New pope is inspiring signal to jaded U.S. Catholics

Francis blends conservative doctrine with Jesuit ideal of service

March 13, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Be still, my somewhat jaded American Catholic heart: A Jesuit? A Jesuit from Argentina who, as archbishop then cardinal, eschewed the chauffeur-driven limousine for the public buses of Buenos Aires? A Jesuit devoted to social justice and to helping the poor?

And, he took the name of Francis, one of the coolest saints.

Excuse me while I have a somewhat positive reaction to the smoke signals from Rome.

Here we were — that is, me and a lot of my friends among the heretical faithful — thinking the whole process of electing a new pope was an exercise in identifying the safest old European conservative in red shoes.

There would never be a pope from the Americas, we decided, and certainly not the United States of America.

But they picked a Jesuit from South America, the first one ever, and while that choice has a lot to do with Roman Catholic marketing — playing to one of the church's key global demographics — the selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is nonetheless surprising and, in the moment at least, inspiring.

As a cardinal, Bergoglio reportedly lived in a modest apartment instead of an archdiocesan palace, and he cooked his own meals.

On Holy Thursday in 2001, he visited a hospice, and washed and kissed the feet of AIDS patients, an act of humility that recalls Jesus at the feet of his apostles. As he carried out this deed, Bergoglio said he had come to the hospice "to express how close the church is to those who must suffer pain and discrimination."

When he entered the priesthood, it was through the Society of Jesus, which means he's a Jesuit, which means he's committed to helping others, to the poor, to social justice, to teaching.

At the same time, he's a doctrinal conservative, of course. He would not have been elected otherwise.

But, as the white smoke clears, the new pope appears to be a spiritual man in touch with the humility and devotion to service that is the cornerstone of his order.

So, given all that — if it's all true — what we have now is a pope who offers something for everyone:

For the traditionalists, a man who undoubtedly will affirm church teaching on abortion, homosexuality, the celibate and all-male priesthood.

For jaded Catholics, those with one foot out the door, a leader whose life story constitutes an inspiring message about compassion and peace.

It occurs to me, even as I write those words — something for everyone — that the idea of any pope uniting a global Catholic Church is probably a dream.

Consider American Catholics. Surveys by Catholic University have shown that, while we maintain our core beliefs, only about 30 percent of us care about Vatican authority on contraception, same-sex marriage and abortion.

In the most recent survey, 57 percent of Catholic women and 46 percent of Catholic men said it's fine that they belong to a church while disagreeing with its doctrine. That might be a particularly American attitude — trying to have it both ways — or just resignation to the intractable conflict between unyielding doctrine and progressive ideals.

"Ultimately, the papacy is meant to be a sign of unity, of oneness," says David Cloutier, a theologian at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg. "I think some Catholics portray this unity in an almost militaristic way — the pope gives orders, and everyone else obeys. But the church has always been more complicated than that. The church has many teachers, from great saints to local pastors to your devoted neighbor down the street, all the different religious orders and their various spiritual styles, the witness of so many faithful nuns in the U.S.

"It helps to see the church as something that develops over very long spans of time, and which always has members in all sorts of different places. Hopefully, the pope can function as some kind of sign of unity."

Adds Fritz Bauerschmidt, chairman of the department of theology at Loyola University Maryland: "Part of the temptation of our instant media age is to overestimate the importance of events in Rome.

"Don't get me wrong, a good pope is better than a bad pope, but it is certainly possible to survive a bad pope. It's happened often enough in the history of the church. But let's pray that this one will be a good pope."

Speaking of prayer, I beg your pardon: Since the new pope is called Francis, I'm going to share a few lines from the only prayer I ever pinned to my bulletin board, the Prayer of St. Francis:

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace," it goes. "Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love."

Words to live by ... and to run a church by.

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