancient church should fit into a changing world. 

For 30 years, conservative church leaders have stood by and watched as the Church failed to end its sex abuse crisis and the scandal afflicting the Vatican bank. They have watched while the people of the industrialized West, including those in that most Catholic of countries, Ireland, have abandoned the Church in droves. Issues like homosexuality, the status of women, and the desire of many priests to be married, were never going to be addressed successfully by men who could not reach out with authentic warmth. Francis, the man they selected, seems up to the task. As he pursues it, the old guard appointed by John Paul and Benedict may feel he is leaving them behind. But he will be catching up to modern Catholics who believe the equality of persons as well as souls.   

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