Pope Francis’ comments last week on everything from gays to abortion (less talk, more mercy), the hierarchy (be pastors, not bureaucrats), and religious faith (doubt is part of belief) continue to reverberate through the church and the media.
Here are five broader insights that this wide-ranging interview revealed about Francis — and why they will be keys to reading his pontificate, and perhaps the future of Catholicism.
Like most of the world last spring, I watched in fascination as Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope. The first day, I was non-plussed. Another old, white guy? Big surprise. The second day, I began to take notice: he was a Jesuit and he chose the name Francis, the first pope ever to do so. The third day, I got a little discouraged as Catholic pundits and news organizations across the nation scrambled to prop up his conservative credentials and hardline stances. But as the week unfolded, I heard the stories of how he paid his own bills, carried his own bags, and rode in a modest sedan across town and my heart melted a little bit. Then came his ordination, and in one simple gesture, stopping to cradle a disabled man in his arms, he captured my imagination. I was willing to entertain the possibility that he just might be a different kind of pope.
The message of Christ is not often so clearly presented in American media as it was yesterday, nor is that message as clearly contradicted in the same news cycle.
Yesterday, Pope Francis, while not actually changing any doctrinal stance of the Catholic church, clearly asserted in a rare and frank interview that compassion and mercy must be the light that radiates from the global church for the world to see, rather than the church’s current “obsession” with gays, birth control, and abortion.
At the same time that the pope’s words were cycling through the media, other words were also coming through loud and clear: those of Republican lawmakers who have decided that the least of these will remain just that and, accordingly, voted to slash the food stamp budget by almost $40 billion.
The juxtaposition presented between these two events is striking. It also represents an enormous divide among Christians, and, frankly, demonstrates why so many feel Christianity is a religion full of hypocrisy.
Pope Francis on Thursday rocked the Catholic Church and surprised the wider world with a free-ranging interview that charted a course away from an institution that’s “obsessed” with a few sexual and moral issues and toward one that is more pastoral, less clerical and less doctrinaire.
But amid the widespread praise for his remarks – “Catholic is the new cool,” tweeted National Journal’s Ron Fournier – and some pointed criticism from the pontiff’s right flank, there lurks a critical, unanswered question: Can Francis make his vision for the church a reality?
More than detailing a list of reforms or policy change he hopes to make — which may yet happen, after time and extensive deliberations — the pope was sketching out a pastoral vision for the church, and modeling a way for clergy to speak and relate to their flocks.
In order to replicate that model, Francis needs enough time to appoint bishops who share his views and who can in turn encourage and promote like-minded priests and seminarians. In many ways, the type of change Francis envisions will take a generation or more.
It’s not every day you meet a practicing priest in the Catholic Church who is married, so when I got in touch with Fr. Dwight Longenecker (a man who meets the above criteria), I took the opportunity to get his take on sex, marriage, celibacy, and how the Church can, should, and already is dealing with sex differently, both within clergy circles and beyond them.
Dwight Longenecker was brought up in an evangelical home and graduated from the stridently anti-Catholic Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. While there he became an Anglican and went on to study theology at Oxford University. He married Alison and they have four children. After 10 years as a minister in the Church of England Dwight and his family converted to the Catholic faith. Showing that God has a sense of humor, Dwight returned to Greenville to be ordained as a Catholic priest. He now serves as a parish priest in Greenville.
You are both married and a Catholic Priest. How did that happen?
When I see him smiling on TV or on the cover of a magazine in the checkout line at the grocery store, I get the warm fuzzies.
I follow him religiously on Twitter and have a Google news alert set up so I don’t miss a morsel of his latest awesomeness.
The photo meme of him smiling gape-mouthed at a little girl accompanied by the words, “You love Jesus too?!” is my screensaver, and I wear a pendant with a tiny image of him on one side and of St. Francis on the other.
Pope Francis’ friendly letter to atheists, published this week by Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, has been cheered by Catholics who welcomed another sign of the pontiff’s new openness to the world beyond the Vatican walls.
But it has also prompted some gnashing of teeth among others, who are reacting to headlines about the pope’s letter like this one in the British newspaper The Independent:
“Pope Francis assures atheists: You don’t have to believe in God to go to heaven.”
Excommunicated Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who advocates for married priests within the Roman Catholic Church, said he has not split from Rome though many of the priests he ordained no longer see themselves as part of the church.
“We are not a breakaway church,” said Milingo, who married Maria Sung, a Korean acupunturist, in 2001. “Within the Catholic Church married priests existed for a thousand years.”
Even as the world’s powers grasped for a last-minute resolution to the crisis in Syria, it remained an open question whether any amount of diplomacy could prevent the conflict from claiming at least one more victim: the classic Christian teaching known as the “just war” tradition.
The central problem is not that the just war doctrine is being dismissed or condemned, but that it is loved too much. Indeed, both sides in the debate over punishing the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons are citing just war theory, but are reaching diametrically opposed conclusions.
Once again breaking with traditional Vatican protocol, Pope Francis on Wednesday penned a long letter to the Italian liberal daily La Repubblica to affirm that an “open dialogue free of prejudices” between Christians and atheists is “necessary and precious.”
Francis’ front-page letter was a response to two open letters published in previous months by Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of La Repubblica and an avowed atheist.
The pope’s letter is especially notable for its open and honest assessment of the spiritual state of nonbelievers. And for an institution that long claimed sole jurisdiction on matters of salvation, Francis seems to open the door to the idea that notions of sin, conscience and forgiveness are not the exclusive domain of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis met for three hours with the heads of all Vatican departments on Tuesday, Sept. 10, signaling his desire to introduce more collaboration and transparency in the traditionally secretive and top-heavy governance style of the Catholic Church.
About 30 people attended, including the heads of the Vatican’s eight congregations and 12 councils, as well as top officials from the church’s tribunals and from the administration of Vatican state.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s outgoing secretary of state, also participated, in one of his last official engagements before his successor, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, takes over on Oct. 15.
VATICAN CITY — Since mid-July, Pope Francis has been using Communion wafers made by an Argentine prisoner in the daily Mass he celebrates at the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence.
The hosts are made by Gabriela Caballero, a 38-year-old woman who is serving a seven-year jail term in the San Martin Penitentiary outside Buenos Aires.
Her story was revealed by the Argentine news agency NOVA and picked up by Il Sismografo, a blog with close connections to the Vatican.
Caballero gave the hosts, together with a long letter to the pope, to Bishop Oscar Ojea of San Isidro, who regularly visits the prison. Ojea, in turn, delivered the hosts to the pope on July 16 during a visit to the Vatican.
Francis began using the hosts on July 18; the day after he wrote back to Caballero, thanking her for the gift.
More than any other organized religion in the United States, the Catholic Church is an immigrant church that has grown with the nation, welcoming successive generations of immigrants who have helped build our country. To borrow a phrase from a toy store, immigrants are us.
More recently, some have questioned the bishops’ involvement in the national debate over immigration, perhaps wanting the church to stay neutral. But if they did so, they’d be untrue to their roots.
The church and her institutions have welcomed and helped integrate into American life Irish and Italian immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Central and Eastern Europeans who fled Europe after the Second World War; and Latin American and Asian populations more recently.
Centuries ago, Roman Catholics helped kick-start the market for religious articles with their insatiable demand for rosaries, icons, prayer cards, and all manner of devotional objects and spiritual souvenirs.
But in recent decades, evangelical Protestants have dominated the art of religious retailing, building a national network of bookstores and stamping the Christian message on almost any item that an American consumer might want, from perfume to golf balls to flip-flops.
Now, Catholic entrepreneurs are looking to catch up, and at the 17th annual Catholic Marketing Network trade show last week (Aug. 6-9) there was a sense that the Catholic sector has a new opportunity to expand — if businesses can update their approach and broaden their inventory beyond the usual catalog of sacred objects.
“If you are a Catholic gift and bookstore and you are not willing to reinvent yourself, you are going to be out of business,” said Alan Napleton, president of the network, which organizes the convention.
For more than three decades, the Vatican of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI operated on a version of the conservative maxim, “No enemies to the right.”
While left-wing theologians were silenced and liberal-to-moderate bishops were shunted aside in favor of hard-liners, liturgical traditionalists and cultural conservatives were diligently courted and given direct access to the apostolic palace.
But in a few short months, Pope Francis has upended that dynamic, alienating many on the Catholic right by refusing to play favorites and ignoring their preferred agenda items even as he stressed the kind of social justice issues that are near and dear to progressives.
In message published on Friday, Pope Francis took the rare step of personally expressing his “esteem and friendship” to the world’s Muslims as they prepare to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fast.
While it is a long-established Vatican practice to send messages to the world’s religious leaders on their major holy days, those greetings are usually signed by the Vatican’s department for interfaith dialogue.
In his message, Francis explains that in the first year of his papacy he wanted to personally greet Muslims, “especially those who are religious leaders.”
Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had fraught relations with Muslims. In a 2006 speech he quoted a Byzantine emperor who said Muhammad had only brought “evil and inhuman” things to the world, sparking a worldwide crisis in Christian-Muslim relations.
Pope Francis quickly is establishing himself as the “peoples’ Pope.” He has actively advocated for the poor, downplayed his elevated status, and speaks in colloquial terms that make him seem that much more human. He has left open the possibility that non-Catholics, non-Christians, and even atheists may fall within the vast embrace of a radically loving and merciful God. And now, he’s even made what many consider at least a benign – if not affirming – statement about homosexuality.
Historically, popes have toed an ideological line, asserting that homosexuality is inherently evil, and that all gay people are fundamentally disordered. In an expression of sincere humility, political savvy, or perhaps some combination of both, Francis took a more compassionate position, adding at the end of his comments, "who am I to judge?"
Welcome to the 20th century, Catholic Church.
With his open and easygoing manner, Pope Francis charmed the media as much as the faithful during his successful visit to Brazil, the first international pilgrimage of his pontificate.
But it was the pope’s remarks about gay priests, made during a free-wheeling press conference on the return trip to Rome, that drew the most headlines, raising questions about whether the pontiff was signaling a change in the church’s approach to this volatile issue.
When asked by reporters about rumors of a “gay lobby” of clergy in the Vatican who were exposing the Holy See to blackmail schemes and scandal, Francis at first joked that while there’s a lot of talk about such a lobby, “I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word ‘gay.’”
Then, in a more serious vein, he added:
“I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good. … If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”
An Austrian priest who’s been banned from speaking at Roman Catholic churches during his three-week U.S. tour said Pope Francis could be an ally in reforming the Catholic Church, but said it will take more than the pope to open the priesthood to married men and women.
The Rev. Helmut Schuller, founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, has been drawing crowds of several hundred people with his call for greater participation from the church’s lay “citizens” and a married priesthood.
“We are trying to open the church to a real approach to modern society,” Schuller said Monday in a speech at the National Press Club. “There are a lot of questions to our church in these times, and the answers are really old-fashioned.”
Fundraising for the flagship anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops is slowly recovering after being battered by the recession and sharp attacks on its mission.
Officials at the Catholic Campaign for Human Development said that when 2012 collections are tallied after June 30, the program will match or slightly exceed last year’s mark of about $9.5 million. While that is still significantly down from the $12 million that the nationwide campaign was netting a few years ago, the upward trend is reassuring.
“We are pretty optimistic,” said Ralph McCloud, director of the CCHD. McCloud said he was still cautious, given the uncertain nature of the economy, but added that “if things keep going the way they have been, we could see a bit of an upswing.”