OSAKA – “Is the pope Catholic?” is a popular rhetorical question since the pope is the head of the (Roman) Catholic Church. But Pope Francis has sparked such a firestorm of controversy with some recent comments that popular media looking for a “story” as well as some conservative Christian commentators, especially in the United States, have begun to ask, “Is the pope Catholic?”
Even some of the new pope’s supporters have dared to say that “Francis should shut up” — not the kind of comment popes are used to hearing. Such critics are profoundly wrong. Indeed, the hope and the joy and the love of Francis is that he is both Catholic and catholic, using the lower-case word in its definition meaning “universal,” not in the narrow sense of the Catholic Church and adherence to its doctrines.
Asked to define himself, the pope immediately responded: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate description. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner. … I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
The statement that he is a sinner was not a flippant remark, but was part of a long interview with Antonio Spadaro, his fellow Jesuit and editor of La Civilta Cattolica, with the text approved by Pope Francis.
That interview and a more spontaneous one with Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist founder of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, show a pope determined to change the church’s relationship with the world. The new thrust is openness and caring, especially for the downtrodden and forgotten: “To listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope,” he said in the Scalfari interview.
“We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace.”
Papal personal styles underline the change of mood. Pope Benedict XVI, now living in retirement in the Vatican, is a brilliant but strict theologian. As pope he was a monarchical figure with bright red loafers (though not, as oft-reported mistakenly, made by Prada), who lived in the comfortable historic spaciousness of the Vatican apartments, generally kept himself to himself and ruled through the curia, the formal government of the Holy See.
Francis is more the common man, who wears plain black shoes, lives in a guesthouse in “small bare room with a table and five or six chairs and a painting on the wall,” according to Scalfari, and is gregarious. He arranged the interview with Scalfari in a telephone call that he made himself, and has surprised other ordinary people by responding directly to their messages with telephone calls, starting, “Hi, it’s Pope Francis here.”
What is more important is the change in substance. Benedict was unafraid to see a shrunken church secure in its doctrines and was quick to kick out priests or theologians who dared to challenge strict orthodoxy. Even to ask questions as to whether the church should allow priests to get married, let alone raise the verboten issue of women priests, was to invite trouble.
Francis said in his interview: “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” The pope quotes the vision of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, “not to be limited by the greatest and yet to be contained in the tiniest — this is the divine.”
In his comments to Scalfari, Francis is scathing about the behavior of the church, declaring that “Heads of the church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.” This comment was published just as the pope’s group of eight cardinals started work on reforming the curia.
Francis adds that the curia “has one defect: It is Vatican-centric. It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests. This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us.
“I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it. The church is or should go back to being a community of God’s people, and priests, pastors and bishops, who have the care of souls and are at the service of the people of God.”
Francis criticized the church’s preoccupation with “small-minded rules” and its obsession with narrow issues such as contraception, abortion and gay marriage. “We have to find a new balance,” he declared. “Otherwise the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the gospel.”
Asked specifically about homosexuality, he answered with a question: “Tell me: When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”
Critics should note that Francis has given no indication that he will try to change the traditional teachings of the church on these questions.
The abiding message of Francis is one of love and hope. He told Spadaro: “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life.
“Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”
He also had some words about his choice of the name Francis, after the 13th century saint of Assisi who was a wealthy young man and soldier but later gave up the worldly life to serve the poor and founded the Franciscan order.
Francis, said the pope, is “great because he is everything. He is a man who wants to do things, wants to build. He founded an order and its rules. He is an itinerant and a missionary, a poet and a prophet. He is mystical. He found evil in himself and rooted it out. He loved nature, animals, the blade of grass on the lawn and the birds flying in the sky. But above all, he loved people, children, old people, women. He is the most shining example of agape (perfect unselfish love).”
In a separate speech last month, the pope also spoke passionately of the need for a new global economic system that puts people at the heart and not “an idol called money.” He attacked the global economy’s preoccupation with profit that led to vulnerable people being marginalized.
“Grandparents are thrown away and young people are thrown away. We must say no to this throwaway culture. We want a fair system, a system that allows everyone to move forward. At the center has to be man and woman, as God wants, not money.”
There remain questions about whether Francis can walk the talk, whether he can curb the baneful influences of the curia and devise a new role for women, whom he says he admires.
He will not change moral teachings on abortion and has shown no inclination to alter conventions about priests marrying, let alone consider women for the priesthood priests or revisit questions about contraception.
In this sense, the pope is a traditional Catholic. He reminds me of Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962 and opened the Catholic Church to the winds of change. John was a traditional Catholic, and his autobiography “Journal of a Soul” shows a frightening holiness and dedication to prayer and self-examination that is tough to emulate.
But John — as Francis is doing — tried to copy the attitude of Jesus Christ, not to lock the doors and close the shutters of the church to prevent the wicked world from entering, but to go out and preach and teach love to a wounded world with a catholic vision of life.
Kevin Rafferty, a professor at Osaka University, was editor of The Universe, the best selling Catholic newspaper in English.