Pope Francis: Numero Uno Paradigm-Buster

September 20, 2013

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IT’S ABOUT THE PEOPLE, STUPID–As with Pope John XXIII, the pontificate of Jorge Bergoglio may turn out to be more radical and progressive than the man himself.

Earlier this year when I signed the book deal for The Trial of Pope Benedict, I was convinced that this would be the end of all my writing about popes—and the Roman Catholic Church, for that matter. The book was intended as a kind of closure: my one and only statement about an institution I had no intention of returning to, much less thinking about on a daily basis, and a j’accuse indictment of the man who had done more than any other individual to destroy the potential for good in that Church.

Pope Benedict/Joseph Ratzinger’s legacy was so singular in its dogmatic grimness, so all-encompassing in its corrosive influence, that I had no reason to believe that change could ever be possible in the Church; no reason to think that the papal conclave to replace him would end with anything other than the predictable coronation of yet another right-wing ideologue (or, at best, some fluffy moderate who might put a kinder face out to the world—and possibly enact half measures to address the sex abuse scandals—but would otherwise stay the course on the Vatican’s power/control fetish and its obsession with homosexuality, abortion, and birth control). Another thirty-five years of status quo seemed inevitable. Since it would all be business as usual, there was nothing more to do than simply publish the book, hope it sold a few copies, and then move on to other subjects. No need to dignify this religion with another moment’s thought, right?

Well, that was before March 13, when Jorge Bergoglio stepped onto the balcony above St. Peter’s Square. In the first few months following his ascension to the papal throne, I was compelled like everyone else to take notice of this peculiar Jesuit outsider and his refusal to play ball with the Roman Curia. Within a few weeks of starting this blog, I found that most of the postings were about Francis and his straight-talking, gays-are-okay, paradigm-busting ways. Now, it seems, I cannot even escape Francismania in Myanmar (aka Burma), where news travels slowly and Internet bandwidth makes one pine for dial-up.

Before today’s shift at work was a couple of hours old, I had e-mails and Facebook inquiries about what I thought of Francis’s revealing interview with Rev Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica. And so (forgetting for a moment about traffic jams and skyrocketing rent increases in Yangon, Aung San Suu Kyi’s tour of Europe, and corruption allegations surrounding the tender bidding process for Myanmar’s new international airport), here’s what I think of the latest from Francis.

I think that New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein buried the lead in her coverage of the interview yesterday. The most telling aspect of the pope’s conversations with Father Spadaro appears at the end of the Times article, where Francis says what he really thinks about all those theological conservatives who complain that he doesn’t say or do enough to condemn homosexuality, abortion, and birth control; those little God’s Rottweilers who, following the Ratzinger Method, want their new pope to slap down wayward clerics who don’t toe the Canon Law line. The pope said he finds it “amazing” that complaints about “lack of orthodoxy” end up in Vatican offices rather than in the Episcopal offices of the bishops. Such complaints, he goes on, “are better dealt with locally,” lest the Vatican offices be reduced to “institutions of censorship.” Continuing in this tone, he says that to “think with the church” does not mean “thinking with the hierarchy”; it means making the church “the home of all” rather than an exclusive fortress for “only a small group of selected people.” He closes with this: “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

Doctrinal ideologues, consider yourselves on notice. This is a far more significant statement than any of Francis’s comments on individual issues. It clearly signals that the Church’s 35-year program of theological literalism, purity, and the fear of original sin under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI is going the way of the dodo. Francis appears to recognize that the Church’s long-term survival prospects in the developed world depend on a return to its pastoral, grassroots mission. That is, he knows that so many people have tuned out of their religion that staying the course is not an option. He also knows, from experience in Argentina, that the Church is at its best—that it connects with the flock most effectively—when it presents the gospels as a positive option and Christ as a good example (rather than, say, using scripture as a battering ram to intimidate the faithful into obedience). He knows that the Church has lost its way mostly because it abandoned that mission—although he is too good a politician to openly blame his still-living predecessor. And it is now the sole purpose of his pontificate, however long it may last, to bring that mission back.

Of course, he has his work cut out for him. In the interview with La Civiltà Cattolica (whose Italian transcript he personally reviewed), he reveals that, on the advice of his colleagues at the conclave, he has appointed an advisory group of eight cardinals with a mandate to recommend reforms of the Vatican bureaucracy. “I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial, consultation,” he said of the eight. Given the straight shooter image he has presented up to now, there is no reason to think that His Holiness is bluffing on this one. Tellingly, he says his reputation as an “ultraconservative” in Argentina was based on the “authoritarian” leadership style he developed after being made a superior at the “crazy” young age of thirty-six. “But I have never been a right-winger,” he said. “It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”

He claims to be seeking a more consultative approach as pope. But here’s hoping that old authoritarian reflex kicks in when it’s time to say “Arrivederci” to some of the tired, old farts of the Curia who have wallowed in corruption and hypocrisy for far too long, dragging their Church into the mud. I may not believe in God anymore, so it’s too late to consider going back. But I sure will enjoy watching this pope try to turn things around. Unlike Benedict, with whom I cannot imagine breaking bread, this is one pope I could sit down with over a nice glass or two of Malbec.

You go, Frank!

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