Pope Francis: Style and Message

What do you think about Pope Francis? Is the first pope ever to utter the words Who am I to judge? really someone new, or is his warm, humble style only a new cover on the same old book of hidebound doctrines?

Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica had this to say (quoted in a wonderful New Yorker piece by James Carroll):

Style is not just the cover of the book. It’s the book itself! Style is the message. … This is what the Gospel looks like.

In my evangelical Protestant days, nothing was more important than the content of the Book. Getting it right was literally a matter of eternal life and death, for salvation depended on right belief.

I am transfixed by this new pope. Surely he believes all the traditional, Catholic dogma, but his head and heart are totally occupied with love and compassion. His style truly is his message.

Pope Francis

It seems to be his only message. For the leader of a religion, he is remarkably unconcerned with advocating for its more abstract tenets. He must believe in the immaculate conception of Mary, the primacy of the Catholic Church, and all the rest, but you’d never know it. He is totally engaged with loving the poor and the marginalized, and calling the whole world to do the same.

I’m not the first non-believer to love this pope. Heck, a writer on Richard Dawkins’ website comes just shy of making him honorary atheist. If a lot more Christians were like him, one of my big reasons for leaving the faith would never have come up.

As it is, when I read about the pope’s latest simple but dramatic gesture, tears come to my eyes and I realize I have a lot to learn about style and message.

6 responses to “Pope Francis: Style and Message

  1. I’ve been reading your blog for about a year (I first found it in the middle of your “How I Left Evangelical Christianity” series), but this is my first comment. I usually love your writings: they convey a great depth of thought (for instance, your “Let’s Stop Judging Motives” post made me reconsider a bunch of stuff). However, I’m very surprised to see you take the position you have in this post.

    The style, despite Spadaro’s claim, is not the substance of the message. The church’s message is not changing, and it continues to be deeply immoral in some very fundamental ways. I do not understand why so many people seem to like the same Catholic policies they formerly despised, with merely a change in the presentation style.

    When the Pope talks about accepting gays with his “Who am I to judge?” line, he’s completely in line with the Catholic catechism: people with gay thoughts should be accepted into society, as long as they lead lonely, sexless, loveless existences [1]. If they ever act on these thoughts, though, we must oppose them at every turn (as evidenced by the Catholic church continuing to fight against the acceptance of gay marriage, most recently in [2]). He’s not saying anything different from previous Popes; he’s just emphasizing the acceptance of celibate gays, rather than the oppression of gays who act on their feelings.

    When he talks about accepting atheists who do good in the world, his spokesman clarified that they can still only be saved if they convert to Catholicism during their lives [3] (after all, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus). The Pope was merely saying that non-Catholics aren’t necessarily evil because they can do good works and they can still be saved if they convert in the future. However, they should still be pushed towards converting to Catholicism because it’s the only way to save their souls, regardless of any good works they do. Nothing in the substance has changed here; he’s just changing the spin a little.

    Literally the day after the Pope talked about how the church should de-emphasize its opposition to abortions (note that they’re not changing their opposition, they’re just not pushing their unpopular opinions into people’s faces as much), he turned around and urged Catholic doctors to refuse to perform abortions [4]. Again, nothing significant is changing in the church; it’s just PR and media spin.

    He has similarly not made any substantial changes to the church’s handling of pedophile priests, or the acceptance of divorced people who remarry, or the acceptance of contraception (indeed, Pope Benedict did more to reform this policy [5] than Pope Francis has so far). He says nice-sounding things, but he doesn’t fix the actual problems. It’s like hanging a picture to cover up the cracks in the wall. Should we really compliment the art when the underlying structure is still unsound?

    This is the pattern the pope uses: he says things that get lauded in the media because there’s a narrative of “stodgy religious dogmas are giving way to kinder, more inclusive, more ethical positions,” but he’s not actually changing anything in Catholicism, and the church as a whole continues to hold very immoral positions. I am frustrated that it’s so immoral and that it refuses to change, and I am confused why so many people praise the Pope for his stylistic but not substantive changes.

    [1] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm (2357 through 2359)
    [2] http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2022500642_archbishopprotestxml.html
    [3] http://www.christianpost.com/news/atheists-are-still-going-to-hell-says-vatican-spokesman-96734/
    [4] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/20/pope-catholic-doctors-refuse-abortions
    [5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11804398

    • Alan, thank you for your reply. You’re right: all the inhumane Catholic dogmas remain, even under Pope Francis. However, I get the sense that if I were to sit down with him for lunch and voice my objections, he would sincerely listen to what I had to say, fully open to the possibility that I might say something worthwhile. If I were to tell him the story of my apostasy, he would not chalk it up to my supposed desire to embark on a sinful lifestyle, as some of my former evangelical cohorts have done; he would look first for possible faults in the church.

      Lamenting that the Christian faith has gained a reputation as “the darkness of superstition, opposed to the light of reason,” he has called for “an open dialog [with non-believers], without preconceptions.” When previous popes have called for interfaith dialog, they have not seemed to me to be sincere. This pope calls for dialog with people who have no faith, and I believe he is sincere.

      Why do I think he is sincere? There are two reasons.

      First, his open-hearted actions show that he loves and respects everyone. The way he conducts himself shows that his compassion runs very deep. He is not someone who loves someone just as a strategy to win a convert.

      Second, he affirms my wish to follow my own conscience. Speaking of atheists, he has said, “Sin, also in those who are without faith, exists when it goes against our conscience. Listening to and obeying one’s conscience means, indeed, to make decisions in relation to what is perceived as good and bad. And on this decision rests the goodness or evil of our actions.” That is huge: the actual good or evil of a person’s actions is predicated on how he himself views them. When he makes statements like that, he shows enormous respect for people who disagree with him.

      I do disagree with him on the issues you mentioned, but he has granted me the freedom to find truth as best as I can. He inspires me to grant the same freedom of thought to him.

      He is a good person. He is willing to listen. He respects me enough to urge me to do what I think is right. What more could an atheist ask of a believer?

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