Columns Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

The good, the bad and the merciful: Pope Francis after six years

Pope Francis arrives Dec. 1, 2018, for an audience at the Vatican for members of the Dioceses of Molfetta and Ugento-Santa Maria di Leuca. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(RNS) — Six years ago, on March 13, the College of Cardinals surprised the world with the election of the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio as pope. Taking the name Francis, he won the admiration and respect of Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his simplicity and concern for the poor and marginalized.

With each passing year, however, criticism of the pope has become more vocal, especially from the Catholic right, who think he is breaking with traditional church teaching, and the political right, who don’t like his views on global warming, immigration and social justice. Francis has also been unable to satisfy those who say the Catholic hierarchy’s response to the clergy sex abuse crisis has been inadequate.

I am a big fan of Pope Francis, in part because I think that any evaluation of his first six years as pope shows that his accomplishments outweigh his failings.

First, his accomplishments.

Pope Francis has successfully rebranded the Catholic Church, which had come to be regarded as a clerical institution that stressed rules and uniformity. If you wanted to be a good Catholic, you were given the catechism to memorize and told to follow the rules.

Flanked by Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela, right, and first lady Lorena Castillo, Pope Francis arrives at the foreign ministry headquarters Palacio Bolivar, in Panama City, on Jan. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Francis hates clericalism. He is constantly telling bishops and priests not to act like princes but rather like servants to the people of God. While he is kind and compassionate to the wider world, he can be very critical when speaking to bishops and priests. He warns against the temptation to manipulate or infantilize the laity. He urges clerics to empower the laity “to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them.”

For Francis, the church is not a country club for the good and beautiful. Rather, it is a “poor church for the poor,” a “field hospital” for the wounded. That is why he stresses compassion and mercy.

In contrast to the last two popes, who taught using complex theological concepts, Francis appeals to the heart. He complains that “we have reduced our way of speaking about mystery to rational explanations, but for ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart.”

He believes that “we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and impart an intellectualism foreign to our people.”

This is not a pope who will worry, as we did in the previous papacy, about whether the translation of the Nicene Creed should say that Jesus is “one in being” or “consubstantial” with the Father.

Francis’ focus on the simple message of the gospel is quite threatening to those Catholics who confuse theology with the faith. Theology is how we explain the faith to ourselves and others. Augustine used Neoplatonism to explain the faith to a generation whose intellectuals were all Neoplatonists. Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelianism, the avant-garde thinking of the 13th century, to explain the faith in his day.

The mistake today’s conservatives make is to simply quote these great thinkers, rather than imitate them in developing new ways to explain Christianity to people of the 21st century. With few Neoplatonists or Aristotelians around today, theologians must have the freedom to discover new ways of explaining Christianity, even if this leads to new ways of understanding of human rights, justice, sexuality, marriage and the role of women.

Unlike his predecessors, Francis is not afraid of encouraging discussion in the church. “Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow,” Francis said in a controversial interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in 2014. “That doesn’t frighten me. What’s more, I look for it.”

Francis’ approach has implications for the pastoral priorities of the Catholic Church. For him, the first words of evangelization must be about God’s compassion and love. Everything in Christianity flows from that message, which Jesus stressed constantly in the gospels. Preaching must flow from the gospels, not merely be a presentation of the catechism and a rulebook.

In short, Francis is concerned above all with how we live the faith, more than how we explain it. Orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy.

The practical impact of this emphasis on love and mercy is a more compassionate attitude toward divorced and remarried Catholics as well as LGBT Catholics. If the church is a field hospital, then Communion is not just for the heathy and perfect but for the sick and wounded.

Pope Francis greets Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, after an interfaith meeting at the Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Feb. 4, 2019. Francis has asserted in the first-ever papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula that religious leaders have a duty to reject all war and commit themselves to dialogue. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Pope Francis has continued the work of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue begun by his predecessors. To see a pope standing with a Lutheran bishop to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is truly historic. Likewise, his ongoing dialogue with the grand iman of Al-Azhar is critical for interreligious understanding and peace.

And in continuing the church’s concern for social justice, he has not shied away from controversial topics like immigration and global warming. Putting the church on the side of the environment is crucial for humankind in the 21st century.

But Francis is not perfect.

Until this time last year, he did not truly understand the sex abuse crisis. After learning that he had been misled by the Chilean bishops, he demanded that they all submit their resignations because they had not protected children. He also began meeting with victims of abuse to hear firsthand their stories.

This was transformative, but although he has begun holding bishops accountable for the safety of children, he still has not created a structure for doing this in a systematic way.

In responding the the sex abuse crisis, Francis has also called for transparency. The real test of this ethic will come with the investigation into what people in the Vatican knew about Theodore McCarrick’s misconduct. Will the results be public? If the report finds that the Vatican was aware all along — before his appointment to the archbishopric of Washington — that McCarrick had slept with seminarians, it will be very embarrassing to the last two popes and the cardinals who surrounded them.

When the pope talks about women, he also fumbles, sounding like a grandfather whose grandchildren love him but roll their eyes when he speaks. He is out of touch with First World feminist language and sensitivities. His focus rather is on women’s issues in the Third World, which does make him an able campaigner against human trafficking and a supporter of policies that lift women out of poverty.

Pope Francis’ strength is as a pastor who calls people to conversion. He does not think like an administrator, one who establishes policies and structures to ensure things are done properly.

For this reason, his reform of the Vatican Curia has accomplished little. He understands the importance of changing the culture of the church, but does not understand the importance of reforming church structures.

Hopefully, Pope Francis will have many more years as pope so that he can appoint more bishops who support his vision for the church and deal with other issues that face the church and the world.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.


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  • I like Pope Francis because, to my mind, he more nearly reflects the Jesus of the Gospels, a merciful man who was known throughout first-century Judea mostly for healing people and driving the religious establishment of his day nuts. Francis’ predecessor, the darling of conservatives, more nearly reflected the strict, unyielding, slavish devotion to doctrine that Jesus abhorred in the religious establishment of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. Francis is driving modern conservatives nuts, and they hate him for it, just as the Sanhedrin hated Jesus. Pope Francis walks in good company.

  • Fail on your list of accomplishments.

    Your first one…fail huge:

    “[[He] re-branded the Catholic Church, which had come to be regarded as a clerical institution that stressed rules and uniformity.”

    What a joke. 6 years in and perv prelates are still protecting perv prelates. The pope and his perv cardinals even over-engineered the summit to ensure continued perv protection, skirting away from what even an autistic child of 14 knows is the problem: Rampant homosexually oriented abuse.

    This article is not worth the pixels it’s posted on.

  • You’re very clearly obsessed with homosexuality. All the truly straight people I know couldn’t care less.

  • Well, no place else to post it, but maybe there will be tomorrow.
    Cardinal Pell was just sentenced to 6 years on two counts of child molestation. His lawyer said THIS:
    ““No more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating…”
    I have an idea, Mr. Lawyer. Let’s subject YOUR CHILD to this and see how vanilla you see it. But no, BECAUSE IT IS A CHILD BEING SEXUALLY ATTACKED MY AN ADULT MAN!!!!!!! Decent people are horrified by it. Decent people don’t shrug it off as unimportant, or try to claim that the child was barely harmed by it. Decent people would like to see Pell and anyone in his entire vanilla-penetrating organization who thinks like you do or he does behind bars.
    Decent people are obviously not lawyers.

  • Francis needs some character. Stop lying and stonewalling re his promotion of McCarrick. Stop his stupid, noxious and disgusting promotion of marxism. Try a little honesty and cut the disgusting politicking and Machiavellian maneuvering.

  • https://www{DOT}

    “An Australian court announced Wednesday that Cardinal George Pell’s application for leave to appeal his conviction of sexual abuse will be heard June 5-6. …”

    “It was the cardinal’s second trial, as a jury in an earlier trial had failed to reach a unanimous verdict. The first jury were deadlocked 10-2 in Pell’s favor. …”

    “The cardinal’s appeal will be made on three points: the jury’s reliance on the evidence of a single victim, an irregularity that kept Pell from entering his not guilty plea in front of the jury, and the defense not being allowed to show a visual representation supporting his claim of innocence.”

    “The appeal document, The Age reported, says that ‘the verdicts are unreasonable and cannot be supported, having regard to the evidence, because on the whole of the evidence, including unchallenged exculpatory evidence from more than 20 Crown witnesses, it was not open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt on the word of the complainant alone.’ …”

    “In December, a district judge overturned the May 22 conviction of Archbishop Philip Wilson for failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse disclosed to him in the 1970s, saying there was reasonable doubt a crime had been committed. …”

    “Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, suggested that the justice process was tainted by media and police forces that had worked ‘to blacken the name’ of Pell ‘before he went to trial.’”

  • From his election I realized that Pope Francis would be caught between that proverbial rock and a hard place. IF he attempted to make any major changes in practices and policies, doctrines and dogmas (official and unofficial) he would be condemned AND he would be pulling part of the foundation out from under the Church and its reliance on papal authority to justify and sanctify its Policies/practices/doctrines/dogmas.

    IF on the other hand he did nothing he would also be condemned. So I think he took the easy way out, calling for a kinder and more compassionate Church. Which really hasn’t gone anywhere!

  • I knew you could be relied upon to miss the point rather spectacularly, but also to pretend it really didn’t happen, that poor Cardinal Pell was just a victim as much as the little boy, etc etc etc etc.

    Why, you sound just about as compassionate and concerned as has every other enabler of the ongoing scandal of child abuse.

  • The Vatican thinks that Pell has done something wrong, because they have instituted their own investigation. I had a high regard for Cardinal Pell, regularly reading his column in Sydney Australia’s Sunday Telegraph.

    I was uncertain about Michael Jackson, thinking that it was sexual experimentation by a man-boy with arrested development of his cognitive processes because he had “no childhood”. Yesterday I saw an interview on YouTube with La Toya Jackson, who stated that Michael didn’t like girls. He married Lisa Marie Presley to appear to be a “normal” heterosexual man. She believed that he was a pedophile, although she herself had not witnessed anything.

    In Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, approximately 62% of perpetrators were Catholic Priests. (there were 17,000 victim submissions). There have been claims made by some Australian retired Priests that the problem is celibacy. To be celibate means to be unmarried. A vow of Celibacy automatically includes a vow of Chastity.

    When couples say they are in a celibate marriage (an oxymoron), they are saying that they are in a marriage without sexual intimacy. Marriage vows automatically assume vows of Chastity and Fidelity.

    “Celibacy” is not the cause of pedophilia/hebephilia, or more correctly, pederasty. Priests/Ministers/Pastors/ etc., who are married, have still molested boys in the main, and girls have also been molested, but in much less numbers. Nevertheless, boy or girl, the victim’s suffering is still the same.

    Pedophilia is not a sexual preference you can be born with. Nor is it a legitimate sexual identity/orientation such as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual.

    I think that Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be successful, based on the three technicalities mentioned above. No country has a Justice System, only a Legal System. I have done some Law studies, some at Post-Graduate level, which I was unable to complete because of poor health. Nonetheless, I have done enough study and had enough experience in Court to believe that Pell’s lawyers will get him off. However, he is tainted and Pope Francis won’t want Pell in a senior Catholic position again: mud sticks.

    Finally, a Catholic Priest can refuse to give absolution to a “confessor” if they are not truly repentant, as shown by their continued repetition of the same sin. While I do agree that the confessional seal is sacred and should not be broken, it should also not be used as something to hide a person’s sins behind. A Cathoilic Priest who breaks the confessional seal is excommunicated and remains anathema. But what about the physical, emotional, and spiritual rights of the victims, who are mostly still children or young adolsents? Surely the Catholic Church doesn’t believe that after a period in purgatory, pedophile Priests can still go to “Heaven”. They are going to Hell, and many of those who heard the pedophile’s confessions and continually granted absolution are also going to find themselves in Hell.

  • As a victim of sexual abuse myself, I have been haunted by it all of my adult life, although I have a wonderful and lovely female wife of nearly 44 years of marriage, and with whom we created five great children. I am straight, even though my abusers tried to convince me I was Gay. So Elagabus, leave Thomas A. alone. You don’t know him. And if he is “obsessed with homosexuality”, he may well have a very good reason, which is the Lord’s place to judge, not yours.

  • Too little, too late, the RCC is headed slowly into history as a religion founded on false history, theology and dogma. Ditto for all religions!!

  • Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was tainted by the inherent anti-Catholicism in Australian history and society. It failed the basic measures of objectivity.

    The same issue permeated both the media coverage and the police handling of the accusations against Pell, and they doubled-down on the second trial to ensure a conviction.

    His appeal will succeed because his trial failed basic principles of fairness.

  • No, sport, it is YOU who miss the point(s) rather spectacularly because you’re blinded by an intense hatred of the Catholic Church.

    You’re as compassionate and concerned as a large spider considering a fly in its web.

  • 1. I said that I was a fan of George Pell
    2. I am disappointed that if he is innocent, he is being made to pay for the sins of the whole Catholic church
    3. As a victim-survivor of sexual abuse, my planned life as a biochemist working in medical research was stolen from me.
    4. Jesus Christ requires that I forgive these bastards if I want forgiveness of my own sins. It is very, very hard to do. But if I am going to be His loyal disciple, then that is something I have to do.
    5. Even though I didn’t finish my Law studies, I still participated in about 20 trials. Natural justice has not been denied Mr Pell. I don’t know if he is innocent, but his appeal on technicalities of the Law has a high probability of success.
    6. What do you think is the origin of my surname? Just because I myself am not Catholic doesn’t mean that I don’t know the history of my Irish Catholic ancestors. I don’t know where you live, but I live in Sydney, Australia. At one time in the history of the convict colony in Sydney, 80% of the convicts were Irish Catholic. The POMs (which actually comes from Irish Gaelic “kiss my arse”, not “prisoner of Mother England”), would tell the Irish that China was only 3 days walk north of Sydney, because they thought the Irish were so stupid that they would believe it.
    7. The Labor Party in Australia was founded in the 1890s by working class Irish Catholics. Labor Party PM Julia Gillard – a migrant of Welsh descent – was the person who championed the ROYAL COMMISSION.
    8. Post-WWII migration made Catholicism the biggest religion in Australia. It is the biggest Christian denomination in the world with about 1.4 billion members. It is statistically reasonable that the Catholic church would have the highest number of pedophiles – actually the correct word is pederasts. I have done a lot of professional work in the area of Probability, so don’t bother quoting me Mark Twain’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.” He was a great writer, but not renown as a mathematician.
    9. So the nine years of investigation in The Republic of Ireland was a “fake witch hunt” so that the Irish would become so disenchanted with the Catholic church, they would vote “Yes” to legalising abortion, a sin punishable by excommunication with no way back?

    I often agree with you, but this time you are mostly wrong, at least 95% wrong.

    The ethical thing to do is for us to agree to disagree.

    I still don’t know why Disqus has not deleted my account yet.

  • Australia has a long history of anti-Catholicism, aimed primarily at the Irish Catholics, and as is typical of bigotry its practitioners seem blissfully unaware that they’re bigots.

  • Come on now. I watched “Deliverance”. Those mountain men on the hunt for little piggies definitely would of voted for Trump.

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