Ever since his election in March of 2013, Pope Francis has made big headlines all over the world. In both substance and form, he has demonstrated a marked shift from the personalities and policies of the past two popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For conservatives this has been concerning, for liberals, thrilling.
Regardless of one’s political, religious, and general cultural opinions, it is essential to acknowledge that the Holy Catholic Church is an ingenious institution. The most important criterium for judging the effectiveness of an institution are 1) how long it has lasted, and 2) the loudness of its voice in the present. On both fronts, the Church gets an A-plus.
The first use of the phrase “Catholic Church” to describe the Christian authority on Earth is thought to have been in 110 A.D., in a letter from St. Ignatius. Its founding pope is considered to be St. Peter, one of Jesus’s original 12 disciples. The Biblical foundation for this consideration is sound, coming from Matthew 16:18. All of this is to say that the Church is one of the oldest religious institutions in world history that survives today in similar form. For many centuries it was the most powerful religious, political, and cultural force in Western civilization. It’s capital, Vatican City, is located in Rome, the origin of the second-most powerful empire in Western history (I rate England’s as the most powerful, though of course that’s debatable). Aside from its power in its time, Roman culture, institutional design, military structure, and intellectual practices have had an unimaginably large impact on the lives we live today as Westerners. Yet perhaps the empire’s greatest legacy is Catholicism (then simply Christianity), which became its official religion in 313 A.D. under Emperor Constantine. Suffice it to say, like the influence of classical Greece, Rome, England, and other notable cultures, it’s impossible to imagine how our Western identities would exist today without the Church. It has touched more things than we could possibly imagine (or would like to).
As for today, many people like to trendily suggest that religious influence is waning. While that’s definitely true in a lot of developed nations, it is a very sheltered and ultimately inaccurate opinion. The Catholic Church has more than 1.2 billion current members worldwide. Christianity as a whole is the fastest-growing religion in the world, particularly in the developing world. Latin America and Africa have large Catholic populations, a fact which will only become more important as they continue to grow and assert themselves in world affairs. Even China, following Mao’s state-imposed atheism, has large pockets of Christian believers and Catholic apologists.
The Church would not have lasted so long were it not capable of great flexibility. It has a huge tent with all sorts of different sects and factions, who sometimes are excommunicated only to be brought back into the fold after a great deal of time has passed. The clergy plays a very, very long game. Otherwise they would not have lasted almost 20 centuries in such a significant and powerful place in world society. As those who read Shakespeare or watch House of Cards know, power is not an easy thing to maintain, yet the Church has.
Viewed from a wide-angle lens, as opposed to the snapshot that too often imprisons the media and public consciousness, Pope Francis’s election makes a great deal of sense. He is not a revolutionary figure, as many would like to anoint him. He is not going to dismantle the pillars of the Vatican. Instead, he is much better understood as a necessary and long-anticipated counterpoint to the conservatism of his predecessors – John Paul and his protege Benedict. After decades of doctrinal tightening and wall-building (this itself being a reaction to the massive opening and radicalism that emerged from the Church as a consequence of the Second Vatican Council’s conclusion in 1965, which is the subject of an enormous amount of debate), most in the College of Cardinals recognized that it was the time to reopen the gates. Ergo, the election of Pope Francis, first of his name. He embodies a more open Church. A messier Church that seeks not only to open its doors for all, but to go into the streets and busy itself with the difficult work of ministry. Francis is a man who says “Who am I to judge?” about homosexuality and prefers to bind up wounds rather than argue. He used to ride the bus to work instead of the limo bishops can use. Just look at the simplicity of his garb compared to Benedict for goodness sake. Throughout the Church’s history it has had many instances where it has oscillated like this so as to grab the interest of diverse categories of people. As I mentioned before, the opposite happened 40 years ago when traditionalists became concerned new thought was overwhelming the necessary traditions of the past. That’s what gave us John Paul and Benedict. Such variety is how you build a big tent and endure 1900+ years.
Late last week Pope Francis released a powerful encyclical. For those wondering, an encyclical is one of the most powerful ways a pope has of communicating with his flock. In modern Catholicism, it has come to represent an urgent directive given to cardinals, bishops, priests, and laypeople on matters of doctrine in the current time. It elaborates, commands, and provides theological/Biblical grounds for Church opinion. This recent encyclical covers, among other things, the environment. In no uncertain terms, it castigates the developed world and modern capitalism for the damage that has been done to the Earth. It calls for dramatic action and a rethinking of humanity’s role in the world. Most significantly of all, Pope Francis (who got his name from St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and the environment) demands recognition of a basic reality: climate change is an existential threat. This fact (yes, for God’s sake, it is a fact) has been ignored/denied and ridiculed for years by politicians, businesspeople, less than five percent of the world’s scientists, and ordinary folks. This has occurred in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
At this moment, Pope Francis is the most significant world authority figure to come out and call things for what they are: a disaster reaching epidemic proportions. His opinion is less politically-charged than President Obama’s and more impactful than all the world’s scientists combined. He has established himself as someone with true crossover appeal and undeniable charisma. Yes, this encyclical matters.
Opponents have already declared Francis’s knowledge of scientific matters to be lacking, despite the fact that he’s trained as a chemist and spent several years working in a lab (plus the fact that the Vatican can, and did, consult with some pretty good scientists). They say he should stick to matters of morality and religion, willfully ignoring centuries of papal activity in artistic (Michelangelo anyone?), political (Holy Roman Emperor?), social (homosexuality? abortion?), and scientific (Galileo?) fields of life. Of course, all that was fine as long as they agreed with whatever the pope said. Now that there’s disagreement happens to be the perfect time for disloyalty and criticism.
Many social activists hoping for dramatic doctrinal changes from Francis will probably be disappointed. Popes almost never significantly change doctrine, that is usually reserved for rare Vatican councils. It would be wonderful for the Church to accept homosexuality as something less than depraved, or to welcome all to serve as deacons, priests, cardinals, and bishops regardless of gender, but that is unlikely. Hope remains for change, but it will require a long and bitter struggle for such fundamental things to be altered. However, we should all take a moment, or many moments, to appreciate the totality and wisdom of what Francis has accomplished here. The Church has long preached stewardship and respect for all of the Earth God has created. It has long supported the poor and sought to restrain the excesses of winner-take-all capitalism. We must appreciate the leadership of Francis to reorient our attention from the divisive and terribly-named “culture wars” of the last 40 years toward the deeper, more dangerous challenges of our time. No one thinks gay marriage is unimportant. No one thinks women’s equality is unimportant. But we need to recognize that two men’s ability to marry, beautiful and tremendous though it is, will not save our planet from environmental destruction. Equal pay, as necessary as it is, will not matter if the 1 percent take and keep it all for themselves. Despite the profound disagreements we have with the Catholic Church, from both within and without, let us respect the leadership the pope has shown. For Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic, Muslim, Sikh, Jew, Protestant, Catholic, None, and everyone else.
Yes, this one matters.
The incomparable environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben has good thoughts too. Please read them!
Photo: © Donatella Giagnori/epa/Corbis via NY Review of Books