Demoralised by the cascade of scandals unveiling priests who sexually abused children, and too often dismayed by the pinched and defensive dogma of his predecessors Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Catholics have a lot to celebrate this Christmas.
Profane niggles that the new Pope, beaming and big-hearted, is more about style than substance are unlikely to inhibit them. For, as the Gospel proclaimed, in the beginning was the Word. And the word about this Pope is out.
Pope Francis was this month named Time magazine’s person of the year. He also made the cover of the New Yorker magazine, depicted as a smiling angel, whether ascending or descending is not clear (a Sunni Muslim leader who saw him recently described him as “so down to earth”).
His following on social media is vast, while people who have crowded to see him in person, from St Peter’s Square to Copacabana beach, number in the multimillions. The pews of Catholic churches across Europe and the US are filling up again, rallying to a pope who disdains the pomp of his office and drives a clapped-out Renault 4. In early December, he celebrated his 77th birthday over breakfast with four homeless men and a dog.
One of the extraordinary features of this pope – Jorge Mario Bergoglio, until this year a little-known Argentine Jesuit prelate – is his way with words, which seem to cast Church orthodoxy in a new light without necessarily changing it. His first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), puts every emphasis on the joy he radiates.
“An evangeliser must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral,” he says.
The straightforward way Francis speaks, for those inured to the hectoring of recent decades, is arresting – an idiom that echoes the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962, which tried to bring the two millennia-old Church into less abrasive alignment with its modern flock.
Following another half century of papal intolerance intended to smother debate, Francis told a Jesuit magazine in September the Church had to find a “new balance” or collapse “like a house of cards”.
Yet this was not just an inclusive sentiment but a calculated attempt to occupy the “God-shaped void”, as the 17th-Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal called it, that many believers sense replaces belief. “I have a dogmatic certainty,” Pope Francis said later, with a twinkle of irony, that “God is in every person’s life.”
He is less playful talking about the Church, likening it to a “field hospital after a battle”, where the doctors obsess about cholesterol levels. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive measures.”
Calling for a missionary Church of the poor, he told bishops to be shepherds who “smell more like the sheep”, likening their jostling for position and attachment to the trappings of office to “spiritual adultery”. He prefers a Church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets”.
The Pope’s ostensible relaxation of old anathemas should probably be seen mainly as a reordering of the Church’s priorities. Core doctrine is most unlikely to change.
But the theology that interprets Catholic teaching may well become more dynamic, as Francis clearly intends to change the structures that seek to implement it.
Pietro Parolin, his new secretary of state, has for instance pointed out that enforced celibacy for Catholic priests is a tradition – not a doctrine – which has already been chipped away by the embrace of married Anglican converts and followers of eastern rites with allegiance to Rome such as the Maronites of the Levant, as well as some American priests who choose simply to ignore it.
There is steely pragmatism alongside Francis’s piety. It is hard to see, for example, how a Church so devastated by revelations of child rape could credibly keep sexual mores and personal morality at the pinnacle of its concerns.
But while the Pope has moved fast and with flair, traditionalist hierarchs and the most reactionary elements of the Vatican Curia will surely regroup. His aim is not just to reform the bureaucracy and its institutions, such as a Vatican bank suspected of money-laundering, but a radical decentralisation of Church governance that would make him the last pope to wield absolute ecclesiastical power – if it works.
By contrast, the questionnaire on sex-related issues Francis has distributed worldwide surely suggests its questions – abortion clearly not one of them – are open. Yet Catholics remember the disappointment 50 years ago when Pope Paul VI ruled against artificial contraception, in what Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens called “another Galileo affair”.
But Francis’s denunciation of what he calls a “crude and naive trust” in the free market, along with what he regards as baseless “trickle-down theories” that rob humanity of solidarity, is at the heart of Evangelii Gaudium and gets daily more full-throated.
“The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings.”
Orthodox economists are realising this is a view likely to resonate far more influentially than, say, the Occupy movement or the indignados.
An old man in a hurry who calls Dostoyevsky his “life mentor” is not lightly to be disdained.