The Thinker

A pope for the rest of us

I wish I could be a fly on the wall of the Vatican right now. It’s an incestuous conclave of medieval thinkers who can barely accept that the world is round. Now suddenly it is finding itself thrust into the modern world. If I were Pope Francis, I would consider a personal bodyguard, an official food tester and maybe a bulletproof vest. The rage of institutional clerics in the place must be palpable. I can summon up the one word they must be thinking right now:


Right now they are reacting like stunned bunnies to the highly unorthodox words coming from their new supreme cleric. I expect that eventually even within the highly servile Catholic Church, where masochism toward Catholic orthodoxy is a virtue, that these forces will challenge Pope Francis. That’s when things are going to get interesting.

Despite all the odds designed to prevent popes like Pope Francis from being elected, there he is channeling a stunning amount of common sense. For the most part, he appears to be someone more concerned about the state of the forest than that every tree in it be perfectly straight. Pope Francis seems to have a true grasp of the purpose of religion.

For clerics in the Vatican it must be like Gollum seeing the sunlight: “It stings! It burns!” Apparently there is more to Catholicism than the metaphorical need to avoid stepping on cracks of the sidewalk. Pope Francis seems to be saying go ahead and step on those cracks. Wander onto the grass as well. Take your shoes off and slip your feet in the stream.

I must say, this former Catholic is quite impressed by this newest pope. His election won’t be enough to make me go and rejoin the Catholic Church, at least not unless Pope Francis totally transforms it. I can’t imagine him going that far. I can’t imagine him suggesting a consecrated host is, well, just bread. Or that gays are not only welcome but should be married in the church. Or that prayer is wasted time and thought. Or that Jesus was a very wise man but not divine. In other words, if he were to transform the Catholic Church into the Unitarian Universalism I actually practice, yeah, I could rejoin the Catholic Church. For one thing, Catholics know how to do stained glass and incense. As a rule, Unitarian Universalists don’t have a clue. We are great at drinking coffee after services, however.

It’s pretty clear though that Pope Francis understands that much of what passes for Catholic thought is silly and/or harmful. Some of these statements from the pope are jaw droppers. Here are some of them:

  • Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.
  • Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.
  • Remember that the Church is feminine.
  • No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community.
  • 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.
  • Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.
  • If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency (to homosexuality) is not the problem … they’re our brothers.

To me, what is most remarkable about Francis is not that he is opening dialog with atheists or that he is showing tolerance toward homosexuals, but that he gets the bigger picture. Religion is not really about making people believe as the Church believes; religion is about loving broadly and universally. It’s about making human kindness central to everything that we do. Francis seems to be saying that it is through kindness that people connect with God and that God is not so much an abstract external entity, but the loving whole of universal kindness and compassion. By becoming kind people we pick up the godly attributes, we heal ourselves and we help heal others too.

That’s a message that most of us can hear gladly. It’s also reassuring for us to hear his humility and him confess his sinfulness. It’s reassuring to see he practices what he preaches, by embracing a young boy who strays onto the altar with him to eschewing the papal apartment to be with the people by living in a nearby hotel. Real ministry happens person to person. It does not come from being secluded behind the insular walls of the Vatican. Francis seems to be saying that walking the walk is meaningful while talking the talk is not. Implicit in what he is saying is that a lot of what the Church does is counterproductive and sometimes hurtful. It is certainly not Christ-like.

So I may have to see if Pope Francis has a Facebook account, just so I can “like” him. I don’t expect to ever be a Catholic again, but it’s nice to know that the leader of the Catholic Church is a rather ordinary person with a good heart, instead of yet another Stepford pope chained to its orthodoxy and bereft of actual ministerial capabilities.

For every action — and this is a huge change in the Vatican — there is bound to be a reaction. It will be interesting to see if the Church can remain coherent during his time as pope. It could well fracture with some leaving to follow a new true “orthodox” Roman Catholic Church. For many devout Catholics it doesn’t matter too much where the path leads so much as that you stay on it. My time in the Catholic Church convinced me that devout Catholics were just the latter, captured by ritual and process, almost the way someone into bondage is into being controlled. But mostly the Church missing the essence of Jesus’s message. Pope Francis at least sees the larger picture. That’s a refreshing change.


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