By Dylan Platt
When white smoke plumed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel last March, it was the unwitting signal of an international blaze of change across the Roman Catholic Church. No one could deny the recent decline of Catholicism; attendance to mass was shrinking to critical levels in many parishes. The Catholic world needed a spark, but few expected it to come from a Jesuit bishop with conservative doctrines and an ambivalent track record in contesting authority. Considering the changes he has incited and their implications for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Pope Francis has reignited the Church in ways no one could have expected. Pope Francis has defied critics’ expectations one liturgical twist at a time, with a refreshing strategy: instead of cranking out edicts, Francis has become the edict himself.
In the beginning, there was fear, and it was decidedly not good. Observers were anxious about the newly elected, 266th pope. Besides his Argentinian upbringing — earning him the title of the “first Latin American Pope” — Francis appeared to have a papacy-as-usual background. He was doctrinally conservative, and he opposed female priests. He had a history of remaining silent in the face of oppression; he was considered by many to be complicit in Argentina’s Dirty War (1976 – 1983), a period of state-sanctioned violence against political dissidents under the Argentinian military dictatorship that claimed the lives of as many as 30,000 citizens. Francis also had a very public spat with Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner over the country’s decision to legalize abortion in instances of rape and mental incapacity. And he disappointed social advocates with his charity-giving emphasis on poverty instead of pushing for long-lasting social reforms.
Despite these legitimate concerns, Pope Francis surprised critics by flatly avoiding the topic of doctrine. Instead, he’s insisted on separation of church and state, vowed to fight corruption within the Vatican and beyond, demanded social context for the hot-button issues of the Church and has placed the Church’s rhetorical emphasis on the impoverished in a significant way. In short, the Pope has been on fire with reforms, and the first item on the burn pile was the Vatican bureaucracy.
Under Pope Francis, the Church’s very structure has already begun to shift, starting with the Roman Curia – the Vatican administration and central governing body of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis does not mince words when it comes to the topic of bureaucracy: he called the Curia, “the leprosy of the Church” in an October interview with La Repubblica. These weren’t empty words: in March, Pope Francis asked the Curia to “provisionally continue” until other “provisions” could be established. In April, he proceeded to form an ad hoc council of eight cardinals, representing five continents, whose purpose was to revise Pope John Paul II’s Pastor Bonus, otherwise known as the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia. The party met for the first time in October. It is interesting to note that only one of the eight is a member of the Curia, and that none are canon law experts. Many have been vocal critics of the Church’s operations.
Pope Francis also took aim at the Vatican administration when he cut the bonuses of Curia members by millions of euros, redirecting the savings to charity. This type of maneuver increasingly resembles His Holiness’ style: beginning with his rejection of the papal apartments for an austere chamber on the Vatican grounds, Pope Francis has been leading the way for a new, more socially responsive Church. His sacking of the “Bishop of Bling,” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, has signaled that Francis is unwilling to entertain the public perception of corruption. The removal of a bishop for overspending is a striking precedent to set this early in Francis’ papacy, and a swift departure from what many observers characterized as chronic inaction on the part of Benedict XVI, particularly regarding his predecessor’s response to the sexual abuse scandals within the Church. The current pope has been decisively outspoken. “Corruption,” Francis said in a recent homily, is “not earning our daily bread with dignity.”
Further, Francis is directing the Church away from Vatican-centric practices. He’s made it a special point to emphasize the fraternity between Jewish and Christian communities. His brand of faith emphasizes the following of conscience and the grave importance of private prayer. Pope Francis paints a far less doctrine-steeped image of a “good” life: “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them,” Francis said recently, in one of his many moments of candor. “That would be enough to make the world a better place.”
Pope Francis’ effort to stress ideals over policies is a marked departure from past Vatican emphases on topics including contraceptives, abortion and gay marriage. His big-picture approach — one that admittedly tends to avoid explicit details on those same issue — has still been enough to shake up the Church, given that his approval ratings are staying well on the positive side among Catholics and non-Catholics alike in the United States. A Vatican spokesperson, Rev. Tom Rosica, offered a possible reason for the trend in public opinion. “The most vivid example of the new evangelization is not a book, not an apostolic exhortation, it’s Pope Francis,” Rosica said. “The pope is becoming the message.” Indeed, if His Holiness continues at this pace, the first year of his papacy could prove to be more reformist than the duration of the entire Second Vatican Council, one of the most reformist entries into canon law in the history of the Catholic Church.
Some Catholics are becoming uncomfortable, a predictable reaction in the face of such momentous change. The security blanket of the far right has been papal policy; there is an attachment to the constancy of former popes’ language, which was steadfastly opposed to abortion, homosexuality and contraceptives. But Pope Francis has not made it his mission to tackle the damnability of these topics, instead opting for a more reformist approach. As Francis barrels forward with poetic humanity, pockets of the Church’s far right murmur with anxious chagrin. Unnamed voices from within the Vatican continue to relay discontent.
Although conservatives have made it known that they do not appreciate the downplaying of doctrinal issues, the Catholic community appears to have had a generally positive reaction to the pope’s approach. Following Francis’ assumption to the papacy, 51 percent of priests surveyed by the Center for the Study of New Religions in Italy reported a significant increase in attendance. Researcher Massimo Introvigne, head of Italy’s Center for the Study of New Religions, said that while the increase “might have been attributable to the novelty of having a new pope and the emotions stirred by the resignation of Pope Benedict,” even after six months, Introvigne said he “got more or less the same result.”
Introvigne’s insight should serve as a staunch counterpoint to those who would say that Francis’ so-called reforms are “just words.” Pope Francis may be an executive leader, but not anything like the executive branch of the United States government that we might be used to. When President Obama delivers a speech, goes to a town hall debate or has an interview, his words concerning policy are often suggestions, hopes or suppositions. He is at the mercy of Congress for most policy changes. In the Catholic canon, Pope Francis is only at the mercy of God. The Church believes that Francis sits on the Cathedral of St. Peter by divine providence. As the Vicar of Christ, what he says is law.
Style matters as much as substance. Even his style of speech is said to be more common than that of previous popes, translating far more easily to a young generation of Catholics. Consider, for example, his tweetable remark from a speech in April: “The Church is a love story, not an institution.” The people’s pontiff has also taken on impromptu interviews and boasts a Twitter feed with more than 10 million followers; he is even game for the occasional selfie with teenage fans.
And it doesn’t hurt that Francis is gaining a reputation as “the cold-call pope.” Among other recently placed calls, Pope Francis directly phoned his cobbler to notify him that someone else would be picking up his shoes and personally dialed in to cancel a newspaper subscription in his Argentinian hometown. The Pope has also responded by personal phone call to people’s letters; in August, he spoke with a woman who had been raped by a police officer and had written to Francis with her story. It demonstrates Francis’ surprisingly nuanced appreciation for the rules of modern media, who continue to delight in heartwarming reports of the people’s pontiff; his transparency and authenticity have made him an easily likable public personality, a striking departure from that of his often clandestine predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis has been so widely accepted that the non-Catholic news source, Christian Today, proclaimed that the pope is “Our Francis, Too.” Protestant pastor and writer Chris Nye remarked, “Pope Francis knows … what I so often forget: True power comes from true humility, and true leadership comes out of true service. Let’s not just celebrate this pope; let’s imitate him.” The Catholic community respects Pope Francis because he is the shepherd that guides their faith, and the non-Catholic community respects him because, perhaps for the first time, they see a man, not a ruler, in the white papal garments. In a May homily, Francis even called out to “atheist allies” to “do good,” saying, “we will meet one another there.”
Sometimes, Pope Francis’ honesty almost seems to test the parameters of religion itself. He once commented, “In this quest to seek and find God in all things, there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good…If one has the answers to all the questions — that is proof that God is not with him.” This is hardly the usual “Let us pray for the godless” theme we often hear.
In Francis we see a new, reformed papacy. He may not issue edicts, but he does his predecessors one better: he lives his creed. He shows that the papacy is not just a cushy and distant entity, but a job. In so doing, Francis represents the potential to permanently alter the very language of the papacy, as well as the dialogue within the Church. In the words of Rev. Rosica, “The pope is teaching us the art of communicating.”