ROME — Pope Francis on Sunday marks the third anniversary of his election in March 2013, and even after 36 months it’s striking how much of an enigma he remains. Several big-picture questions, which one might have thought would be resolved by now, remain hotly debated.
■ Is he a liberal or a conservative?
■ Is he the laid-back figure of “Who am I to judge?” or the Bible-thumping moralist of “The devil is on the prowl?”
■ Is the humble, simple exterior the real man, or is there a master strategist underneath?
■ Is he a reformer, meaning a gradual change agent, or a revolutionary?
One understands why an argument continues, because there’s abundant evidence to support almost any conclusion one wishes to draw.
Is it possible, however, that the correct answer has been staring us in the face all along, and that it says more about our polarized culture than about the pope that it’s often tough to grasp?
Spoiler alert: Based on everything we’ve seen and heard, it seems clear that the right response in each case is, “Both.”
In that sense, Pope Francis can be understood as a living, breathing embodiment of the “both/and” instinct that’s so much a part of Catholic DNA, but which is increasingly difficult to understand in a world where false dichotomies and “wedge issues” are the political coin of the realm.
Historically, as Pope Benedict XVI once put it, Catholicism has been the great Christian tradition of “both/and.” When Protestantism raised the question of whether Scripture or tradition is the basis of authority, Catholicism answered “both.” Likewise, when Martin Luther asked whether salvation is from faith or works, the Catholic answer again was “both.”
Francis is very much like that.
On several fronts, his papacy has been a boon to the liberal wing of the church. That’s especially true of his personnel moves; in Madrid, Chicago, Bologna, and elsewhere, he’s replaced strongly conservative prelates with center-left leaders. Such appointments are critical, because those bishops will exercise influence for a long time.
Yet Francis is also clearly “conservative,” in the sense that he’s been pope for three years and hasn’t changed a single comma in the catechism, the official compendium of church teaching. He’s said no to women priests, no to gay marriage, defined abortion as the “most horrific” of crimes, defended the heart of the ban on birth control, and on every other contested issue declared himself a loyal “son of the church.”
Francis stands for greater mercy and compassion for people who don’t live up to those ideals, which was the heart of his famous “Who am I to judge?” sound bite about gay persons in July 2013.
By no means, however, does that imply going soft on the concept of sin. Indeed, when Francis is talking about structures and behaviors, rather than flesh-and-blood people, he can he remarkably judgmental.
This is a pontiff who obviously believes that evil is real, that there’s a personal devil and a hell, and that temptation to sin is a perennial fact of life.
In terms of his personality, his emphasis on humility and simplicity is not a faux PR exercise. His dream of a “poor church for the poor” reaches back to his years in Buenos Aires, when he was known as the bishop of the slums.
Yet if you want a five-star insight into Francis, here it is: Beneath that exterior lies the mind of a brilliant Jesuit tactician. He has a strategy, and he’s nobody’s fool. (Among other things, recent suggestions that Francis was “duped” by the media into commenting on Donald Trump betrays a serious lack of appreciation for the pope’s savvy.)
He’s a reformer, because that was part of the electoral mandate he received from his fellow cardinals three years ago. He’s struggling to inject transparency, accountability, and professionalism into Vatican operations, beginning with finances.
Yet he’s also a revolutionary, though at the level of pastoral practice rather than doctrine.
If that sounds abstract, here’s a for-instance: A gay couple wants to enroll their child in a Catholic school. One option would be to say no, on the grounds of causing scandal. Another is to say yes, on the basis that some contact with the faith is better than none. Both are consistent with church teaching, but they give off different vibes.
The Francis revolution is unfolding at that level, nudging the church toward the more welcoming stance.
To put the point clearly, one reason why Francis remains a Rorschach test for people’s own prejudices is because his destiny is to be a “both/and” pope in an “either/or” age.
Of course, this is not to defend every decision or statement Francis has made. Most of what a pope says and does is not a matter of dogma, and it’s eminently debatable — a point Francis would be the first to concede, as he recently did, for instance, about a joint declaration he signed in February with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, and which was seen in some quarters as a propaganda coup for Moscow.
At the broadest level of magnification, however, Pope Francis brings us tidings of great joy in a polarized world: At least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, and with a healthy dose of moderation taken for granted, to a surprising degree you actually can have your cake and eat it too.
John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of the Globe and Crux, the Globe’s website covering Catholicism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and Facebook, www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.