For Catholics—and many others—what happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome. The seating of a new pope has the power to affect believers across the globe, in ways direct, indirect, and unpredictable. And when a surprising sea change occurs in a hide-bound, steeped-in-tradition place like the Vatican—the unexpected resignation of a pope, the selection of a Jesuit from the Americas as his replacement, and the powerful symbolism of a new leader who literally stoops to wash a Muslim woman’s feet—people of faith of all traditions sit up and take notice.
In these early days of Francis’ papacy, we asked three prominent Catholic thinkers and leaders to help us understand what it all might mean. How will the spirit of reform that has marked Pope Francis’ first few months in office affect the worldwide church? Will change at the top trickle down to parishes and neighborhoods here in the United States and elsewhere? And what will Francis’ leadership mean not only for Catholics, but for all people of faith engaged in the work of making justice and building peace? —The Editors
CATHOLICS AROUND THE WORLD are transfixed by Pope Francis. We love his simplicity of life, his humble faith, his welcoming attitude to all, and his way of being Christian in the contemporary world that takes its bearings from the poor. Lace and gilt are no longer fashion statements at the Vatican. From his small apartment, the pope speaks bluntly about worrying less about rules and more about love. An utterly refreshing breeze blows through the Catholic Church.
But what does it really mean for Catholics today? The church still reels with the moral and spiritual damage done by members of the clergy as perpetrators or accomplices in the sex abuse scandals, from fiscal mismanagement, and from institutional infighting. Does Pope Francis change that? And what does the new pope signify for the young, for women, and for the many issues that vex the church’s engagement in today’s world?
In Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio—now Pope Francis—was a bishop of the people. He was dedicated to serving the poor who lived in the so-called villas miseria, the shantytown housing surrounding Buenos Aires and elsewhere. Known for his personal humility, Bergoglio eschewed the palatial archbishop’s residence. He chose to live in a small apartment where he cooked his own meals. Stories tell of his traveling the archdiocese by bus and train. His friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, has said that among all Bergoglio’s titles, “pastor” best describes the man he knows.
As pope, it has been these same pastoral qualities—his humility and his dedication to the poor—that have so impressed the world. Who can forget the extraordinary Holy Thursday service, just days after becoming pope, where he knelt to wash the feet of young prison inmates, among them a Muslim woman? This was the first time a pope had ever officially washed the foot of a woman. Just as in Buenos Aires, the fancy papal residence was abandoned as this Jesuit pontiff opted to live in only a few small rooms. The pope doesn’t wear Prada. And, from its first days, the gospel’s social teaching has been the central theme of his pontificate. The Catholic Church should be, he told reporters, a “poor church, for the poor.”
Blunt words have been spoken against unbridled capitalism, against consumerism, against what the pontiff has called “a culture of waste” and the “cult of money.” Unchecked capitalism, Pope Francis insists, has fomented “a new, invisible, and at times virtual, tyranny,” and the “worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” Consumerism, he argues, has led to today’s culture of waste.
At a weekly audience in June, Pope Francis explained: “If in so many parts of the world there are children who have nothing to eat, that’s not news; it seems normal. It cannot be this way! Yet these things become the norm: that some homeless people die of cold on the streets is not news. In contrast, a 10-point drop on the stock markets of some cities is ‘a tragedy.’ Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash.”
Such outrage about economic injustice in no way differs in essence from pronouncements of his predecessor Benedict XVI. But where the magisterial style of his predecessor was reminiscent of a college professor, the language of Pope Francis is that of a Hebrew prophet.
The new pope’s concern for the environment and about caring for creation is also clear. In choosing the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, he was inspired by both the saint’s concern for the poor and his care of creation. In the same June address, for example, Pope Francis invoked the famous lines from Genesis wherein God gives to humankind the responsibility to care for and cultivate the earth. Today, Francis believes, we are derelict in that sacred responsibility. “Driven by pride of domination, of possessions, manipulation, of exploitation,” he maintained, the environment is neglected. “We do not ‘care’ for it, we do not respect it, we do not consider it as a free gift that we must care for.”
Yet in his environmentalism the focus is not material. It’s not automobiles or carbon dioxide or plastic bottles or power plants. The cause of our ecological irresponsibility is moral and anthropological. We are not (perhaps increasingly) the human beings that God created us to be. Pope Francis worries that “[w]e are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation; thus we are no longer able to read what Benedict XVI calls the rhythm of the love story of God and [humanity].”
Why is this happening? The pontiff contends that it is because we now, more and more, live in a “horizontal manner.” “We have moved away from God, we no longer read [God’s] signs.” For Pope Francis, the root cause of our dereliction of duty to creation, like the root cause of the contemporary world’s grave economic injustice, is an ongoing, profound deformation of the human person. In the same way, he sees a similar deformation of the person at work in policies allowing abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and same-sex marriage.
American progressives should understand that Pope Francis perceives the unbridled market of lifestyle and moral “choice” as no different from the unbridled market of economic choice. Both are driven by faceless logics, oblivious to how God created us to be. The pontiff believes that both deform the person, reducing real human beings into mere things to be manipulated, used, and ultimately disposed of like commodities. Speaking at a Mass honoring the gospel of life, he spoke of these forces in the modern world as constructing a new “tower of Babel”—a human-made city without a foundation in God.
No changes in the church’s position on abortion will come from Pope Francis. He is stridently opposed to it and will advance the church’s opposition to laws that support it. In On Heaven and Earth, his published discussion of current issues with Rabbi Skorka, Bergoglio insisted that a human being is present at the moment of conception. “To not allow further progress in the development of a being that already has the entire genetic code of a human being is not ethical,” he said.
Euthanasia is similarly killing. For the pontiff, euthanasia reflects thinking about human persons as if they are mere things, much as commodities that no longer command value in the marketplace and are simply disposed of in our culture of waste.
Same-sex marriage concerns the pontiff in a similar way. Marriage is a foundational and divinely ordained institution, he believes, not a construct of society; it was laid down by God in creation. Popular opinion or the invisible hands of the free market of lifestyles cannot change that. In his discussion with Rabbi Skorka, Bergoglio described same-sex marriage as “anthropologic regression,” and argued that “[e]very person needs a male father and a female mother that can help them shape their identity.” At the same time, in Argentina he apparently discussed the possibility of civil unions with some openness. It is surprising, too, how muted this pontiff has been about the issue in comparison with his predecessor.
The pontiff’s liberal-seeming positions on matters of economics and creation care and his conservative-seeming positions on abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage are not contradictory, but derive from the singular, seamless fabric of his understanding of the divine plan for the human person, in creation and en route toward salvation.
By some accounts, the internal issues of the institutional Catholic Church hastened the retirement of Benedict XVI. Pope Francis inherits a church whose mission is undercut by a dysfunctional Roman Curia (the central governing body that assists the pope), financial mismanagement, too much centralization in Rome, and a worldwide community of bishops rent by clericalism, turf battles, and ideology. Establishing binding procedures for resolving past and current pedophilia horrors remains an imperative. The place of women in the church is still an issue. The “New Evangelization,” a mission outreach effort begun under John Paul II, is still struggling in its most important effort, that of re-evangelizing Catholic youth.
The pope began his office with immediate steps toward addressing these matters. Among his first decisions was to establish what amounts to an ad hoc cabinet to assess and advise him. This so-called “gang of eight” is comprised of cardinals representing different regions and perspectives within the church, but who are for the most part distanced from the Roman Curia. Expectations are that a significant shake-up of the Curia is in the works, that church-wide procedures for addressing pedophilia are being reconsidered, and that re-empowerment of national bishops’ conferences is coming. Part of what’s behind the Curial shake up is Pope Francis’ impatience with clericalism, the church’s “old boy’s club.” From his first hours as pope, Francis has warned against clericalism, comparing it with heresy for the harm that it does to the Christian community.
Fiscal reform got a boost in June with the appointment of Battista Ricca as head of the troubled Vatican bank. Expect a sweeping reappraisal of the bank’s purpose and operations along with implementation of industry-standard banking practices and transparency. The pope’s hand was evident in the arrest of Nunzio Scarano, a high-ranking cleric and Vatican bank accountant, and in the July resignations of other high-level bank officials.
In the 1980s, the first cases of sex abuse by Catholic clergy in the U.S. began to make national news. Since then, however, the horror of these terrible violations has been discovered in dioceses around the world. Though progress has been made, the clericalism embedded in the traditional structure of the Catholic episcopacy has impeded attempts to develop comprehensive and uniform church-wide or even nationwide procedures for addressing abuse, preventing abuse, and promoting transparency. Many Vatican observers anticipate that Pope Francis wants changes that would overcome the structural impediments to more binding and uniform procedures.
The role of women in the church is a particular interest of the new pope. Throughout his writings he evidences a great appreciation for what women’s strength and leadership mean for every part of society, including for the church. Indeed, he remarks in his discussion with Skorka that if women “are not integrated, a religious community not only transforms into a chauvinist society, but also into one that is austere, hard, and hardly sacred.” He does not support the idea of women priests. But women are increasingly assuming greater leadership in the church. This is something that the pope welcomed in Argentina, and new roles for women in the church under his leadership can surely be expected.
While the Catholic Church is growing rapidly in Africa and parts of Asia, many Catholics are leaving or having only nominal associations with the church in Europe. Young people are at the heart of the new evangelization under Pope Francis—and his message of a “poor church, for the poor” has been well-received among the world’s youth.
So a fresh breeze is swirling in the Vatican. A new kind of pope is on the Chair of Peter. Pope Francis is blunt-spoken, prophetic, utterly genuine, and seemingly repelled by the perquisites of power. For Americans, the unique charisma of Pope Francis is compelling. As a people, we have no truck with pomp. We celebrate plain talk and pragmatism. We valorize those who serve. And we demand authenticity.
In modern memory, no pope has seemed more reflective of our American ideals than this Argentine Jesuit. We cannot forget the enormity of the challenges that the pope has inherited and faces, perhaps the greatest being his own radical hope for a Christianity that is a poor church, for the poor. It is that radical hope, however, that holds out the greatest promise for us all.
Stephen F. Schneck is director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.