Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a news conference Monday. (AP)
Something unexpected and extraordinary is happening in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is rescuing the faith from those who hunker down in gilded cathedrals and wield doctrine like a sword. The edifice of fortress Catholicism in which progressive Catholics, gay Catholics, Catholic women and others who love the church but often feel marginalized by the hierarchy is starting to crumble.
While that analysis carries a hint of hyperbole, a pastor with a natural instinct for engaging people and leading by example is now steering the ship at the Vatican. The change of tone and style in Francis’s papacy is striking. In recent decades, many Catholics got the message that a “smaller, purer church” was the top-down model preferred by Rome. A new spirit not felt since the reforming Second Vatican Council began five decades ago is now stirring in the air.
It would be a mistake to say Pope Francis doesn’t care about church doctrine, but he seems far more interested in refocusing the church’s energy toward the example of Jesus in the Gospels. In less than six months, the pope has criticized a “self-referential” church that grows “sick” when clergy fail to engage the world. Francis says he doesn’t want bishops who are “princes,” but pastors close to the people who lead without being “authoritarian.” He has little patience for church officials who act like religious border patrol by making it harder for single mothers or lapsed Catholics to receive the sacraments. Francis even gently noted that Jesus’ first disciples were “a little intolerant” in their moral certainty. The most frequent word used in his homilies and formal addresses is “joy,” according to an analysis from an Italian newspaper. This is a refreshing change from some dour religious leaders who often seem perpetually crouched in a defensive posture.
The latest headline-grabbing news from Pope Francis came this week aboard the papal plane back from Brazil, where the first pontiff from Latin America celebrated Mass at Copacabana Beach in Rio before an estimated 3 million people. Asked by a reporter about the existence of a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican, Pope Francis dove into turbulent waters with little hesitation:
Some have falsely accused gay priests of causing the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Pope Francis clearly rejects that ugly slander. His words also stand in contrast to a 2005 Vatican document, which said that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should not be ordained or allowed in the seminary. Pope Francis seems to be sending a message that being a good priest has nothing to do with sexual orientation, a point obvious to most of us in the pews but a revelation to some hard-liners.
In addition to his comments about gay clergy, Pope Francis told reporters that the church must do a better job reaching out to women. While he did not open the door to conversations about female clergy, Francis insisted that women play a central role in the Catholic faith. “We don’t yet have a truly deep theology of women in the church,” he admitted.
The pope’s comments this week fit within a consistent theme emerging in his papacy. Instead of fighting culture wars, Pope Francis has called for a “culture of encounter.” He urges Catholics to go to the margins of society. He wants a “church for the poor” and decries the “cult of money” that emerges from unfettered global capitalism. Shunning as much as possible the ostentatious trappings of the papacy, this is a guy who carries his own bags and lives in a modest apartment instead of the Apostolic Palace. In these cases, style is substance.
While progressive Catholics are particularly grateful for this new era, Pope Francis can’t be pigeonholed by liberal or conservative labels. By his words and example, Francis is showing us a different path forward. For this, Catholics on the left and right should be grateful.
John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington.
You can follow him on Twitter at @gehringdc