Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Practicing What You Preach: The Curious, Broad Appeal of Pope Francis


I am by no means a religious person. I hold deep skepticism and distrust of organised religion – the observable hypocrisies, as well as the historical corruption that has seemingly defined the Catholic Church and other organised, “official” denominations jars with everything I have ever been taught in the mandatory Religious Studies/Education classes I took at school from the age of seven until 16 (not to mention the weekly, also mandatory service attendance). Nevertheless, I find myself agreeing with a lot of what the new pontiff has to say on economic and social issues – more so, in fact, than I find myself agreeing with many politicians. In a recent Foreign Policy newsletter, I followed a link to E.J. Dionne Jr.’s piece on Pope Francis. I am by no means an authority on Catholic or Christian teaching, having focused my attentions instead on the ways in which politicians and others who desire influence and power have perverted the Bible and its message to serve their own ends – televangelists being the primary focus of my disappointment and ire. I nevertheless wanted to share some of Dionne’s and others’ comments on the style and substance that Francis has brought to the Vatican.

“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.”

As I was writing the first draft of this piece, I noticed that TIME magazine had just announced the selection of Pope Francis as their Person of the Year – “For pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy…”

Nancy Gibbs, who wrote the article announcing and explaining the choice, started by posing the following question and comment:

“How do you practice humility from the most exalted throne on earth? Rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly — young and old, faithful and cynical — as has Pope Francis. In his nine months in office, he has placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power.”

We Are All God’s Children

Gibbs characterizes Francis’s early impact as, “in less than a year, he has done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music.” Francis’s entire approach to the papacy is at odds with the expensive, rarefied picture that those who occupy and rule the Vatican have spent centuries cultivating.

“He lives not in the papal palace surrounded by courtiers but in a spare hostel surrounded by priests. He prays all the time, even while waiting for the dentist. He has retired the papal Mercedes in favor of a scuffed-up Ford Focus [below]. No red shoes, no gilded cross, just an iron one around his neck. When he rejects the pomp and the privilege, releases information on Vatican finances for the first time, reprimands a profligate German Archbishop, cold-calls strangers in distress, offers to baptize the baby of a divorced woman whose married lover wanted her to abort it, he is doing more than modeling mercy and ­transparency. He is ­embracing complexity and acknowledging the risk that a church obsessed with its own rights and righteousness could inflict more wounds than it heals.”


“Francis is orthodox,” Dionne writes, and offers the new pontiff's reassertion of the church's teaching on abortion as an example. At the same time, and this is where Francis again provides a refreshing new approach to the role (can one refer to it as a “job”?), “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.”

Here’s a larger segment of the extensive interview with the Jesuit America magazine, from which the “Who am I to judge?” quotation is taken:

“In Buenos Aires 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 the 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. 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. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”

By neither accepting nor condemning homosexuality, “Francis did not change church doctrine with his statement. He merely changed virtually everything about how we see the role of a supreme pontiff.” In the aforementioned America interview, the new pontiff addressed the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality and LGBT rights. (I learned of the interview via an article by Graeme Reid for Human Rights Watch’s Dispatches, “A Subtle but Important Shift by Pope Francis”). Francis indicated in the interview that that the Catholic Church puts too much emphasis on questions of sexual ethics – for example homosexuality, abortion and also contraception.

Reid agrees with Dionne, concluding that, “Pope Francis is not so much challenging Church orthodoxies on morality and sexual ethics as he is urging a shift in emphasis from sex to more pressing concerns such as poverty.” This, Reid continues, “is good news for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” who often still feel, and are, demonised by Catholic bishops and leaders (not to mention a great many religious leaders of other Christian denominations in the United States). “In many parts of the world,” Reid explains,

“Catholic bishops make statements seemingly at odds with Catholic doctrine. The Holy See has taken a public stance in opposing violence, discrimination, and unjust criminal penalties against people in sexual and gender minorities. And yet some Church officials publicly support criminal penalties for consensual same-sex relations or oppose legislation designed to protect LGBT people from discrimination. Others make statements that fuel a climate of homophobia in which discrimination and violence occur.”

Pope Francis is sending a clear message: LGBT people – all people – deserve to be treated with dignity and respect by everyone, not just the Church.

As a watcher of American politics, media reactions to the new pope’s comments on capitalism have been fascinating to observe. As Dionne writes, “Francis speaks in decidedly different accents about capitalism and globalization.” Both of Francis’s predecessors – John Paul II and the short-reigning Benedict XVI – “were highly critical of unbridled capitalism.” Unlike Francis, however, they nevertheless still discussed the role of the free market in terms largely set by European and American debates: “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.”

Jon Stewart took some time on the December 5th episode of The Daily Show to eviscerate Fox News pundit Stuart Varney’s reactions to the pope’s message on capitalism. (US/UK) As a Brit, I am horrified that Varney is so prominent on US television. Between him, the ever-more-inflammatory/-unstable Niall Ferguson and Piers Morgan, it’s no wonder many Americans have a rather negative or wary impression of British intellectuals...

Compassionate Capitalism

Returning to Dionne’s piece: Pope Francis, he writes, 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.” He is almost legendary for his pre-papal and in-office frugality, and “his commitment to a Catholic Church of and for the poor.” Most recently, it has been widely reported that Pope Francis has been “sneaking out of the Vatican at night” to administer to the homeless and needy, openly comforting the sick and disfigured.

Thus has Francis declared, “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling,” and he condemned the existence of “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.” His words and condemnation have been supported and – surprise! – practiced by a number of actions and decisions to eschew the “regal style” of Vatican living that has defined the Catholic Church for centuries.

“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.”

TIME-PotY2013-PopeFrancisFox pundits (and also the ignorant right-wing bloviater-in-chief, Rush Limbaugh) have criticized the pope for daring to suggest that arch-capitalists have misinterpreted the Bible’s and Jesus’s message on wealth and capitalism, and that laissez faire capitalism is not, in fact the best defence against poverty. Gibbs writes that Francis’s “focus on the poor and the fact that the world’s poorest 50% control barely 1% of its wealth unsettles those who defend capitalism as the most successful antipoverty program in history.” She continues:

“You could argue that he is Teddy Roosevelt protecting capitalism from its own excesses or he is simply saying what Popes before him have said, that Jesus calls us to care for the least among us—only he’s saying it in a way that people seem to be hearing differently. And that may be especially important coming from the first Pope from the New World. A century ago, two-thirds of Catholics lived in Europe; now fewer than a quarter do, and how he is heard in countries where being gay is a crime and educating women for leadership roles is a heresy may have the power to transform cultures in which Catholicism is a growing, even potentially liberating force.”

From the America interview, Francis touches on a handful of other core culture war issues:

“This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

“… We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible... The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent… The church’s pastoral ministry 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.”

It occurs to me that Pope Francis is managing to do a better job of articulating both progressive and compassionate conservative positions than progressive and compassionate conservative politicians and leaders. This is most peculiar. Could it herald a resurgence in Catholicism? Could it herald a return of the Church closer to the centre of global influence and leadership? Could it make the Church more relevant? Only time will tell.

MSNBC’s Alex Wagner on Pope Francis’s “many alter egos”

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