With big governments, or big institutions, change occurs very slowly. You know what they say: It’s like a battleship. It takes a long time to turn that baby around.
Yes, that’s normally the case. But not anymore for the Catholic Church. With lightning speed, by both his personality and his public statements, Pope Francis has turned the Catholic Church upside down.
Francis already surprised and delighted most Catholics by rejecting the imperial trappings of the papacy. He chose not to live in the regal papal apartments, preferring a Vatican guest house, instead, where he eats in the common dining room with Vatican employees. He abandoned the grand Mercedes-Benz Popemobile for a 2008 Ford Focus, and uses a 1984 Renault with 186,000 miles on the odometer to drive himself around the Vatican grounds. And he refuses to wear those snappy red loafers Benedict XVI liked to prance around in, sporting a pair of ordinary black shoes, instead.
Those lifestyle changes themselves send a strong message, but it’s the cascade of his public pronouncements that have sent shock waves through the Catholic Church. He first raised eyebrows by refusing to condemn gay priests. Where his predecessor ruled that men with homosexual tendencies should be banned from the priesthood, Francis took a much more humble, you might even say more Christian, approach: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Coming from the pope, head of a church that still condemns homosexuality as sinful, that is downright revolutionary.
But Francis didn’t stop there. Next he questioned the orthodoxy of organized religion itself. When challenged to respond to the age-old question: Do you have to be a Catholic, or at least believe in God, to get to Heaven, Francis left the door wide open, even to atheists. In his letter to an Italian newspaper, the pope wrote: “God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.” Which, of course, raises another question: If you don’t have to believe in God to be saved, what is the purpose of organized religion? But I digress.
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As if that were not enough to shake the foundations of the church, the pope last week accused leaders of the church of being so “obsessed” with abortion, homosexuality and birth control that they ignored the church’s primary mission, which is to serve the poor and marginalized. Without mentioning them by name, the pope was issuing a direct rebuke to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and other leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who are seldom heard from in Washington except when they’re screaming about abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. To them, the pope said bluntly: “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” Get your priorities straight, in other words.
The pope was also speaking to certain fossils in the Vatican bureaucracy, who in April 2012 announced a crackdown on American nuns, accusing them of focusing too much on the minimum wage and immigration reform, while remaining silent on issues of “crucial importance” to the church, like abortion and birth control. The pope, in effect, said the “Nuns on the Bus” were right all along, and Vatican officials were wrong.
Granted, it’ll take some time for the pope’s admonition to take effect. Old habits are hard to shake. Just this week, for example, Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, said that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi should be denied communion because of her support of abortion rights. And Rhode Island’s Providence College canceled a lecture in support of same-sex marriage by professor John Corvino, chairman of the philosophy department at Wayne State University. So, clearly, the pope’s message has yet to sink in, even inside the Vatican. But he’s the boss. He sets the tone. His new direction will eventually prevail.
Finally, it’s important to note that the pope did not announce any major change in church doctrine. The Catholic Church still remains officially opposed to abortion, birth control and homosexuality. But his appeal to de-emphasize those issues and get back to the basic message of the gospels is nothing short of radical change. Who knows? If Francis lives long enough, Catholic churches might even start filling up again.