There's a new monarch in Rome. He's been sitting on St. Peter's throne for about eight months. 265 men have preceded him, most ascending around age 62. He was older, 76, not as old as his immediate predecessor (78) but the same age as the pope who took the name John and to whom he is often compared. That was back in 1958 when people weren't expected to live quite as long as they do today. So, at his elevation, John XXIII was considered a transitional leader who might be around for maybe a couple of quiet years. His reign lasted almost five and the aged cleric turned out to be somewhat of a revolutionary. He was a modest man, more pastor than monarch. That appears to be the case for the present pope, whose selected name Francis (after Assisi) foreshadowed his already demonstrated humble approach to the throne. This is no imperial pope, preferring relatively humble digs to the palatial papal residence and simple used compact cars to the sleek new "Mercs" usually consigned to the infallibles. In short, Francis' seems to be a kindler and gentler papacy, quite a contrast from the now emeritus Benedict who cherished his red papal shoes and all that went with them.
It's interesting that the two most recently elevated popes are relatively old. In part that may be a reaction to the fact that Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, came to power at only 58 and kept hold of the office for more than 26 years (the second longest on record). That meant many hopeful Cardinals didn't get their chance up at bat. Perhaps far more important is that with a long tenured leader, already fixed in his ideas, the church may have been held back from responding dynamically to fast changing times. So Benedict (though no one expected him to retire) like John XXIII was chosen for the short term and some of his fellow clerics may hope for the same with Francis. Of course, it's far too early to tell how that will work out for them and their church.
Part of Francis' less imperial style is that he has made himself more accessible to the press. He candidly and informally talked to reporters on the plane carrying him back from South America. He made news when, in speaking about gays, he posed the question, "Who am I to judge them if they're seeking the Lord in good faith?" He also gave a more far reaching and interesting interview to fellow Jesuit, Father Antonio Spadaro, published in the Catholic review America. Some of what he said there has found its way into his newly published Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
Since becoming pope, Francis has focused much of his attention on the less advantaged, especially the poor, something consistent with his earlier work as a priest and the bishop. In this document, he pointedly speaks to both current economics and economic inequality. His language is bold and candid:
"Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded...a 'throw away' culture, which is now spreading. While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric.
Those of us who share his concern about the current economic disparity and its dire implications for our society could easily have written these words. His may not be well received by conservatives in the Church many of whose "free market" economic views parallel their rightist approach to religion. What's interesting here is that incorporating such bold statements in an official papal pronouncement moves beyond Francis' kinder gentler atmospherics — washing the feet of the poor and a modest non-regal lifestyle — into something substantive. All this is coupled with greater efforts to decentralize — make less Rome-focused — the Church and to reach out more to the laity for advice.
The pope's words echo those of the Hebrew prophets, perhaps more so than some of his predecessors, though any difference may be more stylistic than substantive. What seems clear is that he continues to exhibit a much more humble persona and thus papacy. In that regard, Francis may be able to make some of the faithful feel better about an institution that so often has seemed out-of-touch. He may well be able to engender greater loyalty and stem the tide of faithful Catholics migrating to evangelical churches as they have in Latin America. Whether he can stem the tide of disaffiliation, of those empty pews, is another question.
I think not. Yes this very descent and humble man has shown himself the caring pastor and champion of economic justice. But when it comes to the church doctrines that have turned off so many, he holds the hard line. Nowhere is this demonstrated more clearly than in the document's comments on the ordination of women, a hot button issue for many, including the community of nuns. As Evangelii Gaudium puts it decisively, "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion." Not open to discussion. Translation, style and even a substantively different approach to Church governess may be in play, but basic dogma — absolutely not.
While unsurprising, this will come as bad and very discouraging news to many Catholic women, especially the young. The Church's attitude toward women and especially to equality where is counts is among the major alienators that are driving many women and men not only from the church but from religion. There are signs that there may be some wiggle room on this issue of celibacy. One of the pope's close confidants recently pointed out that priestly celibacy, “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition.” That may be a sign of some progress, but for women and feminists it is beside the point.
The columnist Bill Keller, one of the many who have long left both Catholicism and religion behind, reported the possible flexibility on celibacy. Like other "lapsed" Catholics and many non-Catholics like myself, Keller clearly admires this new pope and his humanity. But kinder gentler goes only so far, especially for those who don't follow this faith or never have. Francis places great emphasis on evangelism (given major attention in the new document), but what has moved so many to live beyond religion makes them unreceptive listeners. Like Keller, they look at the Church with varying degrees of interest, but from afar. He compares leaving Catholicism with moving to another country, to giving up your citizenship, ostensibly to take up another. You may even look at the "Old Country" with some familial some interest, "and if you write for a living you may sometimes write about that world, from a distance".
From a distance is the key. We and certainly I look at Francis with great interest, but the distance between how and why he sees the world we share and how we see it is immense. Kinder and gentler may resonate with active Catholics, even reinforcing their faith. But for transcenders, whether former members of his, another or no church it ultimately is at best an academic, albeit respectful, interest. To be fair, the ordination of women or the end of priestly celibacy wouldn't really change things, certainly not at this late date. Clearly Francis would love to bring more people under his tent. So, too, would leaders of other religious groups. That is unlikely to happen. Kinder gentler is admirable but it just isn't enough to be compelling and it certainly can't mask old doctrines and points-of-view still very much in force — questions "not open for discussion".