One of the great joys of the past year has been in watching how Pope Francis’s papacy has unfolded in his first few months. He has emphasized the church’s historical role in championing the rights of the poor and the marginalized; reached out with respect to atheists, Jews, Muslims, gays and lesbians; he granted audience to children, the disabled, refugees; he has reached out to divorced Catholics who are excluded from important church sacraments. He adopted a humbler style, residing in the Vatican’s modest guesthouse rather than the lavish Apostolic Palace, he carries his own luggage, and he pays his hotel bills in person. Pope Francis traded the armored Mercedes SUV that ferried his predecessor for a far more humble Ford Focus. Though he hasn’t yet made any changes in church teachings, his humble manner has captured the respect and admiration of the world, especially of those people who have had antagonistic relationships with the Catholic Church.
Some people have argued that the Pope’s gestures are just empty words. Though I do think the church needs reform, I also think that a change in tone that Pope Francis is attempting to instill in the Catholic Church can have a far reaching and good effect on the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world. Pope Francis’s emphasis on helping the poor, for instance, can help focus the world’s attention on the structural causes of poverty, on the economic inequalities that are increasingly leaving wealth in fewer hands while leaving the middle class and poor with less. Pope Francis’s history of good relations with the Jewish and Islamic communities can continue the good work of Pope John Paul II in creating greater understanding and fellowship with people of different religions.
One of the surprising areas with which Pope Francis’s change in tone can help is in healing the breach between Christians and the LGBT community. Catholic groups that are fighting for LGBT rights within the church, like Dignity USA, New Ways Ministry, Catholics For Equality and Equally Blessed have been generally positive and cautiously optimistic about Pope Francis’s kinder tone towards gay and lesbian Catholics and they have had talks with some parishes to try to make their churches more welcoming to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. Right now these groups are fighting to reinstate gay and lesbian employees who have been terminated from their jobs in Catholic institutions.
Soon after Francis made comments about not having the right to judge gays and lesbians who sincerely are seeking God, the Jesuits released a video series titled “Who Are We To Judge?” that extolls the contributions of gay and lesbian Catholics to the Church and counters the homophobia that exists in the Catholic Church.
One of the big surprises of December was when the Advocate, the oldest LGBT magazine in the U.S., named Pope Francis its person of the year. Though I think others probably deserve the honor more, I do think the rational of the Advocate for making this choice is sound. In its editorial, Lucas Grindley wrote:
Pope Francis is leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics all over the world. There are three times as many Catholics in the world than there are citizens in the United States. Like it or not, what he says makes a difference. Sure, we all know Catholics who fudge on the religion’s rules about morality. There’s a lot of disagreement, about the role of women, about contraception, and more. But none of that should lead us to underestimate any pope’s capacity for persuading hearts and minds in opening to LGBT people, and not only in the U.S. but globally. The remaining holdouts for LGBT acceptance in religion, the ones who block progress in the work left to do, will more likely be persuaded by a figure they know.
…what Francis does say about LGBT people has already caused reflection and consternation within his church. The moment that grabbed headlines was during a flight from Brazil to Rome. When asked about gay priests, Pope Francis told reporters, according to a translation from Italian, “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”
The brevity of that statement and the outsized attention it got immediately are evidence of the pope’s sway. His posing a simple question with very Christian roots, when uttered in this context by this man, “Who am I to judge?” became a signal to Catholics and the world that the new pope is not like the old pope.
Francis’s view on how the Catholic Church should approach LGBT people was best explained in his own words during an in-depth interview with America magazine in September. He recalled, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”
He said that when he was a cardinal, “I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During [a recent] return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”
In emphasizing the spirit of church teachings rather than the letter of church teachings, I think Pope Francis is emulating the example of Jesus. Jesus frequently got into clashes with the religious authorities of his day because Jesus emphasized the spirit of the Jewish Law rather than focus so much on slavishly following the letter of the Law. Jesus was roundly criticized for keeping company of tax collectors, prostitutes, fallen women, those possessed by demons. And he baffled his followers by speaking kindly of Samaritans, Gentiles and asked them to love their enemy. In Mark 2:14-17, for instance, is this account of Jesus keeping company with tax collectors and sinners.
As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
In Luke 18:9-14 it is written:
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Jesus asked his followers to love even Samaritans, who were looked down upon by many Jews. In Luke 10:25-37:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
One of the most famous stories of Jesus is found in John 8:1-11. It wrote:
At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Just as Jesus wanted people to look past ethnic rivalries and doctrinal differences between people, Pope Francis wants Catholics to look past the antagonisms that many Christians have towards gays, lesbians, atheists, Muslims, and those who are not Christians and to see their value in God’s eyes. Time Magazine, which also named Pope Francis its Person of the Year, hopes that Pope Francis may be able to bridge some of the differences that have led to so much violence and anger between different groups, and to join in fighting for common cause against poverty, injustice, oppression and hunger. Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias wrote in the Time article:
But what makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), “the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.” In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.
And behind his self-effacing facade, he is a very canny operator. He makes masterly use of 21st century tools to perform his 1st century office. He is photographed washing the feet of female convicts, posing for selfies with young visitors to the Vatican, embracing a man with a deformed face. He is quoted saying of women who consider abortion because of poverty or rape, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” Of gay people: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.” To divorced and remarried Catholics who are, by rule, forbidden from taking Communion, he says that this crucial rite “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
…if somehow by his own vivid example Francis could bring the church into a new relationship with its critics and dissidents—agreeing to disagree about issues that divide them while cooperating in the urgent mission of spreading mercy—he might unleash untold good. “Argue less, accomplish more” could be a healing motto for our times. We have a glut of problems to tackle. Francis says by example, Stop bickering and roll up your sleeves. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good—an important thing for the world to hear, especially from a man who holds an office deemed infallible.
There is no guarantee that the next Pope will follow the tone set by Pope Francis, so I think it is important for Church reformers to keep pressing for necessary reforms to oppressive Church teachings. I do not know to what extent Pope Francis wants to reform the Catholic Church. If he tries more extensive reforms, he will face much opposition from within the Church. For thirty years, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been replacing the liberal bishops and cardinals of the Vatican II era with more conservative clergy who aren’t as inclined to reform. The Curia and the Vatican bureaucracy tend to be more conservative and are experienced in blocking reform. And the conservative Pope Benedict is still alive and may play a behind-the-scenes role in blocking reforms he may not approve of. So if Pope Francis wants extensive reforms in the Church, he will need the political skills of someone like Abraham Lincoln.
Pope Francis wants the Catholic Church to be a hospital for sinners and not just a sanctuary for saints. That is the kind of church that I would like to go to. I’ve witnessed enough church conflicts and have been involved in a few now to know that Christians are as imperfect and make as many mistakes as anyone else. As St. Paul wrote in Romans, we’re all imperfect. I know in my own life, I have many imperfections that I struggle with. I’ve seen how groups of Christians can use their dogma to harass individuals who do not conform. I end this blog with a quote from an article by Damon Linker in the New Republic. He wrote:
…where the Church is concerned, rhetoric has a reality all its own. The Church was conjured into existence, after all, by an itinerant rabbi whose words converted a civilization to a new and radical faith. In our own time, meanwhile, the harsh denunciations of doctrinal deviance favored by John Paul II and Benedict XVI drove many progressives away from the Catholic Church, and their exodus diminished the Church in turn. Francis’s welcoming words and open hands have changed the subject of the papacy away from sexual decadence to the plight of the poor, and if that convinces those progressives to come home, he will have done a very good thing for his Church. If his words also help to halt the wholesale march of churchgoing Catholics into the eager arms of the Republican Party, he will have done a good thing for American politics as well.
Even as Francis’s gestures make headlines, the Church does not think in terms of news cycles or election cycles, but rather in terms of centuries. A new Pope appoints the bishops, archbishops, and cardinals who will govern the Church of the future and in turn elect the next Pope, who will then make his own appointments, and so on, down through the decades. It may seem crazy to progressive Catholics that they’ll likely have to wait another 100 years for their Church to declare the use of condoms to be morally licit or to permit a woman to celebrate Mass. But something has to set the wheels of change in motion, and that just might be the modest but vital reform that Pope Francis ends up being remembered for most of all.
Other articles about Pope Francis:
Who Am I To Judge: A Radical Pope’s First Year by James Carroll for the New Yorker
Pope Francis Is Not A Standard Bearer For the Right or the Left by Tom Krattenmaker for the National Catholic Reporter
Pope Francis Startles Rush Limbaugh With Critique of Capitalism by David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times
A youtube video of Pope Francis washing the feet of young inmates — including and atheists and Muslims — on Holy Thursday
A youtube video of Pope Francis encouraging priests to reach out for the poor, the sad and lonely
The rabbi of Argentina’s capital, Abraham Skorka, talks about Pope Francis’s work for building bridges between faiths
Pope Francis talks in a press conference about Pope Benedict, the Vatican Bank, women in the Catholic Church, a “gay” lobby and gays in the Church
Pope Francis has sent a letter to the Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University calling for a steady return to dialogue between the world’s Muslims and Christians, and stressing the Vatican’s respect for Islam
A youtube video of the disfigured man whose embrace with Pope Francis that went viral
Pope Francis visited “Astalli’ refugee center in Rome, which helped 20,000 people last year. He advised that empty convents be used to shelter refugees, and he spoke out for the rights of refugees
Pope Francis has received a rapturous reception after visiting one of Rio de Janeiro’s poorest favelas, telling its residents that the world’s rich must do much more to wipe out vast inequalities between the haves and the have-nots
Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Lampedusa, an Italian island where dozens of illegal immigrants arrive every day. He spoke out for the rights of immigrants and refugees
Pope Francis was visited by a group of young cancer patients who are being treated at Rome’s Agostino Gemelli hospital
Pope Francis celebrates his birthday with 4 homeless men
Pope Francis visits the Basilica and the Crypt where he venerates the tomb of Saint Francis