New Pope New Hope
Pope Francis as a new pope is assessed through tenets of creativism – truth and love. He may be a great transitional leader, sowing seeds for future reform.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis on 13 March 2013 and since then has consistently delighted not only most people in the Catholic Church but Christians everywhere and indeed the world at large. This is important, for religion as a whole has had a bad press for a long time, and Catholicism, which accounts for sixteen percent of the world’s population, is central to that situation. Seen one way, the changes the Pope has made have so far been small, but the new direction he has set is truly remarkable. What can we expect, and what realistically can we hope for? These are questions of interest not only for Catholics but for all people of goodwill – what one might call the extended family of the Church.
There are a number of ways this discussion can be approached: what the Church stands for and what it does, what it does that’s wrong and what it doesn’t do that’s right, and so on. The preferred framework for analysis here is the notion of God as truth and love joined in creative action, which is central to the creativist philosophy and theology of this website. In other words, what creative actions can we expect of the Church, enhancing our experience of truth and love in daily life? Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth) laid a new foundation for church engagement in a wide range of issues – social, economic and environmental as well as spiritual - but this has not in itself removed the disconnect between the Church and its people. So where do we start?
Looking first at issues of truth, there is a strong perception that certain religious leaders have been overly concerned with doctrine and too little concerned with the real issues facing the world – poverty, injustice, inequality, cruelty, sustainability. The emphasis on doctrine has been combined with a tendency to enforce hierarchy and exert control. These are the perversions of the simple truth that we are all, from Pope to pauper, equal. We also have simple needs, such as food and shelter, which in a truthful world are met in simple ways, without pomp or grandeur. Even more a perversion of God’s truth is the evident greed and corruption and abuses of power which have infected the Church. In other words, there is much to root out, and correspondingly much new growth to be introduced, beginning with basic provision for the poor, and poor in spirit.
Looking now at issues of love, we find again that the Church has strayed from its mission, the selfless giving to other people, as Jesus gave (John 13:34). At its worst, this been seen in sexual and other forms of personal abuse and subsequent retreats from the duty of care for victims. Lack of love is also evident in the marginalisation of gays and lesbians, denial of rights for women, strictures against divorcees and other policies of exclusion. At times too there have been less than friendly relations with people of other faiths and failure to engage sufficiently in the search for religious unity. In broad terms, church leaders have seemed too often to be imposing their own brand of religion on people rather than using this religion – this spirituality - as a means of support. Put another way, religion has become an extension of the ego instead of a way of expressing our essential human connectedness.
Changes so far
Pope Benedict XVI recognised a need for change and made some initiatives, but he was limited by conservatism, the weight of tradition and lack of unity within the Church. Change was being sought by many, but different types of change: some wanted more discipline, some less; some wanted to strengthen traditional values, some wanted modernisation; and so on. The election of the new pontiff in March 2013 showed how deep these divisions were, for there was no obvious successor to the retiring Pope. According to the Wall Street Journal’s e-book Pope Francis: From the End of the Earth to Rome, the then Cardinal Bergoglio was elected partly because he seemed to rise above these divisions and offer something different. In simple terms, his message to his fellow cardinals was that the Church should get over itself and live again for its people.
As we all know, the biggest change so far has been one of style. The first and most obvious change has been the move to more simplicity, which not only shows respect for the poor but also mirrors more faithfully the example of Jesus, the Church’s great inspiration. In reducing the trappings of office the Pope has embraced ordinariness and become one with everyone else. The same effect has been evident in his language and style of speaking, including his willingness to engage with the everyday - with soccer, selfies and social media. Thus he has brought a greater truth to the papacy, both in terms of integrity (modelling the teachings of the Church) and down-to-earth recognition of reality.
Secondly, Pope Francis has brought a fresh injection of love. Both in public forums and in dealings with individuals he has shown exceptional warmth and friendship that, for all the virtues of his predecessors, seems to shine more brightly. Love is manifested in other ways as well, notably in the apparently less judgmental tone towards gays and lesbians, and the signaling of a desire to give women a more meaningful role in the life of the Church. It goes almost without saying that he has achieved friendly relations with non-Catholics including Muslims. Potentially of more substance is his call to reduce the discussion on issues of abortion, contraception and homosexuality, which so often has descended to the Church telling people how to live their lives. The new focus is on the many types of poverty and disadvantage, where the church plays a more nurturing, supportive role, a conduit for the “mercy” or lovingkindness of God.
Distinguished Vatican correspondent John L. Allen Jr. has assessed the Pope’s progress in two articles entitled “A Revolution Underway with Pope Francis,” National Catholic Reporter, 5 and 12 August 2013. Allen focuses more on issues of church management. He identifies four significant changes so far: a new culture of accountability, a move to the political centre, a break-up of the Italian hold on church governance, and enhancement of the role of lay people in the life of the Church. Looking ahead, he predicts reforms in the areas of marriage and divorce, sex abuse, church finance, and decision-making, including a move toward more collegiality. Some of this has already started.
Looking to the future
Under Pope Francis it seems unlikely we will see major new advances in doctrine. The energy for that will have to come from elsewhere. There are two reasons for this: firstly, that the Pope has defined himself as a traditionalist who supports the Church’s current teachings, and secondly, this is not his personal priority. This is not to say he is not interested in doctrine, or in breaking new ground. He has made a point of remarking that the Church has “no deep theology of women,” an implied challenge to feminist theologians; and he has also observed that the celibacy of priests is a cultural matter rather than one of faith, and therefore, though he personally is not seeking change, something that sections of the Church might legitimately review. The 2014 Synod on the Family might be an opportunity to explore some possibilities for doctrinal change.
If the Pope does oversee doctrinal change, it will not be simply because such change is deemed “right”, that is, it is a necessary expression of the ongoing revelation of God’s truth; it will be just as much a response to human need, which the Church is (belatedly) starting to understand better. This is where the love side of the equation comes in. Pope Francis is a practical person who is driven first and foremost by the conviction that God is a God of mercy or loving-kindness, and his pastoral duty is therefore to care for people who are suffering. This view of things brings the Church back to its core business, which is connecting humankind with the transcendent.
Initiating the Synod on the Family is a smart strategic move for two reasons: it will put the Church into a more listening mode, rather than forever preaching, and it will provide a means for addressing longstanding sources of division within the Church. Whether any significant changes are likely to follow is too soon to predict, however the more consultative approach being used is itself a breakthrough. This builds on the Pope’s approach to reform of the Curia and the Vatican Bank, both of which are under consideration by advisory bodies. The 2014 Synod will also create more space for the Pope to pursue other agendas, which one might expect will include poverty and other issues of social justice. An assault on poverty and the materialism, greed and self-interest which cause poverty appear most likely to be the hallmarks of this papacy.
Each Pope has his own special characteristic and makes his own distinctive contribution. My guess is that Pope Francis will prove to be a great transitional leader, setting a new tone, sowing seeds for future reform. That may be the best we can expect, for in these times another John XXIII is unlikely, and the forces of conservatism are strong.
Whatever changes of substance result, this Pope is at least providing strong new leadership. He is doing this in three ways. Firstly, he is modelling the changes he wants, by personal example. Secondly, He is communicating clearly and effectively the kind of church and he wants to lead and the kind of world he wants to see. And thirdly, he is organising for effectiveness. While confident on what he wants to achieve, he is also aware of his own limitations and therefore setting in place the new people and new ways of doing business that, all things being equal, should deliver the right results. In a speech in Brazil, he said, "Bishops must be pastors, close to people, fathers and brothers, and gentle, patient and merciful." They must be "men who love poverty, both interior poverty, as freedom before the Lord, and exterior poverty, as simplicity and austerity of life … Men who do not think and behave like princes, men who are not ambitious." Time alone will tell whether the Pope’s leadership is right for our time - Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor can it be rebuilt in a day – however the signs are good.
The Catholic Church has been energised by the election of Pope Francis, and given much needed new direction. The malaise which previously affected the Church can be analysed as failures in terms of truth, love and creative action, which are the three components of simple goodness. Pope Francis embodies this simple goodness in many ways.
Given the conservatism of the Church, and the Pope’s own acknowledged conservatism, the changes ahead are not likely to go as far as people might like. But the Pope has a clear understanding of the essentials of the faith and an awareness that the Church has to return to its roots, caring for people rather than preaching or hectoring them.
Through personal example, effective communication and clever organisation, the Pope is starting to get results. Some of these will take a long time to become apparent, but the signs so far are good. We may be at the beginning of a great transitional papacy, if not one that is revolutionary in its own right.