(RNS) — Pope Francis stepped out on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica five years ago Tuesday (March 13) as the unlikely choice to lead an ancient institution at a time when the popular image of the church could have been that of a grimacing taskmaster wagging a finger at a world that had stopped paying attention.
Francis quickly ushered in a gritty, in-the-street Catholicism that has dirt on its shoes, a joke at the ready, and a recognition that the joy of the gospel is a better way to evangelize than gloomily fighting culture wars. More than 80 percent of American Catholics have a favorable view of Pope Francis, but he faces a determined opposition at a pivotal point in his papacy.
Francis critics, from Vatican cardinals to conservative Catholic commentators, have worked themselves into a frenzy because the first Jesuit pope prioritizes discernment and pastoral theology over a one-size-fits-all rigidity when it comes to the application of doctrine. Even a cautious opening to allow divorced Catholics to receive Communion in some cases, addressed in the pope’s apostolic exhortation on family life, causes the ecclesial equivalent of an anxiety attack.
- The pope is sowing “confusion,” argues journalist Philip Lawler in a new book with a tabloid-style headline, “Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock.”
- A former director of the doctrine office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Rev. Thomas Weinandy, sent a contemptuous letter to the pope, warning that his lack of teaching clarity risks “sinning against the Holy Spirit.”
- American Cardinal Raymond Burke compares the church under Francis to a “ship without a rudder.”
- Ross Douthat, a thoughtful conservative columnist at The New York Times, has lost his bearings in the Francis era. Allowing remarried Catholics to receive Communion, he warned ominously, is encouraging “doubts and defections” that could lead to “schism.”
These overheated reactions, at times bordering on hysteria, are the gasping of those stuck inside the false comfort of a fortress Catholicism. In contrast, Francis wants a church that is a “field hospital for the wounded,” encouraging clergy to accompany people through the complexity, confusion and pain of being human. The church’s teachings, in his words, should not simply be “stones to throw at people’s lives.”
While his critics are troubled by anything that doesn’t offer complete certainty in every situation, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich aptly describes the pope’s teachings as helping the church move from “an adolescent spirituality into an adult spirituality.”
Facing opposition from those who view themselves as guardians of orthodoxy, Francis is also viewed warily by politically conservative Catholics. Since 2014, the percentage of GOP Catholics who say Francis represents a “major, positive change” for the church plummeted from 60 percent to 37 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. More than half of Catholics who identify as Republican say the pope is too liberal. In many ways, these numbers are not surprising. Francis has challenged “trickle down” economic theories, warns of an “economy of exclusion,” and calls inequality the “root of social evil.”
While Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI often spoke about environmental stewardship, Francis is the first pope to write an encyclical focused on the environment. He views climate change as an urgent moral challenge, and urges world leaders to act swiftly to curb our addiction to oil. But Pope Francis isn’t getting his talking points from the Democratic Party or liberal pundits. He is prioritizing and building on the traditional platform of Catholic social teaching in ways that have not been accentuated in recent decades.
In short, he’s not going rogue. As the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church — released during Pope John Paul II’s papacy — puts it, wealth “exists to be shared,” goods have a “universal destination,” and “any type of improper accumulation is immoral.” The catechism of the Catholic Church refers to “sinful inequalities” that are “in open contradiction to the Gospel.”
Pope Francis is a reformer not because he breaks with orthodoxy. What his opponents miss or deliberately distort is that the Francis revolution is about rescuing doctrine from a dry religious legalism that has no life, and renewing the best of Catholic tradition with an eye to the future. This should be a project Catholics on the right and left can get behind.
(John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of “The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)