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Alex Beam

Pope Francis’s full measure

Pope Francis spoke to journalists aboard his plane earlier this month while returning from South America.
Pope Francis spoke to journalists aboard his plane earlier this month while returning from South America.LUCA ZENNARO/POOL/EPA/Shutterstock

ONE STRIKE and you’re out — is that the new reality?

On his recent trip to South America, Pope Francis shocked many Catholics, including, apparently, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, by refusing to condemn Bishop Juan Barros, who is widely assumed to have abetted clerical sex abuse in Chile.

O’Malley, who is president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, chided Francis for a poor choice of words, but others reacted more bluntly. A Chilean newspaper called Francis’s visit “the worst of his pontificate.”

Let’s stipulate that Francis made a grievous error, and that Barros is complicit in the church’s heinous crimes. And then what? We should turn our backs on the most open-hearted pope in recent memory because he made a mistake?

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This is the pope who has abjured the splendor of the papacy, who has washed the feet of Muslim and Hindu refugees, who has crusaded for the environment, and who has condemned the harshest depredations of capitalism.

Less well known, but equally important, is Francis’s renunciation of the church’s bizarre crusade for the conversion of the Jews, a subset of doctrinal anti-Semitism that stretches back, well, 2,018 years. In 2015, a papal commission declared that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”

The declaration hinted at a deeper ecumenical embrace, as James Carroll explained in The New Yorker: “If Jews can be understood by the Catholic Church as having their independent religious integrity, wholly deserving of respect, so can other faiths.”

Perhaps most significantly, according to the National Catholic Reporter, the pope is “presenting a new way of thinking about moral issues. . . . Rather than seeing the world as divided between the good and the bad, we are all seen as wounded sinners for whom the church serves as a field hospital where the Eucharist is food for the wounded rather than a reward for the perfect.”

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Translation: Francis’s Catholicism is a faith that, for the first time, is opening its arms to divorced men and women, to gays, and to Jews, traditional targets of scriptural anathema. Catholicism, like many Christian faiths, remains very conservative. But Francis’s theology of understanding and outreach trumps a theology of rote condemnation any day of the week.

Moral authority is an elusive commodity. The Vatican, as Josef Stalin cynically noted (“How many divisions does the pope have?”) has no temporal power. But the papacy can lead by example, and under Francis, it has. Consider the secretary general of the United Nations, who occupies an analogous, essentially powerless post with tremendous moral potential. Without googling, can you name the current UN secretary general? Well good on you, because I can’t.

People vested with moral authority make mistakes. Barack Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize, solicited and received Justice Department permission authorizing the assassination of US citizens, in extraordinary circumstances. He repeatedly promised Americans that his Affordable Care Act would allow them “to keep your own doctor,” which proved not to be true. He callously jettisoned his own minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the man who married him and baptized his children, for reasons of political expediency.

Does this mean Obama was incapable of providing moral leadership? I think not. Indeed, in today’s America he looms hugely as a paragon of moral rectitude.

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Sermonizing belongs in the pulpit, and not the op-ed pages. With that disclaimer, I remind readers that Jesus Christ himself faltered in his time of trial, asking God to spare him an agonizing death: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Matthew 26:39.)

Jesus bounced back. I have faith that Pope Francis will as well.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.