The pope is still Catholic

The pope is still Catholic: And why that might be a good thing for all of us

by Stephen Francis Kriss,

Steve Kriss

Listening to CNN commentators the day after Pope Francis was named brought focused attention to a deepening misunderstanding of the church.  The CNN reporter pressed her two guests, suggesting, “Don’t you think it’s time for the Catholic Church to reform?   Will this new Argentine pope bring in a new era reconsidering the role of the priesthood, the idea of same sex unions, a relaxation on the position on contraception?”

The respondent said, “This Pope is still Roman Catholic.”

Again, I listened to another reporter on Saturday morning, this time on NPR, pressing a guest to define the changes that should occur in the Catholic Church under a new papal regime.  The respondent again asserted, “All of those changes that you are alluding to are the positions of mainstream Protestantism in the United States.  And those groups overall are in rapid decline. You’re asking us to create a church that just simply asks people to be nice.  And soon enough people will find out that if all we’re asking is for people to be nice to one another, they might as well just stay at home or find other things to do on Sundays.”

I’m astounded by the attention given to the papal transition this week.   There aren’t too many times when a global leader is appointed with such grandiose ritual and over such a large body.  To put it in perspective, there are more Roman Catholics in the Pittsburgh Diocese (nearly 2 million) than the global population of Mennonite World Conference churches combined (mostly recently almost 1.8 million).  There are roughly as many global adherents to Roman Catholicism as the whole population of India (about 20% of the world’s people).

Western media has been captivated by Pope Francis’ story: the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, the first pope from the Americas.   We watched him pay his hotel bill in Rome and we watched him take a deep silencing breath of prayer before sending the exhilarated but tired crowd at St. Peter’s Square home to rest after the conclave.  So far, I like Pope Francis.

As a Mennonite, I’m not expecting a Pope who will bend to my own theological leanings and understanding.  But for the sake of us all, I’m hoping for a leader willing to justly, fairly, kindly, evenhandedly contend with the scandals and challenges that mark the Catholic Church and weigh heavily on all of us representing the teachings of Christ in an increasingly cynical time in the West.  I wonder if a leader like Francis, who has taken the Jesuit vows of poverty, availability, and service, might be able to open a time of honest and transparent conversation in Catholicism that could cascade to all parts of the global church, provoking authenticity and accessibility even for those of us who lead in Mennonite settings.

So while yes, the Pope is still Catholic, in an age of religious pluralities I don’t expect a pope who is anything less.  But in a time when Christian leadership of all types is rightly open for public conversation and criticism, Francis has this moment to lead in the global Christian movement by incarnating what is good and right about it.  Through his Jesuit convictions, he brings a perspective of willingness to question; through his context in Argentina, he’s learned how to lead in the midst of economic, social, and political turmoil; through his own commitment and character, he’s kicked off a position of piety with acts of genuine approachability.

If he’s able to lead rooted in Catholic identity—to become, in the best of Franciscan tradition, “an instrument of peace”—the words “habemus papum” spoken in a surprising transition at the Vatican this March might just be words of good news for us all.