One year after the election of Pope Francis, cynics are breathing a little easier.
For a while, it seemed as if a sea change had occurred in the Catholic Church and in how it is perceived. The world was entranced by the charm and public authenticity of the new Pope: his embrace of the disfigured, his love for the poor, his solicitude for a Swiss Guard in need of a chair and a sandwich.
Under the microscope of the world media, Pope Francis seemed a man of heart, embodying in action the merciful love that he preaches.
Francis:Pope’s Hidden Life Revealed.
His interviews suggested a similar transparency: on the plane back from Brazil and World Youth Day, with the thoughtful Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, and even the non-interview interview with the cavalier Italian founder of its top secular daily La Repubblica(done without notes or recording).
Francis outraged some traditional Catholics quick to take offense at provocative excerpts, and made giddy some progressive Catholics untroubled by their context.
But after a year, order is being restored, and the world is reverting to type. Both conservatives and liberals are promoting things they like and ignoring the rest, while they accuse their opponents of doing exactly the same.
Perhaps most egregious in this regard was the cover story in Feb. 13 issue of Rolling Stone, where an idealized portrayal of Pope Francis was a convenient cudgel to whack the traditionalists.
Some of the over-reaction on the liberal side of the fence provoked a more tradition-minded cleric, Cardinal Raymond Burke, to write in the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper recently that Pope Francis is not altering the “unchanging and unchangeable truths of the Church’s teaching.” A “no duh” observation at almost any other time, but not these days.
Ignored or glossed over are the facts that the Pope is not abandoning traditional Church teaching, whether it be on abortion, gay marriage or women priests, and that much of the speculation is just that. Indeed, Francis has a long paper trail in Argentina that suggests he is a “traditionalist” on such moral teachings, even if he rightly questions whether evangelizing a skeptical world should begin with a long string of “thou shalt nots.”
At the same time, the Pope’s comments on economic development and our responsibility for the poor and marginalized are not new either, despite the professed unhappiness of some Catholic uber-capitalists. Explicitly rooted in Scripture and the teachings of his predecessors, his words — particularly in his recent apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” are standard Catholic fare, if presented with an unexpected clarity and turn of phrase.
What the real Francis, as opposed to the imaginary one, does so well is link the Church’s moral teachings — on human dignity, respect for life and the common good — so that Catholics can better understand that they are woven together.
All this ideological to and fro, however, obscures the fact that Francis is a very smart, focused leader who has initiated a series of potentially far-reaching steps. His small council of eight cardinals drafted from around the world is overseeing what promises to be a significant overhaul of the Vatican bureaucracy.
Francis:Pope’s Hidden Life Revealed.
He has created a commission to advise him on the sexual abuse issue. He has continued to overhaul the Vatican’s opaque banking structure and regulations. He has called an extraordinary synod of bishops to discuss pastoral challenges facing the family. He has been strongly critical of clericalism and the trappings of power and believes in accountability. He is unafraid to remove a bishop when necessary.
As Francis begins his second year, the cynics can be allowed their sigh of relief, but I think Catholic optimists may have the last laugh. The Church of Pope Francis is being streamlined and tuned up to become a more powerful witness, and the Pope himself is leading by word and deed.
Gregory R. Erlandson is the president of the Publishing Division for Our Sunday Visitor, one of the largest Catholic publishing companies in the United States. Erlandson is also an adviser on the U.S. Bishops’ Communications Committee, and has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Read more reports from him — Click Here Now.
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