The 266th Holy See, formerly Archbishop of Argentina Jorge Bergoglio, is the most unique of popes. Pope Francis is a rock star. He is the first to select the name Francis - after Saint Francis, who renounced wealth in order to live among the poor. His is also the first Jesuit papacy. Jesuits focus specifically on the gospels and teachings of Christianity’s namesake, Jesus Christ, who instructed believers that the best way to serve is to sell their valuables and give everything to the poor.
Papal populism – Francis eschews the lavish. His pope-mobile is a Fiat. He doesn’t wear the red slippers. He chooses not to live in the master Vatican quarters. He sneaks out at night incognito for pizza! This Frank is something else. He once said that god is not “a magician with a magic wand.” He has instructed Catholics to lay off the anti-abortion fanaticism, even saying that women who had required an abortion should be forgiven. He has suggested that atheists could get into heaven (atheists by definition do not believe in heaven, but a wonderful gesture nonetheless). He has said that our gay brothers and sisters could still be good practicing Christians. He has chastised the immorality of the culture of greed that has emerged from unfettered capitalism. He reformed the Vatican Bank in order to clean out organized crime. He attacked the very idea of money in politics. He categorized profits from arms manufacture as blood money. In his trip to America, Pope Francis focused on biblical and moral instructions for believers to protect our planet, and treat immigrants and refugees as our own.
Pope Francis embodies the good in Christianity. He is about as Christ-like as you could expect any practicing Christian to be. Unfortunately, all of the kind words and gestures do nothing at all to change church doctrine. For instance, “The role of women in the Church must not be limited to being mothers, workers, a limited role…there is more! We need to develop a profound theology of womanhood.”
While it’s nice that Pope Frank is preaching gender inclusion, women still aren’t allowed to be priests - let alone bishops, cardinals, or popes. Francis certainly projects a different attitude, but the rules are the rules, and unless and until he leads an effort to reform church doctrine, the kind words and gestures serve as little more than platitudes. After all, Pope Francis is an outlier, and a seventy-eight year-old outlier at that. Remember, he is the first Francis, and the first Jesuit. One out of 266. The odds of a Frankian successor, when that sad day unfortunately arrives, are not in our favor.
The fastest-growing religious group in America has been for years, self-described former-Catholics. That trend has slowed tremendously during Francis’ papacy, his populist and kind message drawing back in folks for whom the church had lost favor. While certainly positive for the church and their bottom line, Francis has done little to address the problems which led to the emptying of the pews in the first place. The Catholic church still officially refuses to treat women as equals, and still insists upon dictating what they do with their own bodies. (To the point of commanding congregants to not utilize birth control, while 97% of catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives.) The church still refuses to accept equal rights and protections (marriage, employment, housing, lavatorial…) for the LGBTQ community. (Catholic services are also very ritualistic and formal. Little-to-no musical instruments during praise & worship, just ancient hymns from an ancient hymn book, prayers are also from an ancient prayer book, ritualistic standing-sitting-kneeling, hand gestures and usage of food & liquids - but I digress…)
Then of course, the elephant in the room - institutional child-rape, and the cover-up of institutional child-rape. The ongoing cover-up of institutional child-rape, actually. Child-raping pedophile priests were simply swept under the proverbial rug and rearranged – practically gifted a new round of child-victims by the church. Apologies are nice – but wholly insufficient. How can they possibly expect forgiveness while continuing to sit on information that would provide investigators invaluable evidence against those monsters? How about coming clean with internal communications (especially from within the Vatican) on the cover-up?
Francis is by far the Most Valuable Pope of my lifetime - he speaks truth to power, and he preaches kindness and inclusivity. While I wish he would do more to address institutional and doctrinal issues, I understand that he is atop a bureaucratic behemoth whose last reform-minded leader (John Paul I) was poisoned 33 days into his papacy. One can only hope that Pope Francis sticks around long enough to promote a generation of like-minded cardinals and bishops. And that his attitude and example reverberate beyond his time in the Vatican.