A Jewish agnostic friend told me he is captivated by Pope Francis. A Catholic friend who has been increasingly alienated from the Church because of how bishops have handled the sexual abuse crises said he is giving the Church another look.
It isn’t just Jon Stewart and Garrison Keillor who are enlisting in the Francis fan club. Lots of folks are: true believers and nonbelievers, bystanders and seekers. Non-Catholic ministers are saying, “He’s our pope, too.” People are reading his tweets, his daily homilies, his interviews.
When I ask people why they find him so interesting, they invariably cite his humility and his simplicity. Since the same words could be used to describe Benedict (cats, Orange Fanta and a little Mozart in the evenings is not exactly life in the Borgia fast lane), there is something more going on. His dramatic gestures — paying his hotel bill, refusing to live in the papal apartments, embracing the sick — and his plain words speak of something dramatically authentic in his witness.
Perhaps this is dramatic because we live in such an inauthentic age of political posturing and buffoonery. We are governed by millionaires who too often pursue their agendas and ideologies with at best a feigned interest in the poor or the middle class. The pope may have been transformed into a celebrity by the star-making machinery, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t speaking to a hunger that is deep, widespread and fundamentally spiritual.
So all of this is good, right? We’ve got the world’s attention. Francis is addressing issues of tremendous concern for the vast majority of the planet. Catholicism’s back!
Ah, but not so fast. There are the naysayers out there, and unfortunately they are on the home team. I’ve been hearing their complaints, and I’ve identified three categories of upset.
The first is what I call the “Eldest Son” reaction. These are people who have been playing by all the rules. They are pro-life, sometimes actively so. They obey the Church’s teachings, attend Mass regularly, go to confession. Their complaints sometimes sound a bit like the eldest son in the Parable of the Prodigal. “What about us?” one loyal Catholic said. The implication is that the pope is killing the fatted calf and for those who hardly try at all.
These are good Catholics, but sometimes their complaints sound like the Pharisee recounting that he tithes and prays and fasts and is not like that loser in the back row. They can’t imagine that the pope means to challenge them, too.
The second group has other agendas that are hardly spiritual. They see a Third World pope who is criticizing capitalism’s excesses and talking energetically about care of the poor. Their ideological sonar is pinging madly and they’ve gone to DEFCON 1 because he is not speaking in the heavily nuanced terms that can be massaged and managed to fit into politics as usual.
Finally, there are people who genuinely respect Francis, but who may differ with him on some of his positions, particularly as articulated in his interviews or off-the-cuff talks. And you know what? It’s OK. Popes are teachers and leaders, but not every statement is flawless or infallible. While some of the more fevered expressions of concern by his critics seem a bit exaggerated, it is OK if we wrestle with his challenges and argue with some of his assertions. It happens in any pontificate of any consequence. Sometimes it’s the liberals who do the arguing. Sometimes it’s the conservatives. In this pontificate, I have a feeling it will be both.
As for me, I find him challenging too. He’s shaking my world up. And that’s OK too. The Holy Spirit has got my attention.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.