It’s not that Pope Francis speaks positively about gay people, as he did earlier about atheists. Nor is it his simple lifestyle, his accessibility to the press, or his personal modesty. The accumulation of surprises coming from the new pope points to something deeper: the possibility of historic change with implications reaching far beyond the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis seems to have called off the Vatican’s culture war with the modern world, a hyper-defensiveness that dates back to the American and French revolutions. With the brief exception of John XXIII, who reigned from 1958 to 1963, popes have for centuries been tribunes of negativity, rejecting what one called “the syllabus of errors” that accompanied the arrival of liberal democracy, the emancipation of women, secularism — the whole panoply of values that followed the Enlightenment. Renouncing the positive spirit of Pope John’s Vatican II, the two recent popes were culture warriors of the first order. John Paul II railed against “the culture of death,” while Benedict XVI denounced the “dictatorship of relativism.” Both men seemed to despise most of what they saw around them.
In contrast, Pope Francis is proposing what he called in Brazil last month a “culture of solidarity,” and his affable style gives substance to it. He deplores rampant individualism and selfishness, but he does so in order to affirm the bond of fellowship that makes human life precious. The fellowship seems to matter more than the obstacles to achieving it. He seems to exemplify the possibility of new connections across old divides. He comes across as happy.
Commentators have parsed the pope’s pronouncements, arguing that so far he has not really broken new ground in matters of doctrine. Francis criticizes clericalism — the closed culture of the Catholic priesthood — but seems content to keep its main pillars in place. If he has a plan for seriously reforming structures of church accountability that failed so miserably in the sex abuse crisis, he hasn’t unveiled it. But clearly, he has turned away from the culture-war arguments that reduced church authority to nay-saying, which in turn hollowed out church influence. Pope Francis has something else in mind.
The impoverished world is at the center of this papacy’s purpose, and the solidarity Francis urges is, first, with the vast population of the destitute. He is the pope of the woebegone, the cast-asides, the marginalized — all those who have been left behind by the global economy. That commitment was powerfully on display in troubled Brazil, where Francis plunged into frenzied crowds to make real his determination to be heard on what is by far the most pressing moral and political problem of our time.
Francis’ predecessors expressed concern about global poverty, too, but not like this. Indeed, Popes John Paul and Benedict were ambivalent about the “preferential option for the poor” that lies at the heart of what is known as liberation theology. How can you be in favor of the poor, they worried, if rich people have souls, too? The hierarchy was instructed to emphasize charity over justice. That refusal to engage in what was taken to be class conflict undermined Catholic credibility, as the gulf between haves and have-nots only widened.
Liberation theology, spawned in Latin America, was a prophetic response to the scandal of runaway poverty. Dom Helder Camara, the Brazilian archbishop, epitomized its spirit. “When I give food to the poor,” he famously said, “they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” The Vatican’s outright rejection of the movement was one of its most damaging mistakes, certainly an element in the broad disillusionment of the many former Catholics in Latin America.
Rome was suspicious, even, of the witness of Oscar Romero, the bishop of El Salvador who was gunned down at the altar by the criminal right-wing regime he had denounced. Last month, though, when Pope Francis said Mass before a throng in a shantytown sports field in Rio, a huge portrait of Romero hung behind him. Francis wants the martyred bishop to be named a saint.
If the Catholic Church threw itself fully into the struggle for justice — restoring its preferential option for the poor and demanding reforms in the structures of the world economy — that would make a difference. For Pope Francis, it’s now clear, everything else comes second.