Can you imagine a pope who doesn’t scrunch up his theological nose in disgust at what people of the same sex sometimes get up to? One that doesn’t think women should just sit down and shut up?
I, for one, cannot. But—and it’s a shock to my system, I can tell you—I may not have to.
It’s been a few months, and the new pope is no longer news, but it’s only now that it’s slowly becoming clear just how new a pope Francis is.
We’ve received little snippets of indications of his relative modernity. He’s phoned up people who write him letters to chat, told his tailor not to bother with the little red pontifical slippers that gave so many observers such traumatizing Dorothy imagery whenever his predecessor pranced in them, bought a second-hand Ford Focus, and bowed to the Queen of Jordan (popes aren’t meant to bow to royals—Catholic royals are meant to bow to him, as well as probably kiss something).
That’s a lot, all put together in a paragraph, but it could all have been symptomatic of nothing more than eccentricity. Not many of us outside Argentina know that much about the man, after all. Maybe he’s just kooky.
But then he gave this interview, published late last week in 14 Jesuit magazines around the world. It turns out the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio is not only not kooky, he may have that quality many of us have felt fine ascribing to folks like the Dalai Lama and Gandhi, but is the last thing we’ve associated with most popes: Pope Francis I may just be a holy man.
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, I’m using the word in a secular sense. In our part of the world, where materialism is all because it can be, we have a tendency to ascribe a great deal of value to those who, like the man who sold his Ferrari and became a monk, are able to turn their backs on it. We need them to have been able to turn their talents to the accumulation of wealth and luxury—we don’t tend to have a whole lot of respect for the untalented or unmotivated poor—but when they in turn renounce their spoils, we like them a lot.
This has presented a problem for popes, inheritors of a two-millennium-old monarchic system that’s accumulated so much wealth and pomp that even those who seem righteous, like John Paul II, are tainted by the silver and gold and specially designed SUVs. Sure, JP II may have played a role in bringing down the Soviets, but dude, your bling’s blinding.
The self-righteousness hasn’t helped, either.
Popes have had a tendency, the soon-to-be-sainted Pole included, to pontificate. You may notice the etymological connection, in fact, pointing to the seeming impossibility that a pope could behave otherwise.
And then we get Francis.
“If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him,” he told the interviewer. “It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.”
This is a difficult thing for anyone in any position of power to admit, but someone who is allowed, whenever he likes, to speak ex cathedra—that is, to speak in the words of God himself and not be questioned under pain of eternal damnation? I would have thought it would be nearly impossible. But there he is, giving the Spanish-speaker-being-interviewed-in-Italian-and-translated-into-English version of, “Meh, who knows? I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Humility is easy to talk about, tough to embody. People can easily mistake it for being not that bright. And proclaiming it while decked in finery valued at more than even the average wealthy person makes in a lifetime, while living in something called the Papal Apartments, calling all your interactions with the faithful audiences, and mostly just granting those audiences to the wealthy and newsworthy? That’s just silly. We’ve been right to call the popes on their shit. They have, for the most part, and certainly within living memory, been shitty popes, maintaining a distance between themselves and their flocks that implied they thought we actually smelled like sheep.
“There is a brilliant letter by Father Arrupe,” he says in the same interview, speaking of a longtime head of the Jesuit order, of which he is a member, “to the Centres for Social Research and Action on poverty, in which he says clearly that one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty.”
Note the tense he uses. He doesn’t say that one cannot speak of poverty if one has not experienced it, giving himself a pass for having come from a poor family, or being skint when he was a student, or even a vow of poverty that’s once again made ridiculous by wearing rubies and living in a castle. He says one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty. There’s a limit, of course, when one is pope, but he seems to be testing it, buying a tiny second-hand car and, as he reveals in this interview, forsaking the papal pad and living in the same apartment block he did before he was elevated. (He is, of course, careful not to cast aspersions on his predecessors, saying, modestly, “the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”)
Then he talks about the gays.
He starts in a way that might sound familiar. Asked about Christian same-sex couples, he says, “We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound.” He sounds here much like JP II and his immediate predecessor, Ratzinger, who was responsible during his own predecessor’s reign and his own, for the Church’s latter day anti-gay intransigence. A woman who has sex with a woman, or a man with a man, is diseased, wounded. It’s a nice way of seeming pastoral and caring while being an asshole.
But then he says, “In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them.”
The wound is not the sexuality. It’s the church’s treatment of sexuality.
That shift is profound to the point of being earth-shattering.
But there’s more. Speaking of the exact sort of wounding Ratzinger and his minions reveled in, he says, “But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”
That sound you hear is a hundred million Catholics and ex-Catholics rethinking their faith.
He wasn’t as explicit on the subject of women. But he did say this:
“We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”
Compare this to Ratzinger’s characterization of American nuns activating for a larger role for women in the Church as “radical feminists.”
But the pope is new and the church is old. He said in the same interview that he is not interested in making fast, sweeping changes—another result of his modest estimation of himself. But if Ratzinger taught his church that popes can quit, maybe the very best thing Francis will do with the time he has is to show it that they can, quite easily, slough off the weight of more than a thousand years of royal, solipsistic self-regard and take a lesson from their ancient, secular antecedents. “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!”