VATICAN CITY (RNS) As a millennia-old institution, the Vatican is accustomed to change at a glacial pace. But in the eyes of many outside the church — and even of some within it — the arrival of Pope Francis on the throne of St. Peter seems to have started nothing short of a revolution.

popes meme

A meme comparing Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Photo courtesy

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Even Francis himself, in his speech to Rome’s diocese on Monday (June 19), said that Christians not only can, but should, be “revolutionaries.”

Now, 100 days into his pontificate, a debate is brewing in Rome over whether Francis has set a distinctly different course from his predecessor, or whether the visible differences in style and personality between Francis and Benedict XVI mask a deeper theological and ideological continuity.

One thing’s for sure. All of the hand-wringing about the novelty and potential difficulty of having two popes living just yards apart has all but disappeared.

So far, Benedict XVI has maintained his promise to live “hidden from the world” in retirement, while Francis quickly demonstrated that there’s little risk of him being overshadowed by his predecessor.

A change in style and substance

Those who see a significant break between the two popes point to what Francis has said, how he’s said it and, more importantly, what he hasn’t said. Under the new pope, the issues that dominated Benedict’s papacy have been downplayed, sidelined or hardly mentioned at all.

Celebrating a “Gospel of Life” Mass in St. Peter’s square on Sunday (June 16), the Argentine pope defined the church’s mission to protect life in a different way from what his two predecessors would have done.

“The Living God sets us free! Let us say ‘Yes’ to love and not selfishness. Let us say ‘Yes’ to life and not death. Let us say ‘Yes’ to freedom and not enslavement to the many idols of our time,” he said. Not mentioned were words like “abortion” or “unborn,” and neither were alluded to.

Luigi Accattoli, a veteran Vatican analyst with Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, sees a “new way of being pope” in the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio: “Francis doesn’t lash out against laws that violate ‘non negotiable values,’” as the Vatican usually classifies issues like the protection of life or marriage.

As French bishops organized mass rallies against a law that legalized gay marriage, Francis skirted any mention of it, even during a recent meeting with French lawmakers.

What’s more, Francis has embraced a much more low-brow view of the papacy, shunning Benedict’s red slippers, ermine capes and papal apartments for a simpler lifestyle that finds him sleeping in a Vatican guesthouse and wearing simple black shoes beneath his white papal cassock.

Carrying on his predecessor’s work

Yet, those who recognize a continuity between Benedict and Francis say such signals are negligible.

Francis has announced that his first encyclical will be, in fact, written “with four hands,” meaning together with his predecessor. Benedict had almost finished the text ahead of his resignation and the new pope said he will be happy to complete it.

Moreover, according to Vatican commentator Sandro Magister, Francis’ focus on poverty in the church follows a course set out by Benedict in a major speech during his 2011 visit to Germany.

“Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world,” Benedict said at the time.

An old friend and confidante of the German pope recently reported that Benedict said that “from the theological point of view,” he and Francis “are perfectly in agreement.” That opinion is shared even by some liberals within the church, who often said media portrayals of Benedict as a dour conservative missed the core of his teachings.

“Perhaps there is less discontinuity between these two popes than the press would have us believe. Much of what Francis is doing can be seen as an attempt to put flesh and blood on a theology which Benedict had already at least in part articulated,” said the Rev. Timothy Radcliffe, a former head of the Dominicans, in a recent interview with the “Pray Tell” website.

Indeed, a popular Internet meme places Francis as the logical conclusion to his two predecessors in articulating Christian faith. John Paul II crystallized the essence of hope, Benedict encapsulated faith, and now Francis throws the spotlight on charity.

‘He is not a liberal Catholic’

John Thavis, a former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service and a frequent Vatican commentator, said “there is tremendous continuity between popes,” which he says makes “even slight differences stand out.”

Both Francis and Benedict, of course, want the same thing – to lead people to “understand and accept” the church’s teachings, even when pronouncements on abortion or gay marriage run against popular culture, he said. But they go about it in a very different way.

“Benedict tended to view these issues in culture war terms, as part of a political effort to keep the church’s voice out of public affairs. Francis, so far at least, is framing it more in terms of the human conscience battling the powerful pull of selfishness,” Thavis said.

For Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., today’s global Catholic Church is like a large cargo ship. “To change course, it requires plenty of time and strength,” he said, “and at the beginning people don’t notice because a pope must act gradually and slowly.”

One reason some Catholics may not want to admit — or see — much change on the throne is that they’re afraid that any admission of change will lead to even louder requests for change or reform on issues like married priests, homosexuality or divorce.

“It’d be an illusion to expect radical change from Francis,” said Faggioli. “He is not a liberal Catholic, but a ‘social’ Catholic, with the old and the new mixed in a much more complex way than in a straightforward ‘progressive vs. conservative’ polarity.”


  1. Carl Diederichs

    That is too bad. I really think the church needs a radical shift from exclusivity to inclusivity. We need a pope who sees making the Eucharist available to the People of God more important than reserving Holy Orders to celibate males only.

  2. The Catholic Church sometimes refers to itself metaphorically as “holy mother church.” Leaving aside the telling fact that the Church admits no women to positions of influence or authority, the hierarchy might find it enlightening to learn what mothers with real children can teach us, what real parental love can mean. Take, for example, gay women and men.

    Mother and fathers react in different ways when they learn that their child is homosexual. Some are saddened or shocked by the news. Being gay is not necessarily something they would have wanted for their child or expected. Perhaps they don’t understand why or what it means. Some may wish that it were not true. Incredibly in 2013, there are even some parents who reject the child for religious, social or other reasons.

    But after the initial confusion or shock, many parents respond to their gay child with love. And since love is, among other things, a way of knowing it can lead to new understanding. It can allow parents to learn from their daughters and sons, to see the world through their eyes and their experience. It prompts them to question old assumptions and values. It has the power to transform them.

    The same is true for family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues. Knowing and caring about someone who is gay changes you. That is because you know in the deepest way possible that your sister or friend uncle is a good, decent person because you know them through love. You know them as a human being and understand that being gay is part of who they are.

    This explains the big change in attitudes towards homosexuality and gay marriage. The whole conversation shifts radially when it’s my brother, daughter or friend that you are talking about. Judgments about being “intrinsically disordered” or “evil” or a “threat to traditional marriage” are seen to be the neurotic projections or inhuman distortions that they are.

    The people who support and honor the humanity of gay people are doing so not because they are being trendy or have succumbed to relativistic morals. They do so because they have become more human in the very finest sense of the word.

    And so when a religious leader says in reference to gay people as New York’s Cardinal Dolan did recently on television, “I love you, too,” he sounds grotesque. It’s hard to know what he means. Perhaps he is limited by the fact that his own experience of love involves no human tenderness or sexual expression. Perhaps that is why he can say such things, at least to a TV camera: He doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    But it makes you wonder. Is the Cardinal close to someone who his gay. Does he love someone who is gay as a friend.? Could he look such a person in the eyes and say, “I love you. But it is sinful for you to show your love to someone with your full humanity, to express it sexually with tenderness and affection?”

    And this is the essential fault in the Church’s teaching about homosexuality. It is heartless and inhuman. And now many people, including many Catholics, know and understand this.

    The good cardinal and his fellow prelates look at gay men and women and see intrinsic disorder and talk about sinful sex. Happily, more and more people look at this same group and see fellow human beings and talk about love and equality.

    Holy Mother Church needs to love the way real mothers do.

    • That was a very good, well thought out comment. I have struggled for some time to balance the teachings of my faith with the social reality of homosexuality. But, I never claimed nor do I now claim to be able to read the good prelate’s mind. Since he is human, I suppose he also has his doubts and confusions just like me.

      The Catechism of the Church is quite clear in defining gayness as a disordered life style and choice but is as clear in demanding of Catholics that we respect gays and pray for them and invite them into our congregation. With any Catholic, for whom there can be more than gayness as a disordered life choice, it is impossible to receive the sacraments w/o reconciliation to God. Without reconciliation, it’s just a piece of unleavened bread.

      Now I would be interested in your response to this: is it disordered for a priest to prey on boys or is that merely a choice? Is it wrong to be a practicing member of NAMBLA or is that merely a lifestyle choice. I suppose there are many other illustrations. In the context of the article and your comments, these two came to mind immediately.

      As I said at the outset, you have made good,well thought out comments. Be wary though of leaping to conclusions. We are not judges and we should make sure we have no logs in our eyes.

      May God bless you.

      • Jim,

        I don’t know what is anyone’s mind either and don’t think I suggested that I do.

        I’m not clear about what your questions mean. I would say this, however: Preying on children (no matter who the predator might be) is always a crime and should be prosecuted and punished as such.

        • Ted,
          Re-read your paragraph where you are describing Cardinal Dolan’s saying “I love you, too” as “grotesque”. That is where you have assumed to look inside his mind and know “his own experience of love involves no human tenderness…” That’s a very strong statement. Following that you say when Dolan says “I love you, too,” “He (Dolan) doesn’t know what he is talking about.” It almost sounds like you’re implying that the only way to express love and human tenderness is through sexual intercourse, which from your description of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters I know you don’t mean.

          I think that’s where Jim’s comment comes from.

          It is worth thinking on how we demonize/dehumanize each other. When I look at someone who smokes cigarettes, I don’t approve – I think it’s bad for them, it smells, and I don’t like it. But I don’t assume that smoking cigarettes is their whole life – they are not simply a “smoker”. Cardinal Dolan is a cleric, but he is also someone’s son, someone’s brother. Don’t dehumanize him for being a cleric.

          In some sense, that’s the easy part. A harder question is sexuality – some claim that it is so fundamental, it IS what we are. As much as a person is a man or a woman, they are gay or straight and the urges that come with it are part of how we are made. The Catholic church sees them as separable – you are a woman or man, created in the image of God, regardless of your sex life. To be flip, I can love you as a person, regardless of whether I agree with your smoking or your sexuality – neither is as fundamental as your being created in the image of God, neither captures what you ARE. And further, the Catholic church believes that some people can and should deny the urges they were made with – in particular anyone following the religious life: male or female, gay or straight, monks or nuns, they are called to celibacy. In the Latin rite, that also includes priests.

          I’m not sure which (if either) I agree with.

          Peace in Christ.

          • Mnemos,

            Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

            It’s difficult for me to respond to your comment comparing homosexuality to smoking. I hope you are not suggesting that homosexuality is just a bad habit or addiction. I can assure that I did not chose to be a gay man, did not, in fact, want to be gay and tried everything short of the discredited “conversion therapy” to become otherwise. Over time, I accept that this is the way I am. This is the way God made me, to use the religious formulation.

            Perhaps I am not expressing myself well, but all my thoughts are in the context of the Church’s official teaching regarding gay people. My point is that if the Catholic Church loved its gay “children” as real mothers do, it would know them differently, it would understand that their being gay is a part of who they are–part of their humanity, if you will–and would want them to be happy and fulfilled.

            I did not demonize or dehumanize Cardinal Dolan. I do not know the man. But I do know that he is a religious leader, a public figure and a politician, and he can be criticized in these roles.

            Of course I don’t believe that the only way to express human love is through physical affection and sexual intercourse. I did make reference to parental love, fraternal love, etc. And I imagine that Cardinal Dolan’s mother, father and friends love him, even tenderly. But the good Cardinal wasn’t talking about this. He was making a public statement about gay people. He said in reference to them, “I love you, too.” In the context of his Church’s teaching and actions that cause real pain and damage to gay people, that statement to me sounds grotesque. In this context, Holy Mother Church is a mean mother.

            I’m willing to accept that the Cardinal keeps his solemn vow of chastity, that he has never fallen in love and shared that love with the beloved, that he has never expressed love sexually or experienced that kind of human intimacy, that he has no sexual experience at all.

            I believe that this void in its humanity is why the official Church can only talk about gay sex but never about gay love. In seeing homosexuals as being “intrinsically disordered,” it denies the possibility that there can be such a thing as gay love. In this respect, the Church is heartless and dehumanizes homosexuals. Or, to put it as I did originally, it doesn’t know what it is talking about.

            If “Holy Mother Church” were capable of listening to real mothers (and fathers) who know their gay children’s humanity through love, the Church would understand that God did indeed make these people that way. But then it would be confronted with a dilemma: Either God makes mistakes, or He makes some people have attractions to the same sex but forbids them to consummate their love. It’s hard to imagine a God so perverse.

  3. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.

    One of the greatest changes within the church, in over a thousand years, went unnoticed. There are recent reports that former pope Benedict’s health is failing. He is frail and losing weight. Surely he knew this several months ago, and faced the same decision which his predecessor faced: when do you step down due to degraded physical powers? It is reported that his mind is as sharp as ever. He, unilaterally, chose to relinquish power, step aside for a stronger successor. Thus he made history.
    The new Pope is making history by rejecting the trapping of high office. He, a few days in office, moved the liturgy of Holy Week, the most important services of the year, from a gold gilded basilica to a prison. When was the last time that a pope washed the feet of women prisoners? Muslim women prisoners?
    We live in changing times.

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