Months before Time magazine blessed Pope Francis as the 2013 Person of the Year, the secular media’s love affair with the Argentine pontiff was well under way.
“We love him,” swooned the Huffington Post.
“Our cool new pope,” declared Gawker.
“You know who I freakin' love?” gushed MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who grew up Catholic but stopped attending church during his freshman year at Brown. “This new pope. Pope Francis. … Are you watching this guy? Because you should be. It’s early, but I’m thinking … best pope ever.” Of course, Hayes noted, Francis’ church still opposes “gay marriage, women in the priesthood, a woman’s autonomy over her own body.” But, hey, he explained, at least Francis isn’t “a jerk about it.”
As a practicing Catholic blogging my way around Washington for the past six years, I never imagined I’d see the often snarky mainstream media — including some of its more liberal outposts — falling so hard for a 76-year-old celibate guy who believes that God had a son, born to a virgin, who was sent to redeem the world from sin. But that’s the Francis Effect. No surprise, then, that Time took the final, logical step: Slapping Francis on the cover of its “Person of the Year” issue is a sort of secular canonization.
“In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church — the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world — above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors,” Time profiled. “John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.”
These are the forces that see Francis as a progressive reformer, a long-awaited Catholic antidote to the religious right. None of that theological or doctrinal stuff, thank you. Just give us the humble pontiff, not like the other guy with his high church pomp and fancy red shoes. Francis — the pope who kissed a man disfigured by a gruesome disease! The one who lives in humble quarters! The pope who took it to trickle-down economics! By critiquing the excesses of religion and politics — a criticism that resonates in media circles — Francis has given the press permission to change its narrative about the church.
But woe to those who remake the pope in their own image. If you focus only on what you like about Francis’ papacy — whatever makes you feel comfortable and smug about your own religious and political convictions — you’re doing it wrong. And you’re not seeing the real Francis.
Slate’s Matt Yglesias hails Francis’ Nov. 24 attack on libertarian economic policies — part of a nearly 50,000-word document called Evangelii Gaudium, outlining the pope’s vision for sharing the Gospel. Yglesias emphasized that the pope is not making a call for charity but “specifically for economic regulation and democratic supervision of the capitalist system.” Yet Yglesias caveats his praise: “There’s a lot of stuff about Jesus in his thinking that I can’t really sign on to.”
Yes, that pesky Jesus stuff. But there’s just one problem: Without Jesus, there is no Pope Francis. If Francis’ embrace of the disabled, focus on the poor and mercy for the sinner sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because you’ve heard it before. From that Jesus guy.
Moved by Pope Francis’ embrace of the disfigured man? See Jesus touch and heal the leper in the Gospel of Matthew. Love Francis’ call to feed the hungry? “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” reads one of Christ’s better-known lines. Remember Francis’ vision of the church as a “field hospital” for needy soul? Jesus healed people, body and soul, throughout his ministry.
And Francis is doing the work that Jesus not only modeled, but that has been practiced by countless Christians in his name for millennia. To Catholics, Francis may feel refreshing, but he isn’t surprising. We’ve seen his example at work in Catholic homeless shelters and hospitals, through the humble service of the priests, brothers and nuns who taught us, in the lives of anonymous heroes and canonized saints. It’s the Christianity we’ve learned in our CCD classes and read in classic spiritual texts. It’s the Christianity that’s inspired for 2,000 years.
The public face of Christianity, and of the Catholic Church in particular, has taken a deserved beating in recent decades — from the church’s global sex-abuse crisis and cover-up, to its prominent examples of hypocrisy and absurdity, such as the deception of the Legionaries of Christ to money laundering at the Vatican bank. Barring the opening brought by the Second Vatican Council and the Cold War fearlessness of the Polish pope, it has been a trying time for the Catholic soul.
Now with Francis, suddenly we’re the cool kids on church street. In the United States, 92 percent of Catholics have a favorable view of the pope, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, compared to 76 percent approval for Pope Benedict at his retirement. And even among non-Catholics, Francis is riding high: Sixty-two percent of Americans approve of him, compared to less than half who approved of Benedict.
But Francis isn’t trying to win a popularity contest. And there’s still a lot in his beliefs, and the church’s teaching, that rankle the very modern culture that is embracing him. Sure, Francis talked about not judging gay people who seek the Lord, called for greater inclusion of women in Catholic leadership and critiqued the “obsessed” narrow-mindedness of those in the church who only care about contraception, gay marriage and abortion. But he also said, while arguing against gay marriage as bishop in Argentina, that efforts to redefine marriage were inspired by Satan. He’s affirmed the church’s prohibition on female priests, and declared that the church’s rejection of a woman’s right to abortion “is not something subject to alleged reforms.” How come nobody is paying attention to this Francis?
These church teachings certainly didn’t begin with Francis. Nor did he invent mercy and humility, concepts for which he’s so frequently praised. If the new pope is conveying a Christianity that is received as genuine, he’d likely say that’s because he’s channeling the example of his God. No Jesus, no Francis.
So why is there still a sense that Francis is so different?
For one, this first pope from the Americas seems hell-bent on extracting Roman decay from the Vatican and aims some of his sharpest jabs at the church’s stodgy leadership. “Heads of the church have often been narcissists,” he laments. A “Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us.” “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” And the crowd goes wild!
Francis’ words underline his common touch; his plain way of speaking elevates the moral meaning of daily life. To young people: “It takes courage to start a family.” On materialism: “Seeking happiness in material things is a sure way of being unhappy.” On joy: “Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met. … I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to.”
This is the pope who denounces clericalism (the notion that church officials are holier than the laity), calls for a reexamination of structures that prevent “a more incisive female presence in the church,” and asserts that God has redeemed “all of us … even the atheists.” But as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat puts it, Francis is “innovating within the bounds of tradition.” He makes everyone feel a bit uncomfortable, because that’s what Christianity is supposed to do.
Thus, the concern on the right that Francis is some sort of liberal relativist seems overblown. If he’s a religious revolutionary, he is so no more than Jesus was.
So when Rush Limbaugh, that great arbiter of true Christianity, says that what’s coming out of the pope’s mouth is “pure Marxism,” when Sarah Palin frets that Francis is “kind of liberal,” and when Fox News’ Adam Shaw calls him “the Catholic Church’s Obama” —they’re just distorting the secular left’s dreams into their own worst nightmares.
Both left and right need to wake up. Francis is, at his heart, a spiritual leader. His mission may have political implications, but he has come to serve God, not advance the platform of the Democratic Party — and it’s presumptuous to imagine otherwise. Even in discussions of economic inequality, Francis sees the primacy of the faith: “I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset, which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society,” he writes in Evangelii Gaudium. Oh, my: Sounds like Francis believes in trickle-down transcendence.
If Francis is a radical, it is like this: By speaking the language of the common person in the year 2013, in his awareness of the inspirational power of grand, symbolic gestures, through his call for everyday Catholics to embrace the simple, radical, mandates of their baptism, Francis is awakening a world that was becoming dead to Christianity. If he’s breaking new ground, it’s because he’s discovered an effective way to call people to Christ.
Quoting Pope Benedict, Francis declares that “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.” And that person is God.
Don’t worry if you’ve misread Francis till now, or projected your own political projects or fears onto him. Francis, after all, attends confession every two weeks. He believes in repentance.
Go and sin no more.
Elizabeth Tenety is editor of The Washington Post’s On Faith blog.
© 2013, The Washington Post