We’ve been moved by the early Franciscan moves of our Holy Father from the choice of his pontifical name to decidedly Franciscan gestures. Think of when he paid his own bill at the residence where the cardinals stayed for the conclave or the washing of the feet of prisoners, including a Muslim, at a juvenile detention facility or the inaugural Mass in which he called for care of Creation.
His early homilies and Wednesday audience have put great emphasis of the clergy getting close to the people—“A priest should smell like their sheep!”—and taking the side of the poor with our responsibility for those who occupy the margins.
Some have interpreted this shift in style and emphasis as a signal of an impending change in Church teaching. Just as a change in a presidential administration (say, from George Bush to Barack Obama) leads to new policy agendas (cf. Obamacare), so, too, the reasoning goes that the election of this pope will lead to the relaxation of priestly celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, condoning same-sex marriage, allowing the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood, and salvaging relations with the Musim world.
What the above represents is a transparent case of wish fulfillment. A Talmudic aphorism puts this syndrome thusly: “We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are.” What many are doing with Pope Francis is to see what they want to see. And what they are expecting is a pope that supports their personal, political, and cultural prejudices. Once the “Francis honeymoon” is over, many will wake up to the fact that Pope Francis is Catholic, who can’t overturn definitive teaching or jettison Church teaching on the Sacrament of Marriage or sexual morality in favor of current political and cultural trends. Anybody who has a modicum of Church history knows that the Church does not function in this way.
Nonetheless, there are some Catholics–who have difficulty with religious authority in general and Petrine ministry in particular—are desperately hoping for a relaxation of Church norms. Fr. James Martin, the cultural critic at America magazine and the author of a number of outstanding books (e.g., The Jesuit Guide and My Life with the Saints) voiced the hope that “since the pope’s first homily focused specifically on ‘tenderness,’ we may see that his application of church rules will be a little more tender” (AP, March 21, 2013). Who can argue against that? Who wouldn’t want a touchy-feely pontiff? That’s certainly what the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is hoping for. By way of reminder, after a three year investigation of the LCWR, the Vatican report cited a number of egregious theological and doctrinal errors and placed it under a more hands-on supervision of the Vatican.
Still reeling from the “Vatican crackdown,” LCWR leader Sr. Nancy Sylvester told the AP that she is encouraged by Francis emphasis on the poor. “I’m really trying to be hopeful,” she said, “that he would be much more sympathetic to women religious.” In other words, Sr. Sylvester wants the Pope to be a buddy and leave her sisters alone.
Notice the hopeful if illogical connection between “emphasis on the poor” and relaxation of Church norms. Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George has aptly pointed out in interviews following the election that “it’s one thing to be for the poor” and “it’s another thing to be for the poor in a way that compromises the teaching of the Church.” John Paul II was no compromiser. Benedict XVI was no compromiser. According to Cardinal George, though Francis may differ in style and emphasis from his predecessors, he will be no different in substance.
This isn’t wishful thinking as Bergoglio has a track record as a Jesuit priest and Archbishop of Buenos Aires, in which he supported the Vatican crackdown of Marxist influenced liberation theology. It’s also worth noting, that Cardinal Bergoglio was an outspoken critic of Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchener when she imposed same-sex marriage. “This is not simply a political struggle, but an attempt to destroy God’s plan,” he wrote boldly in 2010. “It is not just a bill but a move of the Father of Lies, who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God” (cf. a letter Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio sent to the Carmelite nuns of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires on June 22, 2010 on this topic).
So, let’s get real for a moment. It would require a willful suspension of disbelief in order to entertain the idea that Pope Francis would make a 180-degree change in supporting political initiatives favoring gay marriage or adoption by same sex-couples.
Aside from style, Francis gives every indication of carrying on the essential spiritual vision of JP II and Benedict XVI. The new Pope strongly backed an important theme of the Ratzinger pontificate warning against the “tyranny of relativism,” which our emeritus Pope defined as letting oneself “be tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine.” In a speech delivered to the Vatican diplomatic corps, Pope Francis clearly backed is predecessor’s message: “There is a Christian truth, and that truth is obscured by relativism, leaving confusion, darkness, and death. There cannot be true peace, Pope Francis said, “if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.” Sound a lot like John Paul II/Benedict XVI, doesn’t it?
Marc Cardinal Ouellet of Quebec, who was on the short-list of many papal prognostications, agrees that Francis will follow Benedict’s essential spiritual vision. In an interview with the Globe and Mail (March 16, 2013), he said he does not expect “liberal decisions” from Pope Francis. “I think he will follow the doctrinal path that was indicated by Benedict.”
Though Francis will not be a reformer of Church doctrine, practice, or discipline, the Holy Father may go down in history for a being a Church reformer of a different kind: namely, Vatican governance. One of the immediate concerns for Pope Francis is the reform of the Roman curia, and expectation the cardinals made clear in the pre-conclave comments. Given the fact that Bergoglio always kept a distance from the curia, it’s likely that the cardinals have a great deal of confidence that this Jesuit pope is the man to reform Church governance root and branch. So, while there may be a tidal wave of change to the curia which should be in service to the hierarchy (and not the other way around), don’t look for doctrinal shifts.
Deacon Jim McFadden
Fair Oaks, CA