I post this picture of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of people on Maundy Thursday of this year as a record, a reminder to myself of what Jesus’ ongoing ministry in the world is supposed to look like. This is one of the most beautiful and true and holy pictures I’ve seen in a while. I am challenged by my brother in Christ.
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.
Lots of commentary and debate flying around the internet on Pope Francis’ recent homily in which he argued all people are redeemed through Jesus. People are seeing this message as further evidence that Francis is distinguishing himself from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who was seen as much more strident and exclusive. Francis is viewed as taking the Roman Catholic Church in an altogether new direction. To that I say, not so fast.
Francis is not saying anything outside the tradition of the Catholic Church. This takes some parsing, so bear with me. In Christian theology, there are generally three major views on who gets saved. (The fancy word for discussing salvation is soteriology.) First we have universalism, in which Jesus saves everyone. Second we have exclusivism, in which Jesus saves only those who respond to his call to follow him and confess he is Lord. Finally, we have inclusivism, in which all who follow Jesus will be saved, but Jesus may also save some who were unable to hear the gospel message or who never confessed he is Lord, yet still embodied many of his teachings. The Catholic Church has held to an inclusive view of salvation.
While the Catholic Church has had an inclusive view with regard to eternal salvation, it has had an exclusive view of which is the true Church. (The fancy word for discussing the church is ecclesiology.) This is where many see Francis and Benedict splitting, but I do not think that is the case. Benedict spent a fair amount of his papacy emphasizing the essential nature of the Roman Catholic Church as the one, true Church. He said communities of followers of Christ outside the Catholic fellowship were not true churches, even though the Holy Spirit may show up in those groups from time to time. This was good, old-fashioned, Roman Catholic ecclesiology. It merely sounded harsh in our culture. (I’ll note that as a Protestant, I couldn’t disagree with Benedict more on this point, but he wasn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said about my folk for centuries.)
Put together the inclusive soteriology and the exclusive ecclesiology and you have a view that says Jesus death can redeem everyone, but if you want to be sure that you have received that redemption as well as experience the full blessing of that redemption in this life, you should be in good standing in the Roman Catholic Church. From what I’ve read, Francis focused on the inclusive soteriology without touching much on the exclusive ecclesiology. If anything, he offered a subtle correction to Catholics who want to extend the Catholic Church’s exclusive ecclesiology to matters of salvation. That is, there is a temptation to say, “If you’re not in our Church, then Jesus hasn’t saved you,” and Francis was pushing back against that. The bits of Francis’ homily that have surfaced look incredible. I love the idea that by participating in good works people find common ground. Further, since we are made for good works (Ephesians 2.10), by doing good, we grow closer to God. So far, I’ve been very impressed with the new pope.
There are clear differences between Francis and Benedict and we won’t know the full extent of those differences for a while. We need to see more of what shape Francis’ ministry and leadership will take. As of now, however, the differences between the two popes is more a matter of style and understanding that the method by which a message is delivered is just as important as the message itself. Francis is seen as more compassionate and caring for the poor in his choices to wash the feet of juveniles in detention, opting for a simpler apartment at the Vatican, and having more modest dress. Benedict’s teachings on care for the poor were just as robust as anything Francis has said, but Benedict never fully appreciated the importance of nonverbal communication. He could articulate the deep Christian tradition to love the “least of these,” but he never seemed to grasp that wearing designer loafers undermined his powerful words.
Benedict is an academic who, like so many other academics, had a hard time communicating to non-academics. I had to read a bit of Benedict’s (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) theological writings in seminary and he is a first-rate theologian whose works will have great influence for several decades. These works were not written for a general audience, however, and he was never fully successful making the switch to a general audience. He could not connect with people outside the academy with the same ease that Francis can or John Paul II could. Benedict never figured out how to make a pithy sound byte and opted for careful, nuanced, and full arguments. In a sound byte world, it is easy to take bits of full arguments out of context. His analytical style came off as cold. He certainly didn’t have the charisma to work a crowd like John Paul II or Francis.
Many prayers for Jorge Mario Bergoglio who has been elected Pope. He has taken the name Francis and in honor of that name I offer the prayer of St. Francis on his behalf. May this prayer be true of Francis I and all Christians.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
I have been watching the resignation of Benedict XVI and the conclave with great interest and hope. As the leader of the largest clan in the Christian family, the Pope has a great opportunity to represent Christ to the whole world. I am excited to see what the first Latin American pope does. Also, considering I’ve been exploring Ignatian spirituality the past few years, I think it’s pretty cool to have a Jesuit as the Bishop of Rome.