This past March, when Argentine Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as head of the Catholic Church, I was quick to join in grumbling about the institution's cast-iron conservatism, dogmatism, and lack of progress. Directly following Benedict's (Ratzinger's) retirement; a career ecclesiastic whose tenure as Most Holy Father was plagued with scandal and hypocrisy, skepticism and disillusionment with the Catholic Church was at an all-time high.
Notwithstanding the encouraging possibilities of Bergoglio's being the first non-European to be chosen as Pontiff in 1200 years, as well as the first Jesuit ever, feelings of discontentment and doubt were escalated. Even as the world was rapidly progressing into the 21st century, it seemed the Catholic Church was preparing itself to demonstrate an even more rigid parochialism and dogmatic intolerance. So in July, when Pope Francis was asked about gay priests, and he responded, "Who am I to judge?," the trajectory of the church took a surprising and heartening shift.
Could this quiet and simple man single-handedly catapult the Church into a new direction? Unguarded and personal responses from this unassuming Pontiff seem to be doing just that.
Pope Francis has done away with the protective-domed "Popemobile." He walks among the crowds kissing babies and shaking hands; he speaks of the poor and of service, and he has washed the feet of women (an act that outraged traditionalists), of prisoners, and of Muslims! As the planet's most highly-appointed ecclesiastic, he's brought new-found and unexpected humility and humanity to his title. Whether this can be attributed to his life and work as a Jesuit (an all-male order of the Roman Catholic Church whose mission focuses on education, ministering to the sick and impoverished, intellectual research, promoting social justice and ecumenical dialogue) or to the spiritual life and commitment of one man placed in the most iconic and powerful role of the Church will remain a mystery. Yet yesterday, a series of talks with The Pope was published, and the world got more of a glimpse into the man behind the title, and the Church's trajectory shifted even further.
In the extensive interview, Pope Francis candidly discusses homosexuality, women, contraception, and abortion. He reveals a surprisingly gentle and compassionate character while dealing with topics that have traditionally drawn acrimonious responses from high-ranking officials in the Church.
"We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.
The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently …
We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.
I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching."
Frances' implication that the Church's continued "obsession" with specific social issues, and his prophetic warning that keeping those obsessions within the content of the Church's preaching will result in its ultimate destruction are prescient and sound.
In an auspicious and ambitious turn, when asked specifically about gay people, the Pope said:
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality, I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”
It is enlightening to learn that the Pope's favorite film is Fellini's "La Strada," that he loves Mozart, and that he reads Dostoyevsky. All this new and personal information lends him an air of a kindly professor, or of a wise uncle (or use your own analogy). He comes across as intensely human, a trait not often associated with His Holiness.
Unlike the chain of events that occurred in the legendary land of Oz, the Church's curtain has been drawn back to reveal not a fumbling and self-serving fraud, but rather a humble and farsighted leader; a spiritual teacher who speaks of moving the Church beyond dogma and refocusing it on people.
I am not Catholic, and I continue, with good reason, to be skeptical of the body that Pope Francis represents. Still, it is refreshing to have been proved wrong in my pre-judgement of him upon his selection. And how unsuspected to discover that the iconic head of a behemoth, world-wide, doctrinal institution might act as a personal pastor.