In less than a year, Pope Francis’ star has ascended to dizzying heights. It’s one thing to be world-famous; it’s another thing to be world-famous and well-liked, which is what he is. A staggering 92% of American Catholics, and 69% of all Americans, view the Pope favorably, according to one recent poll.
It’s not hard to see why Francis has quickly become so popular. He’s genial and welcoming, the kind of guy people trust easily, even eagerly. His unassuming style is accompanied by an unshakeable joy that is as compelling as it is contagious. He eschews pomp and embraces simplicity. His love for the poor is unmistakable and genuine. He pays his own hotel bill.
Yet Francis is not out to win a popularity contest; far from it. The trail of controversies – some serious, others less so – that have followed him through the first ten months of his papacy are a clear indication that this is a Pope who is more than willing to rock the boat.
In a long apostolic exhortation published in November, Pope Francis laid his cards on the table: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”
This self-centered complacency, the Pope insists, is a danger for believers and non-believers alike. He attacks it again and again, pulling no punches. “We do not live better when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.”
The remedy Pope Francis tirelessly proposes is not a philosophy or a social reform. It is not to be found in economics, politics, or science. What he proposes – what the church exists to propose – is the gospel.
But the gospel can be a hard sell. It makes demands on us and calls us out of ourselves, leaving little room for complacency. In short, it means taking up the cross and following Christ. Christian hope springs from faith in Jesus Christ who passed through death, conquering it, and who offers us a share in his own divine life. Through him, love and life have the last word over sin and death.
If that’s true – and the church is founded on the belief that it is – then our broken world has a cause to rejoice. As Pope Francis put it, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”
That the head of the Catholic Church is going around preaching the gospel is not exactly news. What has caused most of the controversy – and stolen many a headline – is the way in which Pope Francis has undertaken that task. Combine his disarming, even endearing propensity to speak in an unguarded and informal way with his immense popularity and the unique moral authority of his office and reporting on the Pope has become for many, if you’ll forgive the Catholic pun, a near occasion of spin.
Take, for example, the widely reported response Pope Francis gave to a question about Catholic priests who are gay: “If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?”
As the Pope himself indicated at the time, he wasn’t altering church teaching; he was actually reiterating it: Everyone – gay, straight, or otherwise – is called to “seek the Lord.” Unfortunately, many people took the Pope’s remark to suggest, or at least imply, a lax attitude toward the church’s moral teaching homosexual acts are sinful. Some people were excited about this possibility; others found it implausible or upsetting. In the confusion that followed, the Pope’s actual words, taken in their proper context, were quickly obscured.
Then there was the lengthy interview with a Jesuit magazine in which Pope Francis said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” The church must speak about these issues within the proper context, the Pope maintained, lest they come to be seen as “a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”
Yet the all-important context was promptly forgotten as the media (both Catholic and secular, for what it’s worth) proceeded to fixate – obsess, you might say – on his comments on abortion, gay marriage and contraception. Once again, the real meaning of the Pope’s words was largely lost in the media food-fight that ensued.
It must be said that some criticisms of Pope Francis have been warranted; not all of the controversies and confusion can be blamed on shameless ideologues or media bias. The Pope himself has asked for, and expressed gratitude for, fraternal correction. He is aware that his words can, and have been, misinterpreted. He even addressed the problem directly in the apostolic exhortation mentioned above: “In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects.”
Ironically, or perhaps predictably, all the media seemed to glean from the same 200+ page document could be found in headlines along the lines of “Pope slams trickle-down economics,” which rather missed the Pope’s specific point about the limits of free markets and completely ignored his larger point about the joy of the gospel.
The point is this: Pope Francis wants to shake us out of our pre-existing ideological categories, so he speaks in a way that cuts against those grains – even if that means causing a ruckus now and then.
From abortion enthusiasts at NARAL now associating themselves with the Pope to advance their agendas all the way over to Rush Limbaugh’s preposterous denunciation of the Pope’s statements on the economy as “pure Marxism,” those most likely to be disappointed by Francis are those who insist on reading his words through the lens of categories into which the gospel simply does not fit.
Permit me two examples.
Self-described progressives who would claim Pope Francis as one of their own because of his manifest love for the poor and his talk of “social justice” are going to have to account sooner or later for his unwavering insistence on fidelity to the church’s teachings they find less progressive, on issues like abortion, contraception, women priests, and gay marriage.
Political conservatives who share the Pope’s horror at the injustice of abortion and share the Pope’s insistence that the family is fundamental to a healthy society would do well to avoid breaking out into hives every time Pope Francis suggests, as his predecessors have, that free markets alone won’t bring about a just society.
There is a wonderful line from Pope Benedict’s encyclical, “God is Love,” which Pope Francis is very fond of quoting: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The most compelling case for the truth of Christianity is not found in carefully articulated theological arguments – as important as those may be – but in examples of selfless love, lived joyfully.
That is the kind of witness Pope Francis calls Catholics to give.
This awareness of what is really at the heart of discipleship is not new; it’s as old as Christianity itself. But to millions of people – including many of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics – it is news. Many are hearing that Good News for the first time from a Pope who also makes them uneasy. Therein lays the key to understanding why Pope Francis is not likely to start playing it safe any time soon.
As Jesus told Peter – who would become the first Pope: In order to catch fish, sometimes it is necessary to leave the safety and comfort of the shallows and put out into the deep water.
Pope Francis is calling the church and its faithful to do just that.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.