Pope Francis: a breath of fresh air

A recent interview with Pope Francis by Jesuit journalist Antonio Spadaro has excited Catholic and other progressives and ruffled the feathers of some Catholic conservatives-with good reason. While Pope Francis did not indicate any readiness to change his stance on church teachings, his remarks point to a new atmosphere and attitude in the leadership of the Church-and an implicit rebuke to some U.S. bishops who have allied themselves with the political right.

From the immediate political standpoint, the most important point the Pope made regarded the narrow focus of some Catholics on a few controversial issues of sexual morality: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods…We must find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

Why should this matter to progressives? Because Catholic (and other) right-wingers, including, lamentably, some bishops, have latched on to this narrow set of issues to promote a broader right-wing agenda. If the essence of being Catholic is to oppose abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, then faithful Catholics (and some other Christians) can easily be hoodwinked into supporting rightist candidates who line up with this agenda, disregarding flagrant violations of other aspects of Catholic teaching.

Pope Francis knocked the legs out from under this ploy, saying “the message of the Gospel…is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.”

And Francis has left no doubt where he finds the “heart” of the Gospel message: in service to and solidarity with the poor. Francis is, of course, not the first Pope to advocate what is called in Catholic circles the “preferential option for the poor”; his two predecessors frequently denounced the impact of the “idolatry of the market” and the relentless pursuit of private profit on the vulnerable in society. Nonetheless, there does seem to be something new in Francis’ attitude. In practice, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, despite their verbal denunciation of the ravages of capitalism, seemed more concerned with enforcing doctrinal conformity, particularly on certain issues involving sexual morality, than with pursuing active solidarity with capitalism’s victims; for instance, in appointing bishops they seem to have privileged rigid orthodoxy over social conscience. While it is obviously too early to discern for sure the direction Francis’ papacy will take, there are signs that he gives the pursuit of social justice priority over enforcement of secondary points of church doctrine.

One such sign is his response several weeks ago to a question about how he regarded gay priests, in which he famously said, “Who am I to judge?” Francis was not challenging church teachings on the immorality of homosexual acts; in this interview, he says in reference to such issues, “the teaching of the church is clear, and I am a son of the church”-but he goes on to say “when God looks at a gay person does he endorse this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” In other words, Francis-in line with the core of Catholic teaching-puts fundamental regard for persons as a whole above moral evaluation of individual acts.

It may seem that we are straying here into a metaphysical realm far removed from the concerns of everyday life. That is not the case. Francis’ enacts his attitude in his daily lifestyle. His use of a modest car and his rejection of the papal apartments in favor of a Spartan flats are signs of this; they are, I think, not affectations but part of his effort to live out in his lifestyle his solidarity with the poor-which again, though it is rooted in his vision of the Gospel rather than in any conscious political stance, certainly has political consequences. It throws emphasis on a central aspect of Catholic social teaching-its partisanship for the oppressed.

Progressives should take advantage of this to reinvigorate the relationship between the church and organized labor that goes back over a hundred years to the 1890 encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which Pope Leo XIII spoke out unequivocally for labor’s right to organize-a radical position for its day, and one that has been repeatedly reaffirmed by later popes and by the US Bishops’ Conference. Organizations such as Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice and Catholics United for the Common Good, seeking to revitalize that tradition, should find Francis encouraging.

No one should harbor any illusions that Pope Francis is likely to challenge positions  entrenched in church teaching that many progressives object to, such as those on homosexuality, women’s ordination, and contraception. Nonetheless, his focus on the totality of persons rather than isolated moral judgements on particular acts should open up the possibility of respectful dialogue and discussion on these questions, a discussion which has sometimes been very difficult in the atmosphere fostered by Francis’ two predecessors. This does not seem to have been lost on the Pope’s conservative critics, who have complained of his failure to speak out on abortion and other “litmus test” (for the right) issues.

Finally, there is one aspect of this interview that I think progressives, and especially Communists, should take to heart and ponder, transposing it from the religious to the political realm. Following a discussion of “discernment”-that is, of making choices and determining one’s path-the interviewer asks the Pope if “we can make mistakes.” Francis responds, “Yes, in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an air of uncertainty. There must be”; and he goes on to say “our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down, but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing”-to which I would add, for progressives, “struggling.”

There is an emphasis here that rings throughout the interview, and through the Pope’s public persona, on humility, on openness to listening to others and to recognizing the possibility of error. I point this out because a look at the history of communism over the past century shows what mistakes and failures and, at times, what horrors, have been wrought precisely because we Communists (worldwide but here in the U.S. too) were too cocksure of ourselves, too confident of schematic reductions of Marxism, too unwilling to listen to other voices-in a word, too arrogant. Whatever our religious or non-religious convictions may be, I think we have much to learn from this man in as he leads one of the most powerful institutions in the world.

Photo: Andrew Medichini/AP


Henry Millstein
Henry Millstein

Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union.