Six years ago, the College of Cardinals surprised the world with the election of the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio as pope. Taking the name Francis, he won the admiration and respect of Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his simplicity and concern for the poor and marginalized.
With each passing year, however, criticism of the pope has become more vocal, especially from the Catholic right, who think he is breaking with traditional church teaching, and the political right, who don’t like his views on global warming, immigration and social justice. Francis has also been unable to satisfy those who say the Catholic hierarchy’s response to the clergy sex abuse crisis has been inadequate.
I am a big fan of Pope Francis, in part because I think that any evaluation of his first six years as pope shows that his accomplishments outweigh his failings.
First, his accomplishments.
Pope Francis has successfully re-branded the Catholic Church, which had come to be regarded as a clerical institution that stressed rules and uniformity. If you wanted to be a good Catholic, you were given the catechism to memorize and told to follow the rules.
Francis hates clericalism. He is constantly telling bishops and priests not to act like princes but rather like servants to the people of God. While he is kind and compassionate to the wider world, he can be very critical when speaking to bishops and priests. He warns against the temptation to manipulate or infantile the laity. He urges clerics to empower the laity “to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them.”
For Francis, the church is not a country club for the good and beautiful. Rather, it is a “poor church for the poor,” a “field hospital” for the wounded. That is why he stresses compassion and mercy.
In contrast to the last two popes, who taught using complex theological concepts, Francis appeals to the heart. He complains that “we have reduced our way of speaking about mystery to rational explanations, but for ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart.”
He believes that “we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and impart an intellectualism foreign to our people.”
This is not a pope who will worry, as we did in the previous papacy, about whether the translation of the Nicene Creed should say that Jesus is “one in being” or “con-substantial” with the Father.
Francis’ focus on the simple message of the gospel is quite threatening to those Catholics who confuse theology with the faith. Theology is how we explain the faith to ourselves and others. Augustine used Neoplatonism to explain the faith to a generation whose intellectuals were all Neoplatonists. Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelianism, the avant-garde thinking of the 13th century, to explain the faith in his day.
The mistake today’s conservatives make is to simply quote these great thinkers, rather than imitate them in developing new ways to explain Christianity to people of the 21st century. With few Neoplatonists or Aristotelians around today, theologians must have the freedom to discover new ways of explaining Christianity, even if this leads to new ways of understanding of human rights, justice, sexuality, marriage and the role of women.
Unlike his predecessors, Francis is not afraid of encouraging discussion in the church. “Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow,” Francis said in a controversial interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 2014. “That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it.”
Francis’ approach has implications for the pastoral priorities of the Catholic Church. For him, the first words of evangelization must be about God’s compassion and love. Everything in Christianity flows from that message, which Jesus stressed constantly in the gospels. Preaching must flow from the gospels, not merely be a presentation of the catechism and a rulebook.
In short, Francis is concerned above all with how we live the faith, more than how we explain it. Orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy.
The practical impact of this emphasis on love and mercy is a more compassionate attitude toward divorced and remarried Catholics as well as LGBT Catholics. If the church is a field hospital, then Communion is not just for the heathy and perfect but for the sick and wounded.