THE BLOG

Pope Francis: The Reformer

03/13/2015 02:21 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015
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When he was presented to the cheering crowd at St Peter's Square on March 13, 2013 not many people especially in the West, Asia and Africa recognized the name Jorge Bergoglio. Even though he was well known and respected in Latin America, not even his fellow bishops from that region could have imagined the transformation of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church within the last two years. Pope Francis is quietly reforming the Catholic Church. His influence also has been felt beyond the Catholic Church. In the United States where anti-Catholicism is often the only acceptable prejudice, Francis's name echoed so loudly at the recent National Prayer Breakfast as an embodiment of authentic religious faith needed for human and cosmic flourishing. No one would have thought when many Americans raised the question about whether JFK, a Catholic could be a president of the United States that a pope will one day be invited to address a joint session of the Congress. This just shows how much Francis has gone in giving a radically new narrative of Catholicism and the papacy. His role in negotiating the thawing of relationship between Cuba and the United States is well noted. But his influence is not simply felt in the United States where his approval rating is nearly on par with that of Pope John Paul II; he has an 84% rating in Europe, 72% in Latin America, 78% in the U.S. and 44% in Africa with a median of 60% in the 43 countries surveyed in the Pew Research Center poll reported in December 2014. Whereas popularity in the polls does not necessary translate into measurable indices when it comes to translating his impact on matters of faith and morals, they however point to the growing influence and acceptance of Pope Francis' message within and outside the Catholic Church. Francis is redefining Catholicism for good!

What he has done is that he has introduced a paradigm shift in the Catholic Church. He has quietly changed the tone of the message and the style of leadership at the Vatican. While he has not substantially altered the content of that message which is often seen as conservative, Eurocentric, and resistant to the exigencies of history and social change, he is chipping away at its foundations through a new hermeneutic of multiplicity and inclusion. In doing this, he has fundamentally and radically shifted the priorities and practices of the Catholic Church on such core issues as power and authority in the church with regard to service and discipleship. Indeed, Pope Francis has opened the doors to the voices of the marginalized in the church--women, the poor, same-sex persons, the so called dissenters and rebels who were excluded in the 'pure' Catholic Church governed by a unitary method of search for truth propagated in the previous papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Indeed, under Pope Francis, the biblical image of the church as the net of the Lord Jesus containing all kinds of fish has become true. Francis is bringing about a new experience of Catholicism as a church of the poor and the church of mercy. The Church of Pope Francis is one where saints and sinners, divorced and separated Catholics, as well as those who have been denied communion have hope for acceptance. It is a church in which non-Catholic Christians and people of other religions and people of no faith are seen as friends to be embraced and not infidels to be pitied or aliens to be avoided. Francis has given expression to the full meaning of Catholicism as universality with the appointments of cardinals from every corner of the earth, and the administration of the church through an international Council of Cardinals with a representative from every continent. Pope Francis has given greater visibility to the voices of the Global South who have remained marginal in the church until now even though their sheer number continues to guarantee the continued relevance and survival of the Church beyond the West.

Indeed, it is appropriate to call Pope Francis a true reformer. There has always been some unease in the Catholic Church over the word 'reform' given that the word represents in mainline Catholicism the saddest era in the history of the Church. The Reformation was the period when the internal combustion of doctrinal battles and the struggle for sacred power in Europe and for the survival. One Catholic Church gave birth to the rise of Protestantism and struck the death knell to a united church. This gave rise to the Counter-Reformation, and the nationalistic flavor which fueled the multiple divisions in a sick and dying Christendom, and the thirty years war which all culminated in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. However, when I use the term 'reform' here I employ the meaning given by the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar when reflecting on the reality of aggiornamento--updating of the church--achieved at the Second Vatican Council. He argues that the reform of the church is not an introduction of a new element in the church because the central idea of the church is love which alone is credible. Reform, according to him, involves two aspects. The first is a broadening of the horizon, a translation of the Christian message in 'language understandable by the modern world. The second aspect is the specific Christian aspect or the internal dimension of reform, a purification, a deepening, a centering of its idea, which alone renders us capable of representing its idea, radiating it, translating it believably in the world. Indeed, the touchstone of reform in Balthasar's proposal for mission is the greatest possible radiance in the world by virtue of the closest possible following of Christ. So when I think of Pope Francis as a reformer, I mean that he makes it possible for people to believe the message of the Catholic Church. He achieved this by his own way of living in humility and simplicity, by his kind words and generous reaching out to people who are on the margins and those who feel insignificant. Through his credible lifestyle he is placing the focus of the church on what is truly important, which is the reign of God and the culture of love, mercy, fraternity and inclusion which defined the ministry of Jesus Christ. These are values which are at the heart of Catholicism but which often are sometimes lost in the culture wars which have characterized Catholicism since the 19th century.

Pope Francis is not a culture warrior. He is also not simply a cultural assimilator who wants the church to adapt unreflectively to every social or cultural experimentation out there. But he shows a keen understanding of the challenges facing the church. More significantly is his commitment to the ideals of Vatican II of a church in the modern world not a church and the modern world or a church against the modern world. It is in the world that the church is called to be as salt and light, but the church has so much to learn from the world hence the need for the church to be open to being enriched by the world. As Walter Kasper observed many years ago, a church which preaches God without the world or which ignores the forces of history, will end up giving birth to a godless world.

Cultural wars in the Catholic Church go back to Pope Pius IX who in 1864 published an encyclical, Quanta Cura in which he rejected modernism. This document was followed by the promulgation of the Syllabus of Errors, a list of modern thinking and acting which was to be rejected by Catholics. One of such errors was that those Catholics are condemned who will propose that the Pope and the Church should be reconciled with and agree to progress, liberalism and modern civilization. Pius IX was the Pope who at the First Vatican Council of bishops (1869-1870) promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility. This dogma asserts that the Pope when exercising his pastoral office as supreme shepherd of the people of God cannot err when he defines doctrine regarding faith and morals. All the subsequent popes after him (Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, Pope Pius X in Pascendi Dominic Gregis, Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii and Pius XII, Humani Generis) up until the middle of the century held on to this hostility towards modern culture, cultural pluralism, and positivism especially as driven by science and technology. They also pushed for the idea of the Catholic Church as God's preferred community of faith and a perfect society which has all within herself to meet the spiritual and moral needs of Catholic faithful and the world. This is why for instance Leo XIII like Pius IX called on Italian Catholics not to participate in the government of the Italian revolutionaries who had taken over the Papal States. The idea of a secular power which is not governed by the Catholic Church and the ideas and ideals of Christendom were very dominant in the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II opened the doors of the church to world cultures and rejected the kind of culture wars which defined modern Catholicism.

But the reality is that Catholicism suffers when she essentializes what it means to be Catholic or interprets as normative those traditions, laws or structures which are the product of historical exigencies, cultural factors, and human attempts in the past to meet the challenges of a bygone age. Each generation of Catholics must dig deep into the forces of its history, privileging the resources within the times and taping into the rich Christian traditions of the past, to meet the new challenges of the present. Pope Francis through his courageous witnessing is teaching Catholics and the world that God continues to reveal to the world today new realities in the conditions and circumstances of many people today--the minorities, the poor, people with same-sex attraction, those who have left the church because of their marriage situation, and those who are hurting from sexual abuse and those who feel insignificant and unappreciated in the Church. It is by entering into the chaos of people's lives that we can feel the reality of God and in doing so God also enters into our own story. Francis has led the way so remarkably in stepping into the world of the 'strange other' with all the limitations of his own humanity these two years. He is as some parishioner told me 'a breath of fresh air.'