The positive reception to Pope Francis from all quarters is itself almost as astounding as the man himself. A kind of global sigh of relief has greeted his humane and kindly manner, a signal that the human family, even in a secular age, longs for a rescue of transcendent value. The Catholic Church, for all of its problems, and if only because of its history as a pillar of Western culture, remains a universal object of fascination. When James Joyce described Catholicism as “here comes everybody,” he forecast the way everybody seems relieved to have such a man at the pinnacle of religious influence.
The most recent surge of interest was sparked by the extensive interview Francis gave to international Jesuit publications. Headlines in the broader press emphasized his turning away from culture war issues like gay marriage, contraception, and abortion. He said that not all moral teachings are equivalent, and called for “a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.” The world, too, has a stake in avoiding that collapse.
Yet some say the new pope represents only an adjustment in style. For all of his availability, and refusal to reiterate the old Catholic condemnations, he is still a man of the tradition. Conservatives insist that he has not altered any doctrine. Liberals regret that he seems content to let stand the Catholic limits on the role of women. He has yet to advance the accountability of bishops in the priest sex abuse crisis, including in his own Argentina, where the scandal festers. This week he is convening a select committee of eight cardinals to begin discussions of reform, but will their focus be more on the Vatican’s considerable management problems than on the crying need for deeper change throughout the church?
Actually, Pope Francis gave several signals in his interview that such profound currents of moral transformation have already been unleashed. He spoke of laying “the foundations for real, effective change,” but said that “the first reform must be the attitude.” And Catholic attitude is what this pope has so quickly and so unexpectedly remade. Affirmation, not judgment; humility, not pomposity; openness, not an obsession with boundaries. Against the so-called “Benedict option,” a vision of the church as a shrunken remnant of the doctrinally pure, Francis spoke of “a home for all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”
Falling back on what might be called Jesuitical abstractions, the pope defined a first principle of the reform he wants. “Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes. We must not focus on occupying spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run, historical processes.” The dynamism of this vision, opposed to the static old assumption that real change is impossible, is itself the change. The pope’s open attitude is generating an open process, which is trustworthy because it is God’s.
The largest single example of this comes from Francis’ insistence on the centrality of global poverty as the overriding moral issue of our age. The pope aims to start “a long-run, historical process” on behalf of the poor. No one denies his seriousness on this issue — from the choice of his name, to the place where he lives, to his witness in Brazil. But the pope knows as well as anyone that the single most powerful engine drawing people out of poverty is improvement in the economic status of women, which can only occur within a larger cultural transformation. Education. Participation. Power. Reproductive freedom. Yes, women’s liberation. There can be no other strategy for ending poverty.
Such a recognition has obvious implications for the organization, discipline, and doctrine of the Catholic Church. “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church,” the pope told his interviewer. “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman.” The church of justice for the poor must be the church of equality for women — inside the church as well as out. There is no other way. Thus, it matters less whether Pope Francis at present favors the ordination of women than that he has already launched a historical process that makes it all but certain. Other reforms will follow. Style influences substance, and attitude influences everything.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.