The riddle of Pope Francis: A welcoming tone, but old-school beliefs
By By Anthony Faiola and Michelle Boorstein
Sep 14, 2015 at 10:00 PM
The 78-year-old who lives behind a gas station in Vatican City previously worked as a nightclub bouncer. He'll suffer the white robes of his office, but he won't abide the red shoes his predecessor wore. He wants to save souls, but also save the Earth. During his first week on the job, he jokingly blessed a dog. He doesn't really like it when they kiss the ring. He has his own flash mob. He's on Twitter.
But as Americans brace for the coming of Pope Francis, here's a basic fact about the man often dubbed the coolest-ever leader of the Roman Catholic Church: He's also plenty old school.
He rises like clockwork at 4:30 a.m. and spends hours praying before Mass. Although he famously declared "who am I to judge" when asked about gay priests, he calls the Western rise of LBGT equality "a new sin against God." He says the Devil is as real as God, and he endorses exorcisms. In an age when fewer and fewer believe in miracles, he is a saint-making machine. He hasn't watched television in 25 years.
This is the riddle of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope and a man who has brought a dose of magical realism to the job of being pontiff. And as he prepares to stage his first official visit to the United States 2 1/2 years into his revolutionary papacy, perhaps only one thing about the Argentine-born Francis is crystal clear: He is upending convention in one of the world's oldest institutions.
Francis never saw the need to come to the United States before, but now that he's pope, he's embracing reality: The American Catholic church is one of the wealthiest, most vibrant and influential segments of Catholicism, even if it makes up only 8 percent of the global Catholic population. For a pope who has made clear that his focus is on those without power — migrants, the elderly, addicts, prisoners — visiting this superpower could be one of the most important stops of his papacy.
"The impact of the U.S. on the world is never absent from the Holy See's view of the world — whether they think about it in positive or negative terms," said the Rev. Bryan Hehir, who teaches about religion and global politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and is a top adviser to Francis confidant Cardinal Sean O'Malley. "And this pope is pretty critical of the international global economy."
To tackle the topics he has prioritized — immigration, poverty and the environment — Francis has to sway and involve Americans, Hehir said. He's coming to tell the U.S. church, "You better attend to these issues."
But will they listen? His climate-change encyclical, which challenged unbridled growth, aroused bitter responses among conservative American Catholics, who are also deeply unhappy with other signals Francis has been sending. Meanwhile, more liberal Catholics want to know whether he will follow his empathetic rhetoric on issues such as divorce and homosexuality with concrete change.
"My guess is he won't be too specific," Hehir said. "As others have said, he hasn't changed the words, he's changed the music. But that's no small thing."
For a guy who barely left his country at the tip of South America and seemed initially terrified at the prospect of being elected pope, Francis has turned out to be a natural global leader. But he has also been a surprise to the cardinals who thought they were putting a cautious moderate on Saint Peter's throne.
To the chagrin of conservatives, he has evolved into a sort of pontifical version of Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whose judicial decisions have upended his supporters' expectations. After two popes who concentrated on doctrine and traditional families, Francis is clearly in a different mold.
The cardinals "thought he was going to be more conservative than he has been, but that was partly because he did not speak English, and many bishops outside of Latin America did not know him so well as they thought," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "In Buenos Aires, he had sat in the homes of poor people and heard their stories and did not see the marketplace or globalization as helping these people."
But his economic pronouncements are not what rankles many traditional Catholics. Their concern is the absence of an emphasis on core teachings of the church — against abortion and for the traditional family.
Almost every other day since his election in March 2013, it seems, the pope makes news with his off-the-cuff comments and actions. He was the first pope to kiss the feet of female prisoners — a gender tweak to an ancient pre-Easter ritual that riled traditionalists. Earlier this year, responding to a reporter's question about overpopulation and the church's ban on artificial birth control, he said Catholics should not feel compelled to breed "like rabbits." In an interview with Jesuit journalists, he said the church "sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules," which many took to mean the focus on strict doctrine.
The Rev. Robert Sirico, a prominent conservative who founded the free-market-promoting Acton Institute, said "the pot is boiling over" among conservatives, who are uncharacteristically speaking out — at least to one another — against Francis. They are concerned that his style of discussion is leading many to think everything is on the table.
Catholic audiences have besieged Sirico with questions about the climate-change encyclical and whether they are obliged to embrace it even if they disagree. He tells them the pope's authority extends to giving moral guidance, not resolving scientific disputes such as whether human beings are responsible for global warming.
That said, conservatives are also worried about Francis' comments suggesting he is open to resigning, as his predecessor did in 2013, blowing the minds of church historians who hadn't seen a pope step down in centuries. Like talking off the cuff, stepping down humanizes the papacy a bit too much, they feel. "The pope is supposed to be the Holy Father," Sirico said. "Fathers don't resign. They stay."
"He is, more than any other pope, a pope of gestures. And I'm not sure he intends to be a pope of gestures," said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
There's no question that Francis is striving to be less an enforcer of religious discipline than something akin to a global Jiminy Cricket, a voice of conscience whether you believe in God or not. He has become perhaps the world's leading champion of the poor. His first papal trip outside Rome was to speak to African migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he railed against the "globalization of indifference." He has become a formidable diplomat, interjecting the Vatican into everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to U.S.-Cuba relations. He is using his post as a pulpit to demand that world leaders shape a comprehensive U.N. treaty to combat climate change.
Yet, to date, he has done nothing to alter church doctrine. His more embracing tone on issues such as homosexuality, coupled with his tough talk on global warming and free markets, is sparking a broad debate about the role of popes in the 21st century as well as the future direction of one of the world's largest faiths. In him, a church he took over in a profound period of crisis, as well as a world that listens less and less to its religious leaders, have both gotten far more than they bargained for.
For liberals — Catholics or not — Francis has emerged as an energizing force. These days in Rome, for instance, an impromptu flash mob periodically stops traffic, bopping and rhyming to a catchy tune in honor of Pope Francis. Yet these are not your everyday papists.
The troupe's name — the Poppers — irreverently riffs on the street slang for a chemical stimulant because they find his message "addictive." Some of its 300 members are regular churchgoers, but others are not. Perhaps not surprising given a pontiff who is dividing liberals and conservatives, "the Poppers" largely define themselves as open-minded progressives. The group is open to the young and old, to men and women, to straight and gay. It includes company executives and songwriters. They are Italians, Russians, Cubans and Americans. A few of them aren't even Catholic. It's an atypical fan club for an atypical pope.
"This pope is realizing the opening of the church that so many of us have waited for," said a gleeful Francesco Grasso, 43, an Italian marketing executive and occasional churchgoer who joined a new flash mob in Rome last April. "There are a number of barriers that may not be broken immediately. But there are signs that Pope Francis is starting a revolution in the Roman Catholic Church."
But Francis has also vehemently opposed same-sex marriage, condemned transgenderism as a theory "that does not recognize the order of creation," and he called the spread of these social trends "ideological colonization."
The liberals who seek change in church policy hope to pin down his thoughts on hot-button social issues: the future place of Catholics who use artificial contraception, who divorce and remarry outside the church, who are LGBT. They want to know whether access to abortion and contraception — both supported widely by U.S. Catholics — will continue to be singled out as sinful by church leaders.
Francis has welcomed discussion this year about ways to lift the stigma on divorced Catholics who remarry outside the church — making them ineligible for Catholicism's most holy rite of Communion because Catholicism teaches that marriages are forever. Earlier this month, he eliminated some of the bureaucracy and cost of obtaining an annulment.
In his typically blunt style, Francis this summer said sometimes divorces are "morally necessary" when marriages are extremely poor, and that the church needs to do much more to welcome people who are divorced — a good slice of U.S. Catholics.
On the night of March 13, 2013, the Rev. Guillermo Karcher strode through the doors of the Sistine Chapel on his way to greet the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church.
Shortly before, billowing white smoke had signaled the anointing of a new pope, and Karcher, a senior Vatican protocol officer, was rushing to congratulate the longtime Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Both men were Argentines and had known each other for years. But now, Bergoglio was Pope Francis, revered leader of 1 billion Catholics. Upon seeing the new pontiff, Karcher instantly fell to one knee to kiss his papal ring.
Francis, however, responded by casually nudging him back to his feet and encouraging Karcher to stand as an equal.
"Then we just stood there; he started asking me how my mom was doing," Karcher recalled recently. He added: "Pope Francis is not about the ceremony, he is about the mission. I think that from the very beginning, we knew this man was going to be different."
Perhaps nowhere would Francis's touch become more present than inside the hermetically sealed walls of Vatican City. He would startle officials by eschewing the lavish papal apartments in favor of more humble quarters at St. Martha's House, a lodging space for visiting clerics that stands as a grim reminder of 1990s architecture amid the Renaissance splendor of Vatican City. But the changes to come after would prove far more significant.
Francis had replaced Benedict XVI at time when the powerful bureaucracy that runs Vatican City, known as the Roman Curia, was in the throes of crisis. Major leaks to the Italian news media had revealed widespread corruption and intrigue, including the blackmailing of homosexual clergy and internal power struggles. Shortly after coming into office, Francis started cleaning house.
He fired Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Benedict's secretary of state who was seen as an obstacle to reform. The new pope then continued an effort begun by Benedict, foisting new rules of transparency on the long-secretive Vatican Bank. Its 19,000 accounts were scrutinized. Following fresh revelations in 2013 that an Italian monsignor had allegedly used his account at the bank for illicit deals, Francis forced out the bank's two top officials.
There has been pushback, including extraordinarily blunt critiques of the pope's tenure by conservative members of the church hierarchy. A pitched battle is also looming between conservative and liberal clerics over possible changes to church policies looming next year, and on which Francis will have the final word.
"There is still opposition to the pope in Vatican City because he has criticized the power structure of the curia, and there are those who believe that the steps he has taken since arriving are diminishing the prestige of the papacy as an absolute power," said Marco Politi, a longtime Vatican insider and author of the book "Pope Francis Among the Wolves."
"But there is also opposition on the direction he is taking the church," Politi said. "Some feel it is now a church without a rudder, that on the issue of remarried and divorced Catholics and others, he may go too far."
Regardless of their own infighting, the Vatican and the U.S. church are eager to take advantage of the incredible goodwill and interest in Francis — not only from disaffected Catholics but also from non-Catholics. Polls this year show that Americans of all stripes give him high favorability ratings. He's been cited as a moral authority by many, including Oprah Winfrey, Rolling Stone magazine and President Barack Obama. U.S. church leaders know that this presents a rare opportunity for them.
And they believe the trip also will teach the pope something positive about the United States — a country he looks at with a very wary eye, as the cradle of capitalism and income inequality. But it's also a busy spiritual marketplace, vigorous and pluralistic, and U.S. church leaders say Francis will probably look to learn from it.
One early indicator: The longtime rumors that Francis would come to gas-guzzling America and zip around our streets in a tiny Kia proved false. He will be riding in the most iconic of American brands: A Jeep Wrangler.