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Pope Francis has become a man of many labels, from the “the people’s pope” to “the pope of the poor” to “the shepherd pope” and many more. His interviews, homilies, tweets, simple actions, and off-script remarks have reached millions on scattershot screens throughout the world.
Everyone wants to claim a piece of Pope Francis, including people far outside the Catholic church.
We asked several key leaders from “spiritual but not religious” and secular humanist communities to offer their thoughts on Pope Francis and his papacy.
Chris Stedman is the inaugural Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community and Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, as well as the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.
Over the last year, Pope Francis has been met with an incredible amount of praise — as well as some harsh criticism from people who accuse him of being all talk and no action, or perhaps just a savvy wordsmith attempting to rehabilitate the image of the Catholic church.
I land somewhere in the middle. I think he has said some profoundly important things that are, considering the role he is in, quite nearly revolutionary. And I’m not entirely sympathetic to the argument that he is all talk and no action; due to his position of influence, his words are actions. As an atheist and a queer person, I can speak firsthand to how his comments have trickled down — I have seen evidence of their influence in many of my recent interactions with members of the church. His words have had a significant impact in making it safer for people in the church to express solidarity with, and even admiration for, LGBTQ people (both Catholic and non-Catholic), nontheists, and many other disenfranchised individuals. His shift in language and priorities — particularly his push to address wealth inequality — is important and welcome.
But there is still so much work to be done within the Catholic church — around the institutional church’s attitude toward women, LGBTQ people, nontheists, access to contraception, and other important issues — and many of its leaders aren’t mirroring Francis’ welcoming attitude. And the truth is that many of the church’s members are more welcoming than even Francis; for example, a higher percentage of U.S. Catholics support same-sex marriage than the general U.S. public.
Personally speaking, I’ve known and worked alongside many Catholics over the years who have offered far more radical messages of love and inclusion than I’ve heard from Francis. But there’s an important word missing from the end of that last sentence: yet. Francis may have the potential to transform the church in ways we could never have imagined a few years ago. And while as an outsider I may have less at stake, the ramifications of such changes would certainly extend far beyond the institution and its members.
So here’s hoping for more welcoming words, more challenges to exclusive rhetoric and damaging actions — and more change.
Rev. Tim Miner is the Executive Director of the Council of Interfaith Communities of the United States, and the Secretary of the Order of Universal Interfaith, Washington, D.C.
As an interfaith leader and a caregiver to the rapidly growing Spiritually Independent (spiritual but not religious) population, I want to say that Pope Francis offers every spiritual person in the world a breath of fresh air. His humility is the foundation of his spirituality and it is a role model that all church leaders should observe and learn from. His actions come from a love of all and a universal compassion. People are his focus as was the focus of his Christ. Pope Francis reaches out to the marginalized and is working to make sure that they are all included in the work of his church.
Inclusivity is the key to interfaith vision, and Pope Francis is being inclusive in his thinking inside and outside of the church body. He has made it clear that people mean more than the organization. In keeping with the teachings of his namesake, all life and the stewardship of our planet are included in the broad scope of his prophetic voice. Every person of faith and spirit should and will pay attention to Pope Francis.
Rev. Tom Thresher is an Integral Minister and Pastor of Suquamish Congregation, as well as the author of Reverent Irreverence: Integral Church for the 21st Century, from Cradle to Christ-Consciousness.
I am both an Integral Minister (OUnI) and the pastor of a progressive church (United Church of Christ). Our community assists individuals wanting to evolve into more expansive ways of knowing, being and caring so they may serve the world more wisely and compassionately. A core premise is that faith communities “own” the great cultural stories from which individuals construct personal identities which, in turn, shape their capacity to give wisely and compassionately.
In contrast to Pope Benedict, Pope Francis appears to be throwing the heft of the Catholic church behind a more expansive cultural story of the human. In this offering, he creates an environment of greater inclusion, caring and forgiveness. One would think that this would be the core mission of the Christian church, but it has been sorely lacking. Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air in a world gone slightly mad.
An example of this different orientation is the Pope’s comment on income and wealth inequality to the Davos Economic Forum: “The growth of equality demands something more than economic growth…. It demands first of all ‘a transcendent vision of the person.’” In a simple statement, he challenges the dominant view of Western materialism by pointing to a larger vision of the human. He does not discount economic growth, he only states that it is not enough.
This, of course, is not a new insight, but coming from the pontiff, it encourages a broader cultural frame for the consideration of inequality. In our increasingly materialistic world, this is a revolutionary statement. When reason, science, and rationality dominate Western conversation, it is wonderful to have a global leader of such influence point to our connection to a mystery beyond reason.
In a Western world bereft of transcendent meaning, Pope Francis points to the simple understanding that we are more than mere electrons arranged in complex systems. He’s not pointing backward to a renewed fundamentalism, but forward to a more integrated view of faith and reason. What a gift to a world hungering for a way forward!
Rabbi Binyamin Biber is the Humanist Chaplain at American University in Washington, DC, and the former president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis.
“Religious Humanist” is a label that some might well apply to Pope Francis. His “Humanism” is the classic democratic type that challenges those more fortunate to spread education and opportunities to all, thus empowering each of us to flourish and fulfill our potential.
Humanism, as a term and sensibility, emerged during the Renaissance, first in Catholic Italy, among those who were most progressive in shining light upon and uplifting the value of our shared and diverse human experiences. The philosophical naturalism and universalism of ancient Greece and Rome were revived during this period, giving rise to the Enlightenment and our modern approaches to using scientific methods and increasingly open and inclusive secular democracy to explore how best we may live well together in this world.
While other humanists push for many more transformative changes, Pope Francis has criticized the “small-minded rules” of church teachings opposed by many Catholics, and he has called for broad survey research and an “extraordinary synod” this Fall to explore how today’s Catholics think, feel, and act regarding matters of sexuality and intimate relationships. This indicates his more democratic and scientific approach to understanding and helping both those who identify as Catholics and those who do not.
His remarkable openness and modesty are clear in his controversial conversations with an atheist journalist — Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the most widely read Italian daily newspaper, the center-left La Repubblica. A key message that Francis shared there: “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is good…. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”
Pope Francis here and elsewhere can be seen as a religious humanist working to build bridges of mutual respect and cooperation with other religious people and with secular humanists by encouraging each of us to actively do good and fight evil, thereby improving both ourselves and our world. His spirituality includes both an expansive concern for the many of us who face great difficulty, suffering, and injustice, as well as a will to act in new ways to make progress.
Humanists, secular and religious, share such concern and work daily alongside Francis and many others to help those in need and to create a more just and healthy world.