Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Pope Francis and the New Age of the Catholic Church

Maurizio Brambatti | Ansa | Zuma Press

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the papamobile during his inauguration mass at St Peter’s square on March 19, 2013 at the Vatican.

Six months following his election by the papal conclave, Pope Francis has been proclaimed the pope who will usher the Catholic Church into a new era. A majority of media outlets claim his changes to the church are progressive liberalizations on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Yet at this point in his papacy, claiming that Francis’ legacy within the Catholic Church is a monumental shift away from the pure and traditional Catholic doctrine disregards the larger picture.

Francis is the first Jesuit pope and the first pope from the Americas—Argentina, to be precise. Francis was ordained to priesthood in 1969. At the time, the Catholic Church in Latin and South America began to place increasing emphasis on liberation theology. This ideology focuses on interpreting the Catholic faith through the perspective of the poor and on the social, political and economic injustices of poverty. Liberation theology only grew in Argentina and its neighboring countries as citizens lived through the horrors of the Dirty War (1973-83) and other military regimes. It was a time of fear as thousands of people “disappeared” in an effort by the military government to eliminate what it deemed a left-winged political threat. The Catholic Church at this time became a near-invisible entity, doing its best to keep its members safe and provide God’s faith as a resource during a time of violent social injustice. The election of Francis reopened these wounds for Argentina, and Francis has faced much criticism for his passive position regarding the government’s actions during his years as the archbishop of Buenos Aries. Regardless of what was done during these dark years, there is no doubt that Francis’ humble focus on the masses is a product of his years spent watching God’s children suffer, himself included.

As mentioned, liberation theology played an impactful role in the early years of Francis’ time with the Catholic Church. This is where his legacy truly lies. Consider the previous two popes: John Paul II and Benedict XVI. John Paul II was elected by the papal conclave in 1978. He also was slated to be the pope who would bring forward a new age for the church. He was young for a pope, charismatic and played a substantial role in the unification of a “Europe under God” during the fall of communism. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, left his predecessor’s philosophy behind, choosing to focus on a smaller, more pure church. Neither of these men focused on changing the doctrine of a church that is fundamentally rooted in its beliefs. Instead, each came forth with a unique interpretation and perspective on existing Catholic beliefs from the Bible.

Francis is no different. Fundamental changes to the Catholic doctrine that would allow an anti-conservative shift in belief structure are not the future of the church. Francis’ statements have, in certain instances, been taken out of context. Specifically, there are his statements on gay marriage, in which he argues that the church has the right to an opinion against homosexuality but not the right to interfere with individual spirituality. Some believe that Francis will allow a doctrinal change toward acceptance of gay marriage, yet evaluation of what he has said indicates a focus only on a general openness and friendliness. He is speaking from a genuine concern for all humans, not calling to allow clerical recognition of gay couples as married partners in the Catholic Church. Only days ago, the church announced Father Greg Reynolds of Melbourne, Australia, is to be excommunicated, the most severe penalty the church can enact. Most consider this excommunication a result of Reynolds performing officiated ceremonies for gay couples. It could be argued that since excommunications are a lengthy process, this one could have been already been in process before Francis’ election in March, yet the fact remains that he did not halt its finalization.

These less radical changes should not taint what the pope can bring to the Catholic Church in today’s world. What Francis has clearly brought forward in only a few short months is a Catholic Church with less focus on small-minded issues. Instead, the pope has led by humble example as to how the Catholic Church can be a home for all of God’s children in an equal manner that discounts religious involvement or personal beliefs.

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  • Jerome Bauer says:

    I think better of the new Pope and his pastoral emphasis than I did just a few months ago. Who am I to judge him for playing it safe during the Dirty War just to save himself from being sedated and dropped out of an airplane into the South Atlantic? Why does everybody have to be a martyr? Since I don’t know what I would have done in his situation, who am I to judge?

    The “legal” basis for an US Dirty War now exists: the Patriot Act, augmented by the National DefenseAuthorization Act. I hope nobody has to be martyred getting it repealed.

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878