Week by week, during the past several months, we have gotten a better idea of what the papacy of Pope Francis looks and sounds like. From the beginning he has set a new tone, one of informality, openness, humility, and approachability. He has begun to redefine the papacy, replacing the traditional figure of the Pope—a medieval monarch dressed in ermine robes, crowned with a mitre, laying down infallible doctrine—with something closer to the Christ of the Gospels, who washes the feet of the Apostles. He has done this by consistently avoiding questions of doctrine, speaking largely through gesture and example. This behavior was exemplified during his remarkable press conference on Monday, on the flight back from his first foreign trip, to Brazil. His words about homosexual priests prompted headlines around the world: “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?” he said. “They shouldn’t be marginalized.… They’re our brothers.”
It’s hard not to hear in these comments an echo of Christ’s remark to the crowd ready to stone the adulteress: “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” What was remarkable, and rather brilliant, about the Pope’s statements was that they appeared to change everything without actually changing anything. (William Donohue, the president of the conservative Catholic League, was quick to point out that “Pope Francis said nothing to contradict what his predecessor said.”) Pope Francis did not, in fact, announce a change in the Vatican’s position on homosexuality or the celibate priesthood. The Catholic Church has held for some time that it does not condemn homosexuals, only acts of homosexuality. And yet for many gay Catholics the distinction has been cold comfort. Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, Francis’s predecessor, seemed to place the emphasis on sin and error. When he was the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine and the Faith, he stressed the view that homosexuality was “intrinsically disordered.” Indeed, under his guidance, the C.D.F. blurred the distinction between sinner and sin: in 1986, it issued a letter stating that the “the [homosexual] inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”
Pope Francis did not condone homosexuality, nor did he absolve gay priests from their traditional bonds of celibacy. But the words “Who am I to judge?” are a far cry from “intrinsically disordered.” Without criticizing his predecessors or overtly changing Catholic doctrine, Francis has made the theological hair-splitting of recent Popes seem irrelevant and petty compared to the radical imperative to love others and do good.
“Who am I to judge?” cleverly upends a pillar of the traditional view of the papacy. One of the medieval Popes referred to himself as “the judge of all men who can be judged by none.” Seen in this light, Francis’s comments—together with a host of other actions and remarks—begin to make his papacy appear radical and far-reaching in its implications.
Recent Popes have focussed almost obsessively on doctrine. John XXIII, a favorite of liberal Catholics, introduced the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Paul VI, perhaps afraid that the Church might be changing too quickly, reaffirmed the traditional position on priestly celibacy and issued his famous (or infamous) encyclical against all forms of artificial birth control. John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla, believed strongly that the Church needed to reaffirm its doctrine on all matters of sexual morality, rooting out anyone who questioned those positions: no to divorce, contraception, married priests, the ordination of women, and communion for divorced parishioners, as well as the instant excommunication of anyone who condoned abortion—even in cases where it saved a woman’s life. John Paul II, and Benedict after him, made such an issue of these matters of doctrinal purity that unswerving obedience to them became a kind of litmus test for determining a good Catholic.
Francis has seemed to ask, Can’t we talk about something else? Can’t we get back to the central mission of the Gospel, and set aside doctrinal differences? When he spoke of not marginalizing gay priests “if they accept the Lord and have good will,” he seemed to suggest that we should look at people’s hearts and the totality of their lives in judging whether they are good people and good Christians.
Because of his predecessors’ obsessions with the hot-button issues of sexual morality, Pope Francis, upon assuming the office, seemed to face an immensely difficult situation: a growing chasm between the Church hierarchy in Rome and the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, many of whom blithely ignore official Church teachings on matters of personal morality. It looked like a lose-lose situation. If Francis moved toward more popular positions, he risked creating a major schism: tens of millions of traditionalists might well break with the Church, as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre had after the papacy replaced the Latin Mass. And yet if he did nothing, hundreds of millions of moderate Catholics would continue the slow drift away. (In the United States, lapsed Catholics are the second largest denomination.) Francis’s response, it appears, is to try to find a third away around this sterile standoff. Francis resembles a chess master who uses his knight, the one piece capable of jumping over others, to escape from an overly entrenched position. Francis has indicated in multiple ways that the simple, core message of Christianity is far greater than the ideological battles that have dominated many of the Church’s encyclicals over the past hundred and fifty years. He may win simply by not engaging in the culture wars.
He has done this by teaching rather than preaching. When he first assumed the papacy, Francis made a series of what appeared to be stylistic changes. He refused to wear traditional regal vestments or to live in the papal apartment, preferring the simpler guesthouse where he had stayed during the conclave. He abstained from giving a canonical blessing in his first meeting with the press after his election last March, out of consideration for the fact that many reporters were not Catholic and some of them not religious. Many in the press (myself included) wondered whether these were simply flourishes meant to create the illusion of change, to mask continuity on important matters of doctrine. But knowledgeable observers within the Church insisted that there was a great deal of substance behind them.
“He is not just a naïve person who likes to pay his own bills or take the subway to get around,” Antonio Spadaro, the director of the Jesuit magazine Cività Cattolica, told me last spring. “He sent a telegram to the Chief Rabbi of Rome the evening he was elected. He never uses the term Pontifex to refer to the Pope, but several times referred to himself as the ‘Bishop of Rome.’ He is saying very important things about collegial and ecumenical dialogue. He is rethinking the image of the Pope, and maybe the image of the Church.” Spadaro gave some credit, too, to Francis’s predecessor: “The first big reform was made by Benedict,” who gave up the papacy rather than holding onto it until he died, as Popes had done for centuries. “He didn’t resign just because he was tired,” Spadaro said. “He said that he knows perfectly well that the Petrine ministry can be lived even with suffering and prayer. He said he realized that there are many rapid changes in the world and that the Church needed someone who has great strength in body and soul. Benedict made a big reformation in separating the person of the Pope and the Petrine ministry. Similarly, many of the gestures of Pope Francis have doctrinal implications.”
Last March, Francis washed the feet of inmates at a youth detention center in Rome, including two women, one of them Muslim. This scandalized some Church traditionalists who insist that foot washing should be restricted to men, since the Apostles whose feet Christ washed were all male. But tradition is not the same as doctrine. Francis gave an extraordinary homily a few months ago in which he stated that even atheists could be saved. Francis told of a disagreement between Christ and his disciples over those who do not hold the same beliefs. The disciples, the Pope said, complained: “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good.” Christ corrected them, saying, “Do not hinder him, let him do good.” The disciples, the Pope pointed out, “were a little intolerant.… This was wrong … Jesus broadens the horizon.… But do good: we will meet one another there.”
In saying this, Francis is not changing Church doctrine—belief in the resurrected Christ. He is not saying that atheism is right, but he is saying that Catholics do not have a monopoly on doing good, and that those who are doing good should be embraced. This was not the rather bleak “my-way-or-the-highway” approach of John Paul II or Benedict XVI.
Francis’s openness should not be mistaken for a namby-pamby, “I’m-O.K.-you’re-O.K.” theology. He has shown tough resolve in pushing the Church in the direction he wants. He has taken serious steps to clean house at the Vatican Bank, the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, which had been used as a money-laundering operation and papal slush fund under John Paul II and (to a lesser degree) under Benedict. He has declared war against clericalism, the view of many in the clergy that they—and not the entire community of believers—are the Church.
“I want to see the Church get closer to the people,” Francis said in Rio de Janeiro, where he held a mass on the Copacabana. “I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools, structures. Because these need to get out!”
Francis’s candor and personal charm allow him to get away with things that his predecessors might not have. During his hour-and-a-half freewheeling exchange with journalists, Francis was asked about the possibility of female priests. He answered without evasion: “On the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and said no. Pope John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed.” At the same time, he said, “We don’t yet have a truly deep theology of women. We talk about whether they can be this or that, can they be altar boys, can they be lectors, about a woman as president of Caritas [Catholic charities]. But we don’t have a deep theology of women in the church.”
From the mouth of Pope Benedict, the remark “that door is closed” might have been the story of the day, but coming from Francis—and paired with his question, “Who am I to judge?”—it seems to suggest that there are many doors in the Church that might, in this papacy, be opened.
Is that enough? Whether Francis can truly close the gap between the clergy and the people without tackling thorny doctrinal issues remains to be seen. It will be compelling to watch him try.