I may have been wrong about Pope Francis, I am happy to admit. Six months ago, when Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope, I described the white smoke coming from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel as toxic to LGBT Catholics.
Today I share my crow-eating with an unusual set of dinner companions: the American cardinals and bishops who are now frantically spinning laughable explanations for how Francis is no different from his predecessor, the staunchly anti-gay and anti-women Benedict XVI. How could I have been wrong about a pope who as cardinal described gay marriage as the work of the devil?
What did I not know about him that he has revealed in the first extensive interview of his six-month old papacy? Are his words cause for hope that the Roman Catholic anti-gay crusade may finally be coming to an end? Will this pope end the patriarchal suppression of women? How much hope do I dare to allow myself? Can I believe the poetry of a pope who seems to be speaking from the heart when he warns his bishops and cardinals that if they do not change their ways, “the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
Answers to those questions are found in the stunning interview Francis recently granted to a fellow Jesuit priest, published in English in the 9/30/13 issue of Jesuit magazine America. His words counter the expectation that he would continue the persecutions of Benedict XVI. Instead, we seem to have a pope who is more like lovable John XXIII who convened the Second Vatican Council in the 60s to let some fresh air into the Catholic Church. (Francis quotes him in the interview.) When pressed for a reaction, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that the pope is simply, “trying a new strategy.” A quick read of the interview proves that Dolan is intentionally misrepresenting the pope’s words in order to avoid the admission that Francis is changing the course of Catholicism not just in style, but in substance.
Highlights of the interview include Francis’ explanation for his autonomous and conservative track record in Argentina. He says, “My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults...I was only 36 years old. That was crazy…My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative…but I have never been a right-winger.”
When the interviewer asks Francis to explain his decisions to remain in a guesthouse rather than reside in the papal apartments of the Vatican, to use a simpler car, to offer a place in heaven to atheists, to make plans for increased leadership possibilities for women, to back away from judging gay and divorced Catholics, and to avoid harping on abortion, Francis says, “Sometimes discernment urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later. And that is what has happened to me in recent months.”
If this is what the pope’s “discernment “ pushed him to do in a hurry, we may be safe to assume there will be more gay-friendly changes to come. In the interview, he spoke specifically about his earlier widely publicized “Who am I to judge?” comment about gay priests.
He says, “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’… In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation…We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that…but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time…During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge…It is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”
Francis rectifies the impression I had of him as not listening to gay voices during Argentina’s successful fight for marriage equality, when he says, “In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this.”
Just when the reader begins to think that Francis may be offering his interviewer only a Hallmark card version of traditional Catholicism, he makes clear his theology that skips over the twisted nonsense of centuries and harks back to the early church that was much closer to what Jesus himself intended.
He says, “There is a ‘holy middle class,’ which we can all be part of…I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful…I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” Not many non-theologians will appreciate the strength of those words. The pope is saying that God saves people collectively, not individually and that the church exists to heal rather then to divide.
Pope Francis puts his bishops and cardinals on notice when he says, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules… The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.”
Catholic nuns who have been reprimanded for their activism and Catholic women who are denied ordination will be heartened by the words of a pope who promises to find new ways to feminize the leadership of the church without forcing women into some kind of machismo-laced role. He says, “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess.”
If 76 year-old Pope Francis lives long enough to act on his vision of the church, I may live to see the Catholic priesthood opened to gay people, married people and women who will exude the fresh fragrance of its founder. I begin to think this is possible.