Below are Andrew’s continuing thoughts on the new Pope. To skip his latest post in the series (3/21), click here.
If we leave legitimate questions about his past for a moment, can I pause to marvel at his present?
The reports of his press conference today suggest a radically new symbolism for the church. This kind of understanding of the diverse and multi-faith and multi-cultural modernity is something you would never have heard from Benedict XVI:
“Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God. May God bless you.”
Respecting the conscience of each of you. That might seem to be the bleeding obvious – but it isn’t in the context of Benedict’s theological reign, which was far longer than his pontifical one. Benedict wanted to place conscience below revelation as authoritatively adjudicated by … himself. The central place of individual conscience established at the Second Council was left to wither in favor of a public, uniform religion. He seemed to me to want ultimately to restore the seamless cultural-political-religious unity of the Bavaria of his youth; and if the public square were empty, it had to be filled with religious authority. He tried. In the West, the public square moved in the opposite direction. He hunkered down, hoping for a smaller, purer church. What he got was a smaller one, but beset by scandal and internal division and a legacy of the most horrendous of crimes.
Francis seems to me to be taking the world as it is, but showing us a different way of living in it. These are first impressions, but there seems much less fear there of the modern world, much greater ease with humanity. And human beings like narratives – not opaque and ornate theologies. Jesus always spoke in simple stories and parables. And so today:
“Let me tell you a story,” [Pope Francis] said. He then recounted how during the conclave he had sat next to Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, whom he called “a great friend.” After the voting, Cardinal Hummes “hugged me, he kissed me and he said, ‘Don’t forget the poor!’ And that word entered here,” the pope said, pointing to his heart.
“I thought of wars, while the voting continued, through all the votes,” he said as he sat on the stage in a hall inside the Vatican. “And Francis is the man of peace. And that way the name came about, came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.”
To see our two huge temptations today as war and massive inequality is, it seems to me, the Holy Spirit at work. We should remember St Francis’ pilgrimage to the Muslim authorities of his day. We should recall Saint Francis’ direct experience of the horror of war which changed his life. And then how that epiphany on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war led to Francis’ embrace of lepers as his most beloved, of a shack as the place he’d call home, and the giving away of his entire worldly goods – indeed even his own clothes – in order to be free in the spirit of Jesus’ true freedom.
He had a couple of other thoughts for journalists, too. Reporting on the church is different from other contemporary matters, he said, because the church is essentially a spiritual organization that does “not fit into worldly categories.” “The church does not have a political nature,” he said.
We’ll see exactly what he means by that phrase in due course – he certainly involved himself in the political and social debates in his home country. But an emphasis on the centrally apolitical stance of Christianity, indeed on the fact that in core ways, Christianity is the antidote to the pursuit of power over others … well, count me quietly elated. Again, of course, Saint Francis’ renunciation of power comes to mind. And his simplicity:
Instead of the usual formal blessing – standard practice at papal audiences – he said quietly, “God bless you,” and walked off the stage.
And didn’t get into his limo, preferring to walk on foot to his Vatican residence. In my own thoughts and prayers in this crisis of Christianity, I found myself returning to Saint Francis, as readers know. I think he is the saint the church turns to when it has truly lost its way, when it needs to be rebuilt humbly, painfully, from the current ruins.
If that is what happened in the heart of Bergoglio in the conclave, if the spirit of Francis entered his heart as a man of peace and tolerance and humility, as he says, then we have more than cause for optimism.
We have cause for real hope.
(Photo: A detail of the shoes of newly elected Pope Francis as he attends his first audience with journalists and media inside the Paul VI hall on March 16, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The pope thanked the media for their coverage during the historic transition of the papacy and explained his vision of the future for the Catholic Church. By Franco Origlia/Getty Images.)
At mass yesterday, you could feel something intangible in the air. Not to go all Peggy Noonan on you, but I sensed both hope and apprehension about the new Pope – as well as a certain distance. Under Benedict, many of us had continued with our faith as if underground, seeing little to connect to in his fastidious liturgy and tone-deafness and weak authoritarianism. Traumatized by the hierarchy’s response to the child-rape epidemic, we clung to our pews with whiter knuckles than usual, reminding ourselves that the church is not its hierarchy, but the people of God seeking the love Jesus promised and the freedom Christianity can unleash in the soul. But we would look up at times to the public leadership, wincing mostly, but still gleaning some nourishment (Deus Caritas Est, for example), before succumbing to anger at the crimes not acknowledged let alone brought to justice, at the hypocrisy and wealth and corruption, at the scandal of a creature like Maciel and a coward named Law.
But now, more heads are poking up a little, like the stubs of new tulips in the softening ground. In the last few days, we’ve found out some more about Francis, and much of it, to my mind, is reassuring. This piece by the usually judicious Thomas Reese relieved me of many worries about his time under the junta. There is no question that Francis was not a profile in courage or an aggressive dissenter in those times, but neither, I think, is it fair to see him as in any fundamental way a collaborator or betrayer of his own priests. Reese goes through the charges methodically. One worth noting:
It is said there is written evidence in the Argentine foreign ministry files that Bergoglio gave information on the Jesuits to the military. The alleged conversation took place when Bergoglio was trying to get the passport of one of the Jesuits extended. Not only did this take place after they were arrested and after they were released, it was after they were safely out of the country. Nothing he could say would endanger them, nor was he telling the government anything it did not already know. He was simply trying to convince a bureaucrat that it was a good idea to extend the passport of this man so he could stay in Germany and not have to return to Argentina.
More recently, Cardinal Bergoglio was involved in getting the Argentine bishops to ask forgiveness for not having done enough during the dirty war, as it was called in Argentina.
How hostile was this man to liberation theology? Again, this is a more complicated question than might at first appear:
What do we mean when we use a hegemonic and singular umbrella term like “liberation theology?” Are we referring to the particular texts that arose in the 1960s and 1970s from the academic and professional theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff? Both of whose work, by the way, varies in style, method, and outcome. Do we mean the pastoral legacy of the slain Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero? Do we mean the Jesuits and diocesan priests who took up arms in El Salvador against the will of Romero who, according to the critiques of now-Pope Francis, might also be labeled “opposed to liberation theology” in this context? What exactly do we mean?
If we mean the importation of the materialist arguments of Marxism into Catholic theology, then it seems perfectly clear to me that any Archbishop would oppose it. And should oppose it. But if we mean by it an aggressive posture always in favor of the poor, then we have simple orthodoxy, of the kind Jesus clearly taught. In that respect we have these new words from this new Pope to understand where he is coming from:
And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!
I know I have a serious confirmation bias at work here. I desperately want reform in the church and although I remain of the conviction that this has to start with us, its ordinary members, the signals and signs of the hierarchy do convey the faith to millions – and that matters.
And so in yesterday’s Gospel, we found ourselves with Jesus and the adulteress again. The gospel passage is one of the most disarming – because it is about disarmament of the ego, openness to the other, and forgiveness. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says, in an astonishing embrace of humanity in all its flaws, left finally alone with a woman facing imminent death by stoning.
His move is a lateral, not hierarchical one – the mysterious, ineffable, sudden crouch that Jesus goes into when questioned by other rabbis. He writes in the sand – words or signs we will never know. The forgiveness is overwhelming – too overwhelming for us to accept it most of the time. And so the Holy Father yesterday spoke directly to me when he called so many Catholics out for not feeling worthy of forgiveness:
Meditating on the Gospel passage (John 8: 1-11 — “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”), Francis said, “This is Jesus’ message: mercy. On my part, I say it with humility; this is the the Lord’s strongest message: mercy. He himself said: ‘I did not come for the righteous.’ The righteous can justify themselves.… Jesus came for the sinners.”
“‘Oh, Father,’” Pope Francis continued, relating what people often say to priests, “‘if you knew my life you wouldn’t say that.’”
“Why? What have you done?”
“Oh, I’ve done bad things.”
“Good! Go to Jesus; He likes you to tell him these things. He forgets. He has the special ability to forget. He forgets them, kisses you, embraces you, and tells you only, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.’ He only gives you this counsel. A month later we are the same.… We return to the Lord. The Lord never tires of forgiving us, never! We are the ones who get tired of asking forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace to never tire of asking forgiveness, because he never tires of forgiving us.”
This incomprehensibly comprehensive forgiveness is God in the Christian sense. It allows us to start anew, to see, as Saint Francis did, the forgetfulness of nature itself, its capacity for regrowth, for healing, to look into the buds on the trees in spring:
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
(Photo: People gather in St Peter’s Square ahead of the arrival of Pope Francis who will give his first Angelus Blessing to the faithful from the window of his private residence on March 17, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Vatican is preparing for the inauguration of Pope Francis on March 19, 2013 in St Peter’s Square. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.)
Where Benedict was a withdrawn absolutist, Francis is an engaged pragmatist. Here are two illuminating examples. The first is that he backed – as a last resort – civil unions for gay couples in Argentina as an alternative to full marriage equality. It’s extremely hard to imagine the mind of Ratzinger being capable of such a nuanced and practical stance in a specific situation:
Faced with the near certain passage of the gay marriage bill, Cardinal Bergoglio offered the civil union compromise as the “lesser of two evils,” said Sergio Rubin, his authorized biographer. “He wagered on a position of greater dialogue with society.”
In the end, though, a majority of the bishops voted to overrule him, his only such loss in his six-year tenure as head of Argentina’s bishops’ conference. But throughout the contentious political debate, he acted as both the public face of the opposition to the law and as a bridge-builder, sometimes reaching out to his critics.
“He listened to my views with a great deal of respect,” said Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights leader and theologian who wrote a tough letter to Cardinal Bergoglio and, to his surprise, received a call from him less than an hour after it was delivered. “He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.”
Here’s what impresses me: the call back to a gay rights activist. Dialogue. Empathy. I do not expect the Magisterium to change switly on homosexuality – but if we could only have a dialgoe, a discussion, some kind of glasnost on the subject, what an amazing change that would be! If Berguglio had succeeded in persuading the Argentine church to back civil unions, can you imagine how he would have been seen at the Conclave? Can you imagine Benedict’s conniption? Sometimes you need a straight Pope to deal honestly with gay issues.
Then this striking flexibility on priestly celibacy, in an interview last year, after retelling a story of falling head over heels in love as a young man:
Bergoglio admits he was able to choose his path as a priest over the girl but realizes that not all priests can do this. Bergoglio added, “When something like this happens to a seminarian, I help him go in peace to be a good Christian and not a bad priest.
“In the Western Church to which I belong, priests cannot be married as in the Byzantine, Ukrainian, Russian or Greek Catholic Churches. In those Churches, the priests can be married, but the bishops have to be celibate. They are very good priests. In Western Catholicism, some organizations are pushing for more discussion about the issue. For now, the discipline of celibacy stands firm. Some say, with a certain pragmatism, that we are losing manpower. If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option.”
He continued, “If a priest tells me he got excited and that he had a fall, I help him to get on track again. There are priests who get on track again and others who do not…The double life is no good for us. I don’t like it because it means building on falsehood. Sometimes I say: ‘If you can not overcome it, make your decision’.”
Yes, yes, yes: confirmation bias, wishful thinking, you name it. But there is nothing unchangeable about the celibacy requirement. Half of Catholic Christendom has married priests. My old parish in England, where I first received Holy Communion, now has a married priest – a former Anglican. These are management, not doctrinal decisions. Francis understands that, it seems. These procedures can change. For the sake of the survival of the church in the West, they must.
(Photo: Franciscan friars ariive in St. Peter’s Square attend the Inauguration Mass of Pope Francis on March 19, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. By Franco Origlia/Getty Images.)