|Pope Francis speaks from the simple chair replacing the golden and velvet throne of his predecessor.|
Well, that new Bishop of Rome sure knows how to stir things up and grab some attention. In just the last week he has shaken things up in a big way.
On Tuesday Pope Francis, the former Argentine prelate with a reputation as a defender of the poor, made a powerful, even blistering indictment of capitalism in a speech at a Vatican soup kitchen. It was no call to revolution or rebellion, but a plea for charity and generosity. But the ferocity of his castigation of the Western corporatist model caused heads to bob around the world. “A savage capitalism has taught the logic of profit at any cost, of giving in order to get, of exploitation without thinking of people... and we see the results in the crisis we are experiencing,” the Pope said.
It shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. Less than a week earlier he had called for financial reform, condemning a “dictatorship of the economy” and a “cult of money.”
Evidently the radical simplicity he has adopted since his elevation—shunning opulent garments and Pope Benedict XVI’s treasured handmade red slippers, adorning himself with a simple wooden crucifix and plain signet ring, removing the golden throne and red carpet in the audience room to greet visitors from a plane wooden chair, and refusing to move into the vast Papal apartments living in rooms amid the cooks and attendants of the Vatican establishment—was not just for show. Still, this is a man who as a Bishop in Buenos Aires denounced Liberation Theology and may have collaborated with the former Argentine military dictatorship.
But he clearly believes that winning back the young, who have been abandoning the Church in record numbers in Europe and in the rest of the Developed world, requires the re-kindling a feeling of idealism and service as well as compassion. In the wake of a Church shaken to its roots by unending sexual abuse and cover-up scandals, he needs to change the conversation and focus of public perception.
Even more eye-brows were raised on Wednesday when he delivered his homily at a regular mass. In what seemed like a bold theological departure to some he declared that everyone was redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ—specifically mentioning “even atheists.”
To many ears, including I am sure, stunned and betrayed Catholic traditionalists and conservatives, it seemed like an embrace of universalism which has been regarded as a heresy since the Council of Constantinople in 543 A.D.
While refreshing, it was not quite an espousal of universal salvation but of an available salvation to all of those who do good works no matter what their affiliation or belief. This is closer than many non-Catholics believe to a strand of traditional Church teaching. In fact the doctrine of salvation by good works was a major reason for the Protestant Reformation, with most reformers elevating original sin and emphasizing salvation as an unmerited gift of Grace by a God who decided in his own mysterious ways deserved it.
But some things in Francis’s homily stand out. He took as his text Mark 9:38-40:
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone[a] casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us.
—New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition
On this slender thread of an exorcism story, Francis constructed an elaborate tale. “They complain because if he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good. And Jesus corrects them: ‘Do not hinder him, he says, let him do good.’” He depicted the Disciples, as “a little intolerant,” closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good…This was wrong …Jesus broadens the horizon. The root of this possibility of doing good—that we all have—is in creation.”
But he did not stop there:
The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. “But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.” Yes, he can... The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone!... We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.
This is a far cry from the Church of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the nearly endless religious wars against Protestants and heretics that nearly de-populated Europe a few centuries back. And it is an about face from the emphasis on orthodoxy, authority, and obedience that was the signature of Benedict’s reign and which has been the leading ideology of the Church since John Paul II began the systematic dismantling of the liberalism and ecumenical spirit of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John XXIII.
In calling for a “culture of encounter for peace” and reaching out to non-Catholics for cooperation in “doing good,” Francis echoes the spiritual leader who eclipsed the Pope as the most admired teacher in the world—the Dalai Lama.
Francis, however, was not truly speaking for the whole Church. His chosen forum, a homily, is the interpretation of one priest, albeit an influential one. Alone it does not change either Church doctrine or practice. He did not speak from the throne of Papal Infallibility, issued no Bull, and promulgated no reforms. But it could be the start of a new attitude and new opportunities.
Of course, it also does not answer the question, “what is doing good.” This Pope has already come out in strong, even harsh, language against not only civil marriage equality but other equal treatment of homosexuals. He remains steadfast against abortion and contraception and those who advocate for them. Clearly those working on these issues against Church teachings will not be seen as “doing good work” or probably available for inclusion in Christ’s sacrificial gift.
But perhaps it will loosen the strictures conservatives have erected in this country to cooperation with non-Catholics at odds with the Church over these issues where there is common ground—fighting poverty, immigration reform, peace, and opposition to human trafficking to name a number of issues in which Catholic social justice teachings and practices align with some of his heretics.
American women’s religious orders remain under suspicion and investigation in part because they were willing to set aside differences on abortion to work cooperatively with other on these issues. And Catholic parishes and institutions have been instructed to break long time cooperative relationships with other faith organizations and advocacy groups whose work came to be regarded as “the tainted fruit of a tainted tree.”
A real sign of change would be the respectful restoration of the autonomy of the Nuns and the embrace of cooperation with all in areas we can agree on.
As an activist nothing would make me happier than being able to stand once again with my Catholic brothers and sisters without them having to live in fear for associating with me.
In the mean time I am delighted to tip my hat to my brother the Pope as we meet on the broad road to universalim.