Thus Spake Francis

Pope_Francis_among_the_people_at_St._Peter's_Square_-_12_May_2013

Photo by Wikipedia user Edgar Jiménez

With a single question, the newly minted Pope set off a worldwide media reaction – and raised some important questions about the state of the papacy in the 21st century.

I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about the papacy.  Smarter people than I have devoted their lives to the subject and still been left with profound mysteries.  However, there is one thing of which I am fairly certain: popes do not give impromptu, unrestricted press conferences aboard the papal plane. (Fun fact: the plane, hereafter to be known as Pontiff One, does not run on destructive fossil fuels, but is instead carried  invisibly by angels.)

Yet, that is exactly what Pope Francis did earlier this week during his trip back from a successful outing to Brazil, going where the Queen of England still fears – or at least refuses – to tread: in front of a group of reporters.  Fortunately for the assembled media, the Q & A session proved to be newsworthy for more than one reason.  When one of them asked the Holy Father a question about the supposed “gay lobby” in the Vatican that has so fascinated the Italian press, Francis gave a surprisingly nuanced answer.

“Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?” he said.  “You can’t marginalize these people.”

With that single quote, a thousand newspaper articles and breaking news stories were created.  “Pope Signals Openness to Gay Priests” read one headline from the Wall Street Journal.  News anchors debated whether or not this signaled a major change in the Catholic Church’s approach to the issue of homosexuality.  Gay rights groups responded mostly with cautious optimism.  Predictably, church officials quickly jumped in to assure the public that the Pope did not inaugurate a change in doctrine, but only a change in tone.

A few commentators were smart enough to pick up on the truly revolutionary part of Francis’ statement.  His apparent “hate the sin but love the sinner” approach to homosexuality is really nothing new in the church; but his simple question, “Who am I to judge?”, speaks volumes in light of Church history.

In Catholic doctrine, the Pope is not only the Bishop of Rome and the Vicar of Christ, but the direct descendant of St. Peter through a long line of apostolic succession.  Peter was famously appointed by Christ as the rock on which he would build his church.  Christ proclaimed, “What you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19b, NASB) (I am puzzled by the Messiah’s choice of verb tense in this version, though I fully accept the content of the teaching.)

Christ_Handing_the_Keys_to_St._Peter_by_Pietro_Perugino

Pietro Perugino’s painting “Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter”

There are two things which typically appear on papal and Catholic insignia: a papal tiara and a set of crossed keys which are symbolic of the keys given to Peter by Christ.  This is a sign of the Pope’s God-given authority in this life and the next, an authority that the Catholic Church has historically treated with the greatest respect and been keen to point out to anyone who dared to challenge it.

Few popes would have uttered the words, “Who am I to judge?”, because they believed themselves to be perfectly justified in making such judgments.  Just ask the Cathars, or Jan Hus, or Martin Luther, or King Henry VIII, or Galileo, or anyone in the Eastern Orthodox Church if the Pope is capable of judging. (I’ve only named the more famous cases.)

We could conclude that Francis is simply a different kind of Pope – one who is more humble and sees himself merely as the vessel through which God’s message is proclaimed rather than the supreme judge of all religious and ethical matters.  Yet, the Pope’s remarks could also be viewed as an admission of the state of the world we live in, particularly with regard to the world’s Catholics.

American Catholics are particularly infamous for taking the Church’s moral imperatives with a shaker of salt.  A 2011 survey by the National Catholic Reporter was particularly instructive on this point.  It found that on the issues of abortion, non-marital sex, and homosexuality, “Upwards of half of those surveyed say individuals themselves are best equipped to make moral decisions on these matters.”  When it came to contraception, the number of Americans valuing their own judgment above the Church’s jumped to two-thirds.

Another section of the report paints an even bleaker picture when it comes to church authority.

Although the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have been highly involved over several decades in articulating the church’s opposition to abortion, fewer than half of American Catholics, 40 percent, say that the church’s teachings opposing abortion are very important to them personally. And even fewer say that the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage (35 percent) and the death penalty (29 percent) are very important.

A more recent survey by Quinnipiac University, conducted around the time of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation earlier this year, produced similar results.  As reported by The Huffington Post, “Majorities of Catholic Americans believe the church needs to change its stance on several controversial issues, including its ban on contraception (64 percent), marriage among priests (62 percent) and the ordination of women (62 percent), the survey found.”

It’s not just in the United States that the Church hierarchy’s once formidable authority is being questioned.  Ireland is one of the most reliably Catholic countries on earth, and it has also maintained some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the developed world.  However, after the headline grabbing case of a woman who died after her doctors refused to terminate her unviable pregnancy (she died of a blood infection four days after the eventual death and removal of her child), the Irish parliament sped up passage of an historic law that will now allow for abortions when the mother’s life is in danger.

Some Irish religious figures were not happy about the bill, believing that certain provisions could open the door to further expansions of abortion.  That the bill was passed over the wishes of many of these people shows that Irish Catholics have concluded, much like their American counterparts, that the teachings of the Church are just one of many things to consider when debating ethical issues. (Read about this story on CNN’s website.)

So when Pope Francis says, “Who am I to judge?”, he may just be accepting the fact that even the word of the Pope is now called into question by the Catholic faithful.  Church leaders may still be able to gather and set official doctrine, but as usual it is the average people on the ground who will determine the ultimate character of Christianity’s largest denomination.

Even before his now famous comments aboard the papal plane, Francis’ first foreign trip caused many in the media to speculate about the drifting of Brazilians away from their traditional Catholicism and toward either more evangelical denominations or no religion at all.  While almost 90% of Brazilians were Catholic in the 1980s, that number is closer to 65% now.  With such a development occurring in Brazil, home to the world’s largest Catholic population and next door neighbor to the Pope’s native Argentina, no one could blame the pontiff for being a bit concerned.  Then again, who knows what could happen with a few more of those airborne press conferences?

The New American Standard Bible translation is Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation.