Pope Francis and the New Age of the Catholic Church
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.