My typical reaction to a papal visit is to roll my eyes and sigh heavily, anticipating that the allegedly liberal media will once again — in terms of ink and air time — essentially convert to Catholicism for the duration.
Out goes journalistic detachment – the ability to think critically, to maintain balance, to remember the bigger picture. In rushes a kind of unquestioning, mildly awestruck attitude that noticeably echos the adulation of the huge, worshipful crowds that everywhere greet the pontiff.
As a former reporter, I chafe at this lack of circumspection. But as Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States gets underway today, I have a confession: I, too, am suffering from it.
I’m no believer in papal infallibility, but, as popes go, this guy is divine. And he has a lot to teach other world leaders about the spirituality of boldness.
Since ascending to the papacy more than two years ago, Francis has repeatedly shaken the ossified edifice of the Roman Catholic church, substituting for the safe status quo a wild and appealingly reckless interest in doing the right thing.
The pope’s lesser-known projects include remaking the byzantine Vatican bureaucracy and reforming the corrupt Vatican bank. But most of us are more familiar with his comments on hot-button issues. The most famous example is his headline-making “Who am I to judge?” response to homosexuality two years ago. More recently, Francis issued a surprisingly progressive and poetic encyclical on climate change. The earth, he wrote “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. … This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”
Francis has brought to the stereotypically cold and draconian Vatican the same mixture of warmth, progressiveness and authenticity that Princess Diana brought to the British monarchy, and people respond to him in much the same way. The pope, of course, has a great deal more power to affect change than Diana ever did and –here’s the surprise — appears to be using it.
That said, the storyline of Pope Francis as a renegade champion of the people has no doubt been overstated. Francis’ remark about homosexuality came in response to reports that one of his highly placed appointees has a long history of same-sex affairs. Taken in context, it positions both the “sin” of homosexuality and the need for repentance as prerequisites for non-judgment.
And it’s hard to reconcile concern over climate change with the church’s fervent opposition to birth control, given that human overpopulation lies at the root of not only environmental degradation, but poverty, war and most other social ills. On that matter – and also on the proper role of women and other conservative Catholic positions — Francis has kept the traditional faith.
“The Pope has not shown any signal of changing doctrine,” journalist and papal expert Paul Vallely told host Terri Gross on a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. “And so in that sense, he’s orthodox. And that makes him not a liberal in the way that the world uses that term. He’s perhaps a liberal within the Church, but I think that’s slightly more complicated. What he is is somebody who wants to change the tone of the Church.”
Yet the hyperbole is understandable — a venial sin at worst — because so many of us long for leaders who stand unflinchingly on principle, despite the kind of powerful institutional pushback Francis is experiencing. This is something we rarely witness in the United States, where even the most honorable political candidates seem to begin back-peddling the moment they take office.
Call it compromise. Or appeasement. Or, simply, the inevitable capitulation of idealism to realism. But whatever you label it, the social costs are terrible: another dose of disillusionment for a cynical populace whose hopes for a hero — a person who will simply, without equivocating, keep his or her promises — have again been dashed.
Granted, Francis did not have to run for pope, making bold promises to get elected that he would later quietly recant or eviscerate. He does not have to work with cantankerous legislative bodies whose interest in progress is lacking, or dramatically different from his own. Nor does he need to think about his re-election prospects, a concern that seems to guide most American leaders from the moment they take office.
Yet Francis, it turns out, was a bit of a shock to the College of Cardinals that elected him.
“I think … they were surprised by how he’s turned out and by how radical he’s been and what a whirlwind,” Vallely says. “There are some of the more conservative figures who have got buyer’s remorse about him.
“But a lot of them, even amongst the conservatives, are delighted with the way that he’s reinvigorated the church. And people — you know, ordinary Catholics — are proud to be Catholics rather than being slightly ashamed of it because it was a church full of sex abuse and scandal and suppression of dissent and so forth. Now, suddenly, there’s joy in the air.”
Joy in the air.
Francis elicits that reaction — not just from Catholics, but from many non-Catholics — not because of a particular doctrine, but because of our common longing for the boldness we perceive in him, and the inspiration it provides to be courageous ourselves.
“Courage,” wrote theologian C.S. Lewis, “is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
Courage. Boldness. A theology we can all embrace.