When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected pope six months ago, his record suggested he might make some modest changes. Bergoglio was known to have discouraged dissident Anglicans from converting to Rome, suggesting instead that …
When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected pope six months ago, his record suggested he might make some modest changes. Bergoglio was known to have discouraged dissident Anglicans from converting to Rome, suggesting instead that they become better Anglicans, and had cultivated cordial relations with Argentina’s Jews and Muslims. But few thought he would make major waves.
Since then, however, Bergoglio — now Pope Francis I — has been rattling cages.
Asked about gay priests, the pope said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
He later said that his church had become “obsessed” with sex and that he would not be talking about abortion, gay marriage and contraception.
The church should be a “home for all,” the pope said, but was in danger of becoming “a small chapel” for “a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”
Then, just last week, in an informal, unscripted interview, the pope lambasted economies that practice the “idolatry of money over man.”
The Catholic faithful must be wondering what’s next.
The door to new thinking has been opened before. Vatican II, under Pope John XXIII, invited all sorts of people to take part in church councils and embraced insights from sources previously dismissed by church authorities. But since Pope John’s death 50 years ago, subsequent popes and the Roman Curia have been beating a determined retreat. Now Pope Francis has cracked the door open again.
Let’s be clear about what the new pope has not done. He has not retracted anything or declared any new teachings. Nor should we expect him to. Churches rarely acknowledge historic errors or confess their institutional sins. But Pope Francis has set a tone of openness, compassion, and humility, and that is a huge change.
Instead of telling people what to believe and do, Francis has invited people to join him in discerning God’s will. That’s a stunning gesture of self-effacement from the leader of a body that has long promoted itself as the “one true church” and, since 1870, claimed its leader is infallible when speaking about doctrine and morality.
Catholics and other Christians understand pride to be the deadliest of the deadly sins. Perhaps the first step away from pride is to say, “I don’t have all the answers. I’m still learning and I want to learn with you.” Pope Francis appears to personify this attitude.
Others could learn something from this pope. I’m thinking of other Christians, including but not limited to Catholics.
I was in New York last week and passed a bit of graffiti on a stone wall that read, “Some of the meanest people I know I met in church.” What had we Christians done to provoke someone to write those words on a public wall? Would anyone listening to Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount have written that?
It was Mohandas Gandhi who said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
I’m also thinking of our politicians. Bullies in the Congress and on talk radio huff and puff as if they know everything about history, economics, diplomacy, constitutional law, and morality. They ridicule and try to shout down those with a different view.
Compromise, working together, give and take? That’s apostasy to these true believers. They are willing to hold America hostage unless they get their way and have taken us perilously close to a shutdown of government services and a catastrophic default on the nation’s debt.
Pope Francis cannot by himself remake the Roman Catholic Church any more than Pope John XXIII could do it before him, but he has made a noble correction of course. Neither can one voter or elected official remake American politics. But each of us can do our part.
Let all of us, Catholics and Protestants, believers and unbelievers, liberals and conservatives, pause and take a deep breath. No one is right all the time. Truth transcends every merely human mind.
Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.