Fascination with Pope Francis continues as he approaches on March 13 the second anniversary of his election. The New York Review of Books carried a cover story on him recently and he also featured prominently in an article in Harper’s magazine. Time magazine named Francis as its Person of the Year in 2013 and early in 2014 Rolling Stone magazine published a lengthy cover story titled Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin’.
The white smoke had hardly cleared after his election when Francis appeared on the balcony in St. Peter’s Square, not to lay down the law as his two immediate predecessors were fond of doing, but rather to ask the people assembled to pray for him. Soon after, he returned in person to the hotel where he had been staying during the conclave to pay his bill. He has eschewed the papal Mercedes limousine for a Ford Focus to ferry him around in Rome and he lives in a guest house for clergy adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica rather than occupying the papal apartments. He even uses his land line to make cold calls to people, including some of his critics.
The pope’s behaviour has been deeply disturbing to some traditionalists among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics who fear that he will undermine the power and prestige of his office. On the other hand, many liberal Catholics dare to hope that change and reform may be in the air but wonder if the pope’s gestures are perhaps a triumph of style over substance. That argument misses the point, according to Father Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit and long-time observer of the papacy. “In the Catholic church, style is substance,” Reese told Rolling Stone. “We are a church of symbols.”
Francis, beneath his folksy exterior, is a highly focused individual who is attempting to do many things in the years remaining to him — he is 78 years old and lost one lung to an infection as a young man in his native Argentina. Several of his priorities stand out. He wants to move the institutional church and its clergy, including bishops, away from a mindset of privilege to one of service to the world, and particularly to the poor. It is for this reason that the symbolism embedded in his simple lifestyle is so potent.
Secondly, he wants to shift away from the monarchical papacy, where all wisdom and authority are vested in the bishop of Rome. Francis is scrupulous in avoiding any criticism of his predecessors but the message in his contrasting style is clear. He wants to share in decision making with the church’s 5,000 bishops. That is what the world’s bishops called for during Vatican II in the 1960s but Francis agrees that has not happened.
Francis is also especially concerned about the plight of the poor and marginalized in society. As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was known for his solitary pastoral visits to people in the slums. To get there, he rode by subway to the end of the line and then trudged in his orthopaedic shoes along muddy and garbage strewn roads. He asked people there to pray for him too.
In November 2013, Francis devoted much of his first major written teaching (called an exhortation) to an unflinching criticism of unfettered market capitalism, describing it as “an economy of exclusion and inequality” based on the “idolatry of money.” Francis is also preparing an encyclical on climate change for release in 2015. In late 2014, he convened a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements. He told them: “An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it.”
The pope’s economic and environmental critique has predictably annoyed economic conservatives. Peter Foster, a National Post columnist, dismisses Francis as an “economically challenged” progressive. “Obedience to the pope on contraception remains a controversial moral issue,” Foster writes. “Obedience on the climate agenda would be outright immoral.”
If economic conservatives are surprised by what Francis is saying about the economy, they should not be. Popes have been criticizing capitalism’s excesses since the time of Leo XIII in 1891 and both John Paul II and even Pope Benedict made similar exhortations.
Despite being kind, pastoral and economically progressive, however, Francis remains doctrinally conservative. There will, for example, be no ordination of women on his watch. “The church has spoken and said no . . . that door is closed,” he said in a news scrum in 2013.
In an otherwise exemplary address to the European Parliament in late 2014, the pope described Europe as becoming “a grandmother no longer fertile and vibrant.” That was a tone deaf remark from the leader of a church whose most fervent supporters are often older women.
Unfortunately, the pope appears to remain obstinately out of touch when it comes to his understanding of women beyond the role of nurturer and mother. He fails to see that the equality of women, too, is an issue of fundamental justice and inextricably linked to questions such as poverty, inequality and violence.
A somewhat shorter version of this piece appeared on my blog for the United Church Observer on February 26, 2015.