Ever since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the papacy two years ago, I’ve been a big fan of Pope Francis. Though I am an ex-Catholic who disagrees with some Catholic doctrine, I still have the greatest affection for the Catholic Church of all the Christian denominations. When I was taking Confirmation classes as a teen, I would go to the library and read all about Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, and I learned about progressive Catholics like Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and Cesar Chavez. I liked the Catholicism that I read in those library books better than the conservative Catholicism that Pope John Paul II was ushering into the 1980s and 1990s. As Pope Francis’s papacy has unfolded, I wonder if this is the same feeling of excitement that Catholics felt in the 1950s and 1960s during the short papacy of John XXIII.
These past couple of months I’ve been asking my Catholic friends and family members what they think of Pope Francis, and all of them, liberal and conservative alike, really like the Pope. I’ve yet to meet the traditionalist Catholics who dislike Pope Francis. My parents, who are very conservative, really like Pope Francis for his accessibility and his empathy for the poor. My most progressive Catholic friends really like Francis too, although they emphasize to me that Pope Francis is trying to change the tone of the Church and has not changed any of the Church teachings. These past few months I’ve read two books on Pope Francis and Church reform.
A few months ago I checked out from the library The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by Austen Ivereigh. Ivereigh looks at the life of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and traces the various influences on his life, from his mother, to his training as a Jesuit and the struggles he had as Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus during Argentina’s Dirty War. Ivereigh delves into the controversy surrounding the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests in 1976, and look at Bergoglio’s actions to help the kidnapped Jesuits. Though Bergoglio was initially critical of Liberation Theology and the efforts of Jesuits to organize the poor in the 1970s, he grew from that experience and adopted many of the same methods in aiding the poor when Bergoglio became Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992. Bergoglio led an austere life as bishop, taking public transportation to his various destinations and personally visiting the slums and poor neighborhoods to form personal relationships with his poor congregation.
Ivereigh emphasizes that Pope Francis is not the liberal reformer that progressive Catholics hope for who will change Catholic teachings to allow the ordination of women or change church teachings on divorce or homosexuality. Ivereigh sees Pope Francis as a different type of reformer, one who is more interested in changing the culture of the Church. Francis wants a Church that is more interested in mercy than in rigorously following dogma, who wants the Church to reach out to the marginalized and those who feel driven out from the Church. As Elizabeth Tenaty wrote in a book review:
German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the man dubbed the pope’s theologian, had a message that some of his more prominent critics might have needed to hear. ‘The pope is not a liberal,’ Kasper declared in a November address at the Catholic University of America in Washington. ‘He is a radical.’ The cardinal spoke in the wake of October’s Synod of bishops on marriage and the family, which revealed serious disagreement among top church leaders on issues such as homosexuality and divorce.
Pope Francis does not shy away from confronting even the most entrenched religious ideologies, nor does he bow to political expectations. He seems fearless in the face of church opposition or partisan pressure — indeed, one souvenir T-shirt in many gift shops in Rome shows him in a superhero cape, soaring to the rescue. Francis is a radical also in the spiritual sense: He is not afraid to question religious culture when it gets in the way of living the Gospel. For all his resonance in popular culture, he recognizes that there is something profoundly countercultural and holy in living the selflessness of Christian life.
…To those who worry that Francis is damaging the church, Ivereigh replies that, on the contrary, he is restoring it. Francis may be the one man who can effect major change in the church — what it emphasizes, how it’s received by Catholics, and even its media coverage — while leaving its core teachings alone. Francis supposes, as do Christians worldwide, that by faithfully living the radical messages of Jesus, you really can change the world.
The book that I am currently reading is The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis by Gary Wills. In this book liberal Catholic Gary Wills writes about his hopes on Pope Francis and the limitations that any pope has in making changes to the Catholic Church. Contrary to the assertions of conservative Catholics who say that the Roman Catholic Church is never-changing, Wills examines church history to find that the Catholic Church would not have survived for two thousand years unless it was able to reform and change. In his book Gary Wills looks at the deep and serious changes that have taken place in the Church or are in the process of occurring. For Wills, they include the change from Latin, the growth and withering of the ecclesiastical monarchy, the abandonment of biblical literalism, the assertion and nonassertion of infallibility, and the erosion of church patriarchy. In this excerpt from the book, Wills writes about the importance of reform and change in the Roman Catholic Church that he learned from reading G.K. Chesterton:
The church outlast things that seemed to undermine it- not because it was unaffected by these transitory things, but because it joined them, drew on other sources, and lived to adopt different new things. Instead of reading history backward, from its current form to a fictive immutability in the past, Chesterton led me to read history forward, from the early evidence and from the different guises the church had to adopt in order to survive.
…Going back to read the church’s story as it happened was called ressourcement (re-sourcing) in the 1940s and 1950s, when Pius XI and Pius XII silenced its practitioners. The only way to look back, for those popes, was to reaffirm what “always was” in the church, not to find anything new there. There can be no history for all those who just retroject the present into the past. But Pope Francis champions ressourcement, as he told his fellow Jesuits at America magazine. Newman’s concept of doctrinal development breathes through that interview:
The joint effort of reflection (with the Orthodox Church), looking at how the church was governed in the early centuries, before the breakup between East and West, will bear fruit… St. Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens.
…We are now able to read history forward again, to test evidence and trace changes- changes that came, were changed themselves, and then fell away. We can see the People of God weathering all kinds of vicissitudes, while not losing belief, while still following Jesus, while still expressing love of him in the care for each other and for the needy.
I disagree with the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, divorce, and women’s ordination. I agree with the Roman Catholic Church on its teachings on economic justice, the environment, its efforts at dialogue with different religions and Christian denominations, its efforts at peace instead of war, its efforts to protect the immigrant, and the Catholic critique of the capitalist system. Many of the things that bother Protestants about Catholicism (the papacy, the veneration of Mary and the Saints, the 7 sacraments) do not bother me. If these things help Catholics get closer to God, I see nothing wrong with it. I have more serious disagreements with Evangelical Christianity than I do with Roman Catholicism.
I was not a big fan of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict. They chose to emphasize the conservative side of Catholic teachings that sought to punish and to exclude. One of the things I like about Pope Francis is that he is emphasizing the progressive side of Catholicism that many forgot existed. He is reaching out to people who have been hurt by the Church and is trying to make the Church more compassionate and inclusive. I don’t know how successful Pope Francis will be in overcoming conservative resistance and enacting reform in the Catholic Church. If he changes the tone and culture of the Church, that would be a great accomplishment. That would lay the groundwork for reform in the Church’s future.
In this youtube video, historian, Pulitzer Prize winner, and one-time seminarian, Gary Wills discusses his book “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis” at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington D.C. Presenting seven case studies of doctrinal shifts in the last century, Wills notes that none were brought about by the Pope single-handedly, and he outlines what may be within the scope of Francis, the first Jesuit and the first South American to become Pontiff, to achieve. Founded by Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade in 1984, Politics & Prose Bookstore is Washington, D.C.’s premier independent bookstore and cultural hub, a gathering place for people interested in reading and discussing books
In this youtube video author Austen Ivereigh discusses his book “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” at St. Francis College
In this video in March 2015, the Vatican offered 150 homeless people a tour and dinner in the Vatican museums, with Pope Francis personally welcoming them in the Sistine Chapel. The Pope met privately with them, asked for their prayers and said, “This is your home.” Afterwards they were invited to a special dinner