Francis, the Rorschach Pope

(Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

A satirical blog post on Diversity Chronicle has caught the attention of many people. The post states the following at the close of the Third Vatican Council:

In a speech that shocked many, the Pope claimed “All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them. What other kind of truth is there? In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful. Today, we no longer judge. Like a loving father, we never condemn our children. Our church is big enough for heterosexuals and homosexuals, for the pro-life and the pro-choice! For conservatives and liberals, even communists are welcome and have joined us. We all love and worship the same God.”

Snopes quickly debunked the article, which wasn’t difficult to do, since if there had been a Third Vatican Council, the world would have heard about it well prior to its close. These councils take years to complete and one would dominate headlines much in the same way that the election of a new pope does. Also, so many of the supposed declarations of the council—ordination of female priests, Catholicism no longer being strictly pro-life, etc.—directly contradict Roman Catholic teachings as well as statements that Francis has made this year.

Still, many people want a story like this to be true and believed that it was. Pope Francis’s shift toward inclusion has many people wishing he will rewrite Catholic dogma. Francis has become a sort of Rorschach Pope in which people see whatever they want to see in him. Because of his dramatic emphasis on compassion and active love, people assume he must believe all sorts of things, usually the things they believe themselves. I am reminded of American politicians who capture the imagination and people put all their views and hopes on these figures. I saw this with Barack Obama in 2008 prior to (and even after) he expressed his platform. Some liberal-minded folks saw him as standing for whatever they believed. I saw this phenomenon again in 2012 with some conservative voters and Rick Perry before he entered the race. Politicians wisely keep their mouths shut during this phase because once they say specific views, they risk alienating some of their supporters.

It has been fascinating to see the same projection placed upon Pope Francis. This projection has been odd as well because unlike American politicians beginning a presidential campaign, Francis has clearly articulated specific views. It’s not as if he’s been playing coy. As pontiff and throughout his vocation as priest, bishop, and cardinal before that, he has fully affirmed the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. True, he has emphasized the compassionate side of the Roman Catholic Church in ways that stand in contrast to his predecessors. This emphasis is most welcome and we cannot dismiss its importance. But as I argued earlier this year, Francis has not taken the Church in an entirely new theological direction—he has affirmed the Catholic teachings on sexuality, marriage, and ordination, among other things. People rightly see the way he expresses the teachings of the Catholic Church as different. For example, in his interview with America Magazine, Francis claimed God focused on the whole person rather than merely the sin.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

This is a deeply compassionate statement and a wonderful challenge to Christians to be more welcoming, but Francis has not rewritten Catholic teaching on human sexuality. I applaud and am deeply challenged by Francis’ compassionate posture toward all people. I see Jesus Christ at work in him. His example compels me to behave similarly.

But I cannot assume because Francis has a more welcoming posture toward women in ministry that he is somehow changing ordination rules, no matter how much I would love to see the Catholic Church ordain female priests. If I were to make such an assumption, I would make Francis into my own image. The danger with such a move is that it renders his deeply prophetic witness mute. If Francis stands for all the things I stand for, what do I have to learn from him? I’m reminded of the quotation from Anne Lamott’s priest friend Tom, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Instead, when we allow Pope Francis to be himself, rather than a projection of our theological wishes, he becomes the gracious man that uncomfortably challenges our consumerism. When he blesses and kisses the disfigured man, he challenges us to cross our boundaries of comfort in order to love our neighbors. When he washes the feet of prisoners, he calls into question our prejudices of which people are worth our love and embrace. And because he does all these things concretely, he challenges our good intentions—intentions that support compassion and inclusion in the abstract but do nothing to drive us out to celebrate our birthdays with people staying in a homeless shelter.

Elizabeth Tenety wrote one of my favorite pieces of commentary on Francis’s young papacy: “Like Pope Francis? You’ll Love Jesus.” In it she articulates the source of Francis’s radical views on grace, forgiveness, and love. That source is Jesus Christ. And if Francis has become a Rorshach test in which we see whatever we want to see in him, then he stands in good company. We’ve been doing this to Jesus for millennia. He gets co-opted for just about any cause, whether it’s free market capitalism, socialism, democracy, feudalism, absolute monarchism, or anarchy. Projecting our causes onto Jesus reduces him. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is far more challenging and prophetic than any of the projections we have created. It would seem wise to let him and Francis speak for themselves.