Pastoral, conciliatory: these are the words that keep popping up about Pope Francis. As he comes to the United States for the first time (in his life, not just since becoming pope), a lot of folks are focusing on issues. What will he say to Congress and the American people about the environment, about market capitalism? Will he talk about abortion or homosexuality and risk offending his progressive fans? But this is not what matters about Pope Francis. With a few notable exceptions (liberation theology), Pope Francis has not strayed far from his two immediate predecessors on issues. The outwardly conservative and traditionalist Pope Benedict had things just as harsh to say about capitalism and the environment. The differences are tone and the person delivering the message. Some point to this to belittle the change Pope Francis represents. They say people are misunderstanding him and will be disappointed when they get the full picture. They insist (a little too defensively) that it’s all appearances and nothing important is changing.
So, why could Pope Francis’ papacy change the trajectory of American Catholicism for generations to come? For 50 years, American Catholics — especially American Catholics — have been immersed in a culture war: fighting side by side with Evangelicals over political and social issues; defining the checklist of acceptable secular beliefs; lobbying politicians and even withholding communion from them over votes; telling Catholics from the pulpit what positions they should hold, and, more discretely, for whom to vote. The Vatican dictated on sexual morality and doctrinal issues. Dogma and politics. Those who would not or could not get in line — the divorced who wanted to remarry, women who’d had abortions, those who found it unacceptable that women could not hold positions of authority, homosexuals — were often, for all intents and purposes, shown the door. Many added to the ranks of “nones” or just drifted into non-practice. Others moved to liturgical churches that felt more comfortable, such as the Episcopalians and Lutherans, or charismatic churches that felt more alive.
Simply by focusing on love and reconciliation rather than dogma, social issues and politics, Pope Francis suggests a sea change. And there’s also something a little hard to pin down. I mentioned already how Francis’ positions often aren’t different from his predecessors. Take the environment, for example. Pope Francis’s recent encyclical cites his predecessors’ similar statements frequently; it’s built on them. So why are his statements causing such a stir? I think the one word that best captures this hard-to-pin-down quality is: warmth. Pope Benedict was an academic who hated the spotlight. Pope John Paul was charismatic, but I think “warm” is the last word anyone would use about him. John Paul had a hard, dynamic quality to him. Pope Francis exudes friendliness, gentleness, meekness even.
How healing this is for the American Catholic Church! It is enough to make people much happier, with their local church and with the Vatican. People understand they may not agree with the pope on every issue, but they celebrate his openness, his modeling of a welcoming stance, loving toward all.
Back to the sea change: longer term is the possibility of a shift in Catholic identity back toward how one follows Christ, and away from a checklist of beliefs. This, of course, is happening everywhere in Christianity, and in other faiths. But after two steps forward with Vatican II and then one step back, the Catholic Church as an institution has been holding the line against it for the last 30+ years. That appears to be over, and Pope Francis’ visit to the United States will be looked back on as a significant moment in that shift.
If you want examples of the change in tone as we await his arrival, I can think of none better (besides the iconic “Who am I to judge?”) than these recent statements. From Pope Francis’ daily mass on Sept. 10: “If you can’t forgive, you are not a Christian.” And the next day: Someone who judges others and “isn’t able to acknowledge his or her faults … is not part of this very beautiful work of reconciliation, peace-making, tenderness, goodness, forgiveness, generosity and mercy that Jesus Christ brought to us.”