A recent article in “The Atlantic” grabbed my attention. Any writer or magazine editor worth their salt knows that well worded titles and front page blurbs can do that. Well, the strategy worked on me. The May edition of “The Atlantic” led with cover line teasers like: “Can Starbucks Save the Middle Class?,” “Teaching Bankers to Behave,” and “How Pope Francis Could Break the Church.” I have to admit, I read the former and the later articles, respectively (maybe I doubted that anything could make Bankers behave?). In case you are not familiar, the average length of Atlantic articles requires more than one cup of coffee and occasionally necessitates a bookmark and second sit down when one is pressed for time. Nevertheless, my deep fascination with our current pontiff prompted me to read all of what Ross Douthat had written about Pope Francis and church breaking.
The main difference between news on cable TV and print media, which I believe could well make a comeback, is that print media more frequently contains actual news and informative content. Maybe I am just getting older and more curmudgeonly, but I can no longer stand to watch a cable news show that takes one short news item and proceeds to place 4 or 5 talking heads in front of the camera for hours on end to share what they think about it. But … I digress.
One of the things I learned in Douthat’s article was that there are at least three separate biographies of Bergoglio’s life and career, and each of them takes a slightly different perspective: 1) Pope Francis: Life and Revolution by Elisabetta Pique (Bergoglio baptized her two children), 2) The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by British Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh, and 3) Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely. Though it is surely an overstatement of the three treatments (that all, no doubt, have value), what is fascinating about all of them is how each attempts to nail down what has to feel like jello. Based on his calling, life, and ministry, is Pope Francis a conservative pontiff, an extremely progressive pontiff, or maybe a Pope that lands somewhere in-between? Which is it? Will the true Francis please stand up?
What all three accounts share is the story of a devout and committed Christian who felt a strong call to the priesthood during his teens. He entered the Jesuit order in 1958 and took his vows and became a full Jesuit in 1973. It was in that same year, 1973, when he was thrust into leadership of the order in Argentina at the age of 36, a time of turmoil in both the order and the country. There was already a fairly large rift between conservative and progressive priests at the time. By all three accounts, Bergoglio’s leadership was successful in several ways. His concern for the poor was always present, but he also elevated some traditional, pre-Vatican II elements of devotion and worship that were shared by many of Argentina’s poor Catholics. The pre-Vatican II feel of this move did not make progressives enthusiastic. And, though the order’s numbers rebounded, there remained deep frustration on both sides. The critics eventually won out, and Bergoglio was “exiled” from leadership and sent to the small mountain town of Cordoba. It was around two years later that John Paul II’s choice for archbishop would once again bring his leadership to the forefront.
I am no expert on Roman Catholicism or on Pope Francis, but since his selection as the new Peter, he still tends to stir the pot on all sides of the stove. There is something that feels different about this pontiff who adamantly and repeatedly refuses to be placed in a box, whether he is refusing to live in the papal palace, deciding to wash the feet of both Muslims and women, choosing to make personal pastoral phone calls without concern for proper protocols, or making it clear that he plans to end corruption in the Vatican during his watch. I don’t know where all of this will eventually lead, but I do think there is something United Methodists could learn here as we approach another annual conference voting year and begin to plan for General Conference 2016. Could Pope Francis break the Catholic Church? Only time will tell, but Douthat also suggests that it is
imaginable that Francis could succeed in his balancing act. So long as doctrine doesn’t seem to be in question, a papal agenda focused on ending corruption in the Vatican and emphasizing a commitment to the global poor could successfully straddle some of the Church’s internal divides – not least because those divides aren’t always as binary as the language of ‘left and right’ suggests.
Pope Francis’ example in terms of tone, emphasis, and his savvy discernment about “what to focus on when” all suggests a way forward for those who witnessed the spiritual gridlock and legislative implosion that was GC 2012.
I am aware that sexuality is still THE hot-button topic of both the month and the quadrennium, but part of me also longs for a General Conference that desires to inspire, equip, and empower Methodists to proactively get into their communities and host conversations between law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and our local communities so that we can prevent future Baltimores and Fergesons. I am also hopeful that the growing life and death needs of our sisters and brothers in the global south might get a little more conference floor time than the more U.S. centric obsession with whether states or the federal government should define marriage.
Maybe one lesson we can learn from our current pontiff is that United Methodists can also refuse to let what still appears to be the U.S. legislative issue-of-the-day put us in a box that is sure to once again tie our hands, get our backs up, and prevent our mouths from speaking any word other than the all too familiar one of derision, infighting, and us vs. them self-righteousness. We might just discover that the internal divides that remain among us are not as binary as the terms “left,” “right,” and “middle” seem to suggest. At least that is my hope … and my prayer.