Full disclosure: I think Pope Francis is one of the best things to happen to the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II.
What does that mean?
Never mind the jargon, news media tells you enough-this new pope made headlines from the beginning when he wouldn’t don the golden papal attire, threw out Benedict’s red shoes and left the papal apartment empty. He shook the Vatican by washing prisoners’ feet and making candid remarks on gay members of the church in an impromptu plane interview.
To say the very least, depending on whom you are asking, he is a breath of fresh air, or a mighty gust of wind, in a stagnant church struggling to retain its members.
However, his liberal actions have not been without consequence. After each of Pope Francis’ comments there has been Vatican blowback insisting that his words do not change church doctrine or alter its teachings in any way.
For example, after stating that atheists, even though they don’t believe in God, should follow their conscience because God’s mercy is boundless, the Vatican was quick to reply with the message. “Oh, this wasn’t a conversation on salvation. Those who ignore the church still undoubtedly have no chance at heaven. Sorry!”
His comments on gay marriage and abortion follow a similar pattern. Pope Francis says that he has no room to judge-that the Vatican’s obsessive focus on abortion and gay marriage are misplaced with the continual global plight of the poor. This line of thought is promising, but again the Vatican responds with a, “Wait, wait, wait, we’re not changing any rules here.”
I see immense opportunity in this realignment though; I am a huge proponent for religious social justice, and historically Catholics have been at its forefront. At its nascence, Christian communities were communities of the marginalized.
Jesuits the pope’s unique Catholic order, not unlike the Franciscans or Dominicans in particular have been famous for advocacy through Latin American liberation theology, their broad-based focus on education for all and in-context solidarity advocacy across the world.
I went to a Jesuit high school, and I consider myself fairly indoctrinated in their values of service, community,and social justice. As I’ve encountered the Vatican’s focus on homosexuality and abortion I’ve been confused because this obsession pulled focus away from what I understood to be the true foundation of the church-the poor.
These values should extend beyond Jesuits to all Catholics. The Second Vatican Council or Vatican II as it’s usually called was a 1962 meeting of all the influential members of the Catholic Church that resulted in a slew of doctrines meant to modernize.
Since then, church services can be in local languages instead of Latin, the church has recognized the potentially salvific nature of other traditions and published “Dignitatis Humanae”, or “The Dignity of the Human Person.” This document is a cornerstone of Catholic social teaching, a set of principles rooted in solidarity with the poor, human dignity and social justice.
This crash course in modern Catholic social teaching doesn’t do it justice. These teachings grant the church an immense potential to be a radically relevant, marginalized-person-minded, uniquely powerful injustice-fighting machine, and so far this capacity has been squandered.
In my opinion, that’s why Pope Francis is a powerful and refreshing figure; his Jesuit values and attention to the right issues are pulling the church out of the Popemobile and putting it back on the sidewalk. And if the church wants to remain relevant, that’s where it needs to be; marching in solidarity with its members who see it as a beacon of justice and salvation.
Michael Enich ’16 firstname.lastname@example.org is from Chicago, Ill. He majors in religion and biomedical studies.
Graphic by Alli Livingston