Hello, everyone - this article was originally scheduled for one of the magazines I write for on a freelance capacity. However, since the synod in which Francis will lay out his approach to divorce is still forthcoming, my editor wanted something more concurrent. I feel like there hasn't been a whole lot of new content here so here it is.
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The Pope mania that overtook the United States with a brief intensity when sitting Pope Francis visited in September 2015 has now past us, overtaken by a mania around a much more nefarious Donald Trump. Even as the memory of enthusiastic children and crying speakers of the house have left us, the hard work of the world's first Latin American pope has continued unabated.
Francis' upcoming synod on the family looks to tackle one of the oldest social tensions of the church and one that arguably fueled the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism centuries ago – divorce and remarriage. While Francis has remained conservative on issues such as the inclusion of female priests, he has forced in to debate the issue of divorce and remarriage of members of the Catholic church. Cardinal Walter Kasper, a prominent advocate of church reform on divorce, has said that he expects, during his upcoming Synod on the family, for Pope Francis to “definitively express himself on family issues addressed during the last Synod, and in particular on the participation of the divorced and remarried faithful in the active life of the Catholic community,” according to the National Catholic Register.
Many Catholics have long had difficulty with the church's hostility toward divorce, especially when the situation of a marriage could simply not avoid it – and that hostility could add toward a mountain of backward attitudes toward sex that make the Catholic church unattractive, and possibly even repulsive, to young people curious about institutions of faith to involve themselves in. The inclusion of divorcees and the remarried would add toward the inclusion of homosexuals, another revolutionary (at least in Catholic world) reset in how the Catholic church perceives the social world.
Francis' call for reforms add to his controversies, controversies which, in contrast with his predecessors, cast him as a pope who is a figure of political positioning and controversy. Despite the evasion from politics that all leaders of the Catholic Church like to posit, the pope is always a political leader on some level. Pope Francis, born Jorge Bergoglio, takes this truism to the next level – he represents theological, demographic and societal change, all in one person and his political dimensions may shape what Christianity will look like in this century.
One of the most common criticisms by the right of Pope Francis (which reached a fever pitch as Francis took his historic 2015 trip to the United States) is that he is “naive.” In September of last year, conservative talker Glenn Beck's website The Blaze led with “Is Pope Francis a Naive Nice Guy or Obama in a White Robe?” Washington Times, a right wing rag with ties to South Korea's Unification cult, led with an article about “the naive intentions of Pope Francis in Cuba,” while conservative talker Bill O'Reilly said that he thought Francis was “a little bit naive politically.”
They, more than likely, have not actually read any of the many books by and about Father Jorge Bergoglio, written both before and after he became the most influential religious leader on earth. Reading and listening to Francis in depth does not expose a man who is inexperienced or riddled with unrealistic ideas – instead, it exposes a man who has seen a lot, including the horror, confusion and intolerance that plagued Latin America in the years that his ideology and outlook shifted from one much more like his predecessor, Joseph Ratzinger - Pope Benedict XVI, to the one that he now declares as Pope Francis.
Most popes have a great deal of books written about them and even more written by them. Because of its sheer size and influence and the Catholic church's function as an educational institution worldwide, any man elected to the papacy usually has a great deal of academic and intellectual bearing. Benedict's writing was undoubtedly conservative – he critiqued Islam in his book Without Roots, secularism in his book Dialectics of Secularization and took on his own brand of hagiography (an absolute favorite and staple of conservative writing) in his book In the Beginning.
The absolute chasm between the sort of writing Benedict attracted and produced and that which Francis has could not be any more dramatic, demonstrating to the skeptics that Francis really is serious about what he says and not simply providing some sort of nice guy marketing scheme in order to attract new people in to the Catholic church. Whereas Benedict took on and critiqued belief systems outside the Catholic church, Francis has put intensive effort in to engaging other faiths. Nearly all of his books have an introduction or commentary of some kind by Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a close personal friend of Francis and one of the leading figures in Argentina's sizeable Jewish community. The two even wrote an entire book in collaboration with one another – On Heaven and Earth.
Francis' seriousness belies any accusations of naivety. Throughout His Life in His Own Words, a book produced by Francesa Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin, there is mention of the brutal reality of Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, when Francis' worldview as a man of the church crystallized. He was accused of enabling the 1976 kidnapping of two Jesuit priests in the months following a coup d'etat in Argentina. Francis never rebuffed the accusations, which he explained by saying, “If I said nothing at the time, it was so as not to dance to anyone's tune, not because I had anything to hide.”
In fact, the opposite may have occurred. Reportedly then Cardinal Bergoglio actually shielded several seminarians that were wanted by the regime while he was living at the Jesuit Colegio Maximo. He also recounts, casually, throughout His Life in His Own Words friends of his that were kidnapped for political reasons while studying chemistry. Far from naive, Pope Francis may understand political instability better than most Americans possibly can and the great responsibility all real leaders have not to feed in to it.
And likewise, the notion of Francis as a “nice guy” falls apart. Francis has always been biting – in 2003, he stated, as then Archbishop for Buenos Aires, in his Te Deum Mass that Argentinians “are quick to intolerance,” criticizing specifically “those who feel so included they exclude everyone else, those who are so clairvoyant they have become blind” and warning additionally that “copying the hate and violence of the tyrant and murderer is the best way to inherit it.” Argentine President Nestor Kirchner was reportedly annoyed and avoided meeting with Bergoglio afterward. Despite Bergoglio's spokesman claiming that the criticism was meant for society as a whole, he added that, “if the shoe fits, wear it.”
That incident was remarkably reflective of Francis' dispute with American Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who took issue with Francis saying of his immigration policies, “ A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.” While Trump, known for his egomania, saw that as personal, the Vatican made the same statement that was made when Kirchner took offense.
You can indeed tell a lot about someone by what makes them upset and the instances of Francis' anger show that he may genuinely be the herald of peace he appears as. During a trip to Mexico, he became uncharacteristically livid after he was knocked in to a disabled boy behind him. Shouting “Don't be selfish!” several times, the perpetrators who made him so upset must have felt quite uncomfortable afterwards.
The one criticism of the right that may stick with Francis is that he “is a very political person,” as Donald Trump did put it. Even if ideology does show through, popes, representing billions of people and an institution over a millenia old as they do, try to avoid explicitly endorsing a specific ideology, instead often portraying themselves as a middle way.
The political spectrum does show itself in papal politics, however, even if they try to pretend it doesn't. When asked where his ideas formed in His Life in His Own Words, Francis explicitly noted reading Our Word and Proposals, a publication by the Communist Party in Argentina, before taking up seminary, adding, “I loved every article ever written by Leonidas Barletta, one of their best known members and a renowned figure in the world of culture, and that helped me in my political education. But I was never a communist.”
Francis is a remarkable, brave and revolutionary world leader. If he can steer the Catholic Church, with its thousand plus years of tradition, toward something that gives hope and promise in the future, by allowing gays, the remarried and the poor greater participation in this major world faith, then maybe there is some hope for the rest of us, Catholic or not.