Pope Francis brings the freshness of the Gospel to the Catholic Church.

For all those assessing the meaning of Pope Francis's rise and its implications for one of the world's most powerful transnational institutions, the pontiff has already offered a warning. "If one has the answers to all the questions," he said in an August interview with La Civiltà Cattolica that has become a kind of manifesto for his papacy, "that is the proof that God is not with him."

That delightful rebuke to know-it-alls everywhere provides a clue as to how someone who has held the papal office only since March has already revolutionized -- there is no other word -- the world's view of the Roman Catholic Church. At a time when religion has come to seem synonymous with dogmatic certainty and, in the eyes of many secular observers, fundamentalism, here is arguably the most visible religious leader in the world asserting that questions, not answers, can inspire a vibrant faith.

Francis is orthodox, all right. He has reasserted the church's "clear" teaching on abortion and said he could not do otherwise. "I am a son of the church," he explained. But he is an orthodox searcher who wants to share the journey with anyone of goodwill (including nonbelievers) who takes the quest for truth seriously. "Who am I to judge?" he replied when asked his view of those who are gay. For so many, judging is what a pope does for a living. Francis did not change church doctrine with his statement. He merely changed virtually everything about how we see the role of a supreme pontiff.

A few things are already obvious. As the first non-European pope in over 1,200 years and the first from the global south, Francis speaks in decidedly different accents about capitalism and globalization. It should not be forgotten that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were highly critical of unbridled capitalism. But they still discussed the market in terms largely set by the debates in Europe and the United States. The economic and political visions of the pope from Poland and the pope from Germany could not help but be shaped by their reactions to the bitter experience of Soviet communism. So their strong calls for social justice were always tempered by warnings against the politics of class struggle.

Francis is necessarily more radical in his preaching about the poor and the shortcomings of global capitalism because he addresses the rest of the world from the perspective of the south and from the experience of those suffering from deep poverty.

Thus has Francis declared: "While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling." Thus has he condemned "an economic system which has at its center an idol called money" and "the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal." Thus has he linked his words with a series of actions eschewing a regal style of living to underscore his commitment to building "a poor church for the poor."

A pope who sees lifting up the poor and moralizing an unjust economy as primary objectives inevitably views the culture wars that so engage Catholic conservatives, particularly in the United States, as a peculiar rock on which to build the church's public ministry. This view has brought him criticism from the Catholic right, as he has acknowledged. But putting the culture wars in their place is consistent with a papacy that finds its inspiration outside the ongoing arguments among liberals and traditionalists in the developed world.

"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible," he said in one of the most widely cited parts of his interview, as published in English in the Jesuit magazine America. "I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.… The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.

"The church's pastoral ministry," he went on, "cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.… We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel." Francis seems to want to move his church outward, from the nave of a dark cathedral to the bright garden outside its doors.

Again, the pope is not changing church doctrine. But a major change in emphasis itself has profound implications.

Equally profound was his choice to canonize Pope John XXIII, the reformist pope of the Second Vatican Council, alongside Pope John Paul II. It was the unifying act of a superb politician, and it sent a powerful message. It applied to the church itself one of his dicta: "The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful."

Rapid sainthood for John Paul II was inevitable, given the widespread devotion to him in many corners of the church, not simply in its conservative wing. But by lifting up John XXIII as well, Francis is telling Catholics to gladly accept his legacy -- and the legacy of the council's embrace of democracy, religious freedom, and the centrality of the Catholic laity. If some conservative voices in the church have sought to play down just how important the council was in opening Catholicism to the modern world, Francis is welcoming its dialectical mission: that modernity has lessons to teach Catholics, even as the church should be critical of modernity's failings.

Much is expected of this pope: serious reform of the Vatican, a substantial decentralization of authority, a definitive reckoning with the pedophilia scandal, and, among Western Catholics especially, a broadening of the "opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church," as Francis himself has put it.

In global terms, however, here may be the central paradox of his papacy: As the leader of a church that has so long been viewed as dogmatic, hierarchical, and traditional, Francis bids to turn himself into a model of a kind of mystical humility that combines a spirit of moderation with intellectual openness and a radical understanding of what the primacy of the spiritual over the material means. Benedict issued a stern warning against a "dictatorship of relativism." Francis seems worried about something else entirely.

"If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing," he has said. "Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal 'security,' those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists­ -- they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person's life."

Thus is his one "dogmatic certainty" -- a thoroughly undogmatic universalism more interested in shattering barriers than erecting them. It's a very new approach to religion in the modern world, rooted in the oldest of doctrines.

Image: Illustration by Jimmy Turrell


The Kerry Doctrine

The secretary of state's go-big-or-go-home foreign policy.

The world of high-stakes international diplomacy can be rough and tumble, but it's more often than not a procession of suits and summits, protocol sessions and photo ops. And in this genteel old boys' club, John Kerry is a pro. The Yale-educated son of a foreign-service officer, he served in the U.S. Navy, became a veterans' advocate, spent 28 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- including four as chairman -- and, of course, ran for president. Perhaps that's why it surprised no one when President Barack Obama picked him to become the 68th secretary of state this February.

Unlike his hyperkinetic celebrity predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who many believed was using Foggy Bottom as a launching pad for another presidential run, Kerry looks more like a diplomat in the old model. A patrician figure -- and the first white man to hold the position since Warren Christopher -- he clearly relishes the secretaryship and has made clear that he has no aspirations to further office. But if anyone had expected Kerry to settle quietly into his sunset post, his first year has been nothing less than shocking. Brazen even.

This boldness is at the heart of the Kerry Doctrine, which involves tackling the issues most likely to make a historic difference -- that is, the world's most festering problems -- and doing so with direct, don't-sweat-the-small-stuff diplomacy. It rests on leveraging long-term, substantive relationships with fellow politicians around the world in order to employ diplomatic intervention as the first choice, not the last resort.

The media doesn't often cover the Kerry Doctrine in action -- but that's by design. It's a brand of diplomacy done face to face, in private, without media crews in tow. In an extension of the old Eastern Establishment ethos of statesmen Henry Stimson and George Marshall, Kerry won't betray trust: He believes that diplomatic options dry up when discretion breaks down.

It was this doctrine that guided Kerry's efforts to jump-start the Middle East peace process, to the surprise of many, within weeks of becoming secretary of state. Syria was in flames, Lebanon seemed on the verge of unraveling, and Egypt -- the guarantor of peace with Israel -- was then governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party inimically opposed to the Jewish state. While others were talking about giving up on a turbulent and unpredictable region, Kerry was looking for a Camp David redux.

So what convinced Kerry he could pull this off? Long-standing relationships with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Over the course of several conversations I had with Kerry this fall, he stressed his ties to the players in the region. Kerry's connection with Netanyahu goes back a quarter-century. It began in Massachusetts in the 1980s, when the prime minister was a private citizen in Boston and Kerry was in the early stages of his political career; Kerry recalls that the two would sometimes meet for meals. And Kerry was one of the first American politicians to meet with Abbas after his 2005 election. Kerry often tells of the Palestinian president saying, "I know what you want me to do: You want me to disarm Hamas. How am I supposed to do that when I have no army, no rifles, no tanks?"

As the newly minted secretary of state, Kerry has parlayed these relationships into serious diplomacy. Soon after Obama visited Israel in March 2013, Kerry flew to Jerusalem for a long dinner with Netanyahu and his team, beginning a dialogue that lasted several months. The Israelis said that they would not allow a repeat of what happened when their forces withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza and that the country's legitimate security needs had to be met in any final status agreement. Over many meetings, often between just him and Netanyahu, Kerry probed Israel's questions and concerns, telling Netanyahu that Israel's issues were America's, too.

Kerry also met with Abbas throughout 2013, often in extended one-on-one sessions. He says that he heard Abbas's insistence on having a viable state that the Palestinian people could be proud of and assured the president that this was a priority for the United States as well. As Abbas explained the issues of top concern to him -- for instance, that no Israeli troops be allowed to stay in the Jordan Valley, a policy that Netanyahu disagrees with -- Kerry says he searched for possible solutions.

He kept the circle of participants in discussions very small to prevent leaks, and he largely ignored the chattering classes -- and much of official Washington -- as they scoffed that it was too soon, that he was wasting time, that any talks were certain to fail.

Eventually, the Kerry Doctrine paid off. Quietly, without fanfare or a Rose Garden address from Obama, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators gathered in Washington in late July to begin the first direct peace talks in almost three years.

Only time will tell whether all of Kerry's spadework will produce a lasting peace accord that resolves one of the most intractable conflicts on Earth. But Kerry believes firmly in the power of diplomacy and in his ability to get people who have the power to make decisions in a room together -- and then help them make those decisions.

Take Syria, which as of press time was well along the path toward relinquishing, under U.N. supervision, its stock of chemical weapons. This, too, owes in part to the Kerry Doctrine.

While perhaps a jump of the gun, Kerry's remark at a September news conference, at which he seemingly offered the Syrian regime a reprieve from the Tomahawk missiles aimed at Damascus if President Bashar al-Assad gave up his chemical weapons arsenal, reportedly stemmed from ongoing conversations with Russian officials. In the days after the horrific Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria, Kerry says he spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov nine times on the phone, and it was clear that Moscow was interested in playing a role.

After the Kremlin seized on Kerry's comment at the news conference, the secretary of state met Lavrov face to face in Geneva for formal talks. An agreement was ultimately reached, however, during a private conversation by the pool at the InterContinental Hotel. "Lavrov was just out there, and I took advantage of it," Kerry explained to me. "Sometimes, things [like that] just work better than getting everybody in the room into formal mode."

It was a triumph of diplomacy that stopped the United States from going to war in Syria -- or at least saved the administration the ignominy of being told not to by Congress -- and one that required bravado and bona fides that few statesmen have.

Then, as U.N. inspectors began the dangerous work of dismantling Assad's chemical weapons program, Kerry turned to Iran, which had -- with the election of Hassan Rouhani -- seemingly offered an olive branch to the West. Following Rouhani's surprising visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly session, Kerry met privately with top officials from Tehran during September discussions in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany), opening the door to serious negotiations in November on sanctions relief and nuclear inspections. Of course, Kerry's old friend Netanyahu isn't thrilled about Washington warming to Tehran, but you can bet the secretary won't leave it to a phone call to assuage the skeptic in Jerusalem.

It is risky stuff from someone few saw as a risk-taker. And the outcomes, good or bad, will define Kerry's legacy as a statesman. Either way, he's not stopping.

Illustration by Ben Wiseman