For Pope Francis, a revolution of words

Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a news conference Monday. … Continued

Pope Francis reached out to gays, saying he won’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a news conference Monday. (AP)

As the half-year mark of his papacy draws near, all the commentary I have seen on Pope Francis testifies to how he has changed the tone of the Catholicism. Whether it is his rejection of the elaborate costumes that tradition forced on the Supreme Pontiff, his straightforward manner of speech, or his decision to live in a hotel rather than the papal chambers he has forced a new take on what Catholicism represents and what represents Catholicism. He even traded in Benedict XVI’s Mercedes Benz and Audi cars for a Ford Focus. There is less consensus, however, as to whether the change in tone of the “humble” Bishop of Rome amounts to significant and substantial change for the church.

Remarking on Pope Francis’ celebration of the liturgy, conservative Cardinal Burke at the Vatican dismisses the idea that a different tone undercuts current practice. This is the same prelate, it should be noted, who welcomes the inspirational character of the 15 foot long red silk cappa magna
interpreted as a “sign of the divine” in worship, while Francis opines such practices belong to ecclesiastical “peacocks.” Despite his diametrical opposite view on liturgy, Cardinal Burke can hold his opinion of no substantial change because among Catholics, “substance” usually refers to doctrine. Liturgical practice does not rise to the level of declaring a new dogma such as belief that Mary is Mediatrix of all graces.

Non-Catholics, however, often view “substantial change” from a different focus. For them, new approaches towards married priests or homosexuals in ministry constitute substantial change, even if the arena is church practice rather than church doctrine. This is why a simple off-the-cuff remark of the pope such as “Who am I to judge (about homosexuals in the church)?” needs to be taken seriously for its total effect on Catholicism.

The measure of whether a new tone will significantly change the Catholic Church will be seen on three fronts. One is the appointment and promotion of clerics. Given the hierarchical nature of Catholicism, a cultural warrior like Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia cannot include himself when saying that right-wing Catholics “generally have not been really happy” with the pope, because aligning himself with dissent against the pope would doom his chances to be in the College of Cardinals. The same question about attaining a cardinal’s red hat can be asked of Archbishop Lori in Baltimore. Tradition demands that these two conservative archbishops be promoted, even if they are of a different stripe than Pope Francis. Denying them the red hat, on the other hand, would certainly send a message that tone makes or breaks promotions. The criteria established by the pope for the tone of leadership can be expected to influence choices of new bishops everywhere.

A second area where tone impacts Catholicism is how it defines relationships with those outside the church. There is a well-publicized effort by some reactionary bishops to prevent association of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development with any groups that might espouse positions different from those of the Catholic hierarchy. Pope Francis seems to be closer to how Pope John XXIII fostered a political “opening to the left” in Italy where compatibility of goals for social justice was intended to override submission by non-believers to ecclesiastical doctrine. This is why Francis’ advocacy of canonization for Archbishop Oscar Romero is so important. Church heroes will be those who are unafraid of cooperation with outsiders.

The third key forum concerns priorities. Consider, for instance, Catholic intrusion into US politics. Some in the Church have claimed that outlawing abortion is a higher priority than feeding the hungry or healing the sick. The word they use is “non-negotiable: other issues are lowered in importance to a less binding “prudential judgment. This vocabulary fudges biblical language where Jesus explicitly makes social justice a matter of Heaven or Hell (Mt. 25). Nowhere does Christ mention abortion, even though it was known at His time. Pope Francis is clearly against abortion: the question is whether protecting the unborn takes priority over the evangelical injunction from Jesus to care for those already born. Based on what I have seen, I don’t think so. For this pope, the change in tone itself is revolutionary.

  • LaraLoganDoesExist

    This is silly stuff!

    Why don’t you guys hire someone who knows something about the Catholic Church to write about the Catholic Church??

  • LeastOfThese

    I still remember the Shock and Awe with which JPII removed all dissenters and even quicker put like minded yes men in every episcopal slot around the world, now I’m wondering if there will be some pendulum swinging. The nonsense rhetoric from the American Bishops is beyond extreme, do they work for Fox News? My only apology is for Cardinal McCarrick who served the Church admirably and with grace.

  • lynnman1

    There is still a strong anti-Catholic bent on the WP On-Faith page. I think it would be great if they did allow writers that actually understood and could clearly describe Catholic teachings and why they exist.

  • DSchenk

    Yeah. Look at how Pope Francis’ call for peace in Syria upsets supporters of our war-mongering president.

  • wehutson

    In the last paragraph the author makes a classic error, narrowing God’s word to the words of Jesus in the four Gospels. This reductionist approach is often done to prop up a pet point of various writers, but it fails.

    The Church’s position on abortion has far more substantial underpinnings, including Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition, logic, biology, etc.