Saving the Catholic Church From Itself

Pope Francis could lead a revolution in Catholic thinking.


On Sunday, after listening to the plight of unemployed miners in Sardinia, Pope Francis set aside his prepared remarks and called on the world to stop worshipping the "god of money." He implored us all to adopt an economy that places men and women at the center, and criticized our culture in which "we throw away grandparents and we throw away young people."

Demonstrating his trademark humility, he also pushed himself in his empathy for the unemployed miners, saying he didn't want to be a smiling "cordial manager of the church" who drops by to urge courage, but wanted the hope of courage to "come from inside me and push me to do everything I can as a pastor and a man." He remembered his own family's plight during the Great Depression. And – almost invoking Latin American liberation theology – he prayed for God to teach people to fight for their rights to work.

The cardinals who thought they elected a political conservative are waking up to find that what they got is a Jesuit who serves the poor first and who is eager to reach out to the larger world with love and compassion. Pope Francis might just succeed in saving the Catholic Church from itself.

Don't forget, Sunday's words came atop a long string of acts overtly rejecting the ostentatious Vatican lifestyle and deftly withdrawing from his predecessor's emphasis on socially conservative politics in favor of a renewed focus on offering love and compassion.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

First, he refused the fancy lifestyle which Vatican cardinals and previous popes enjoyed – rejecting the hand-sewn silk slippers and clothing in favor of simple white robes; choosing an iron, rather than a heavy gold, cross; opting for an unarmored Ford Focus instead of the high-end Mercedes Benz sedans and opulent "popemobiles" his predecessors preferred; and refusing to live in the vast papal apartment in the ornate Apostolic Palace. Instead, he chooses to live in a small room in a simple Vatican guest house, where he enjoys communal meals with church servants and visitors.

And what did Pope Francis have to say to his colleagues about their lavish Vatican lifestyle? He skipped a fancy orchestral performance at the Vatican and bluntly urged the cardinals to reject "the psychology of Princes" in favor of getting out into the world to serve the poor.

And then what did he do? He headed out into the world to serve the poor. He washed the feet of juvenile prisoners – even girls, against prior Vatican practice (under the thinking that a pope should never humble himself before a girl). He has refused to remain distant, walking amongst the crowds in Brazil and even picking up the telephone to call citizens who have written to him seeking guidance. These acts alone – along with cleaning up the Vatican banking scandal – are radical enough.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

But wait, there's more. In July, Pope Francis shocked the world by tackling head on the thorny political issues that have dogged the church. He suggested that women should be treated more fairly within church hierarchy, and, when asked about gay priests, answered, "Who am I to judge?" (In contrast, his predecessor, Benedict XVI, wrote that homosexuality is "a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil" and "an objective disorder.")

Last week, Pope Francis made his position more clear: He called on Catholic Church leaders to abandon their "obsession" with gays, abortion and contraception and create an inclusive "home for all." He warned that, if the church continued to focus as a punitive body obsessed with abortion and gays, "the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."

By contrast, don't forget that, not long ago, the Vatican urged U.S. bishops to deny communion to politicians who had taken any vote in favor of abortion, and U.S. Catholic Charities put a halt to all adoptions in states that allowed gay marriage. (Because opposing gay marriage is surely more important than bringing together babies who need a home with child-less couples eager to love a child?) Maybe the Pope isn't flatly rejecting church doctrine on gays and abortion, but he is changing the tone and calling for the church to offer love first, not condemnation – and that, alone, is revolutionary.

Cumulatively, Pope Francis' words and deeds represent a return to the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. Love all. Serve the poor. The meek shall inherit the earth. Remember all that? Although they may not appreciate being chastised for their lifestyles as "princes," the cardinals could benefit from Pope Francis' effort to remind them of what Jesus taught and the example he set. The Vatican's trappings of royalty originated centuries ago when popes strove for equal footing with European monarchs. But, in 2013, competing with monarchs is less important for the future of the church than competing for the hearts of citizens worldwide.

If Pope Francis can lead bishops and cardinals worldwide to serve the poor first, open their hearts to people of all stripes, and ease up on their political fights, Pope Francis might just save the Catholic Church and reverse declining church attendance.

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