Three years ago, the curtain raised on the Francis era. In a flash, the first pope from Latin America seemed ubiquitous. There he was brushing off the Apostolic Palace, on the cover of Rolling Stone and dropping that "Who am I to Judge" bombshell. Catholicism felt cool. Jesuit swagger was palpable. After "Vatileaks," a crackdown on U.S. nuns and the shocking resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the first pope to take his name from Francis of Assisi signaled a refreshing new springtime for the church.
It's always risky to grade a papacy still in session. Any deep assessment of a "Francis effect" could take a decade or more to evaluate. At 79, Francis is clearly working to get as much done as quickly as possible. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI collectively had more than 30 years to make bishop appointments, issue encyclicals and steer the ship in a decisive direction. For a church that thinks in centuries, three years is a hiccup. Even so, Pope Francis has already earned his place as one of the most consequential religious leaders in history.
Brick-by-brick, the pope is dismantling the edifice of culture-war Catholicism and insisting that a "Church of No" has no future. Pope Francis is shifting the Catholic narrative away from simply restating what everyone knows the church opposes -- abortion, contraception and gay marriage -- to reviving and reinvigorating ancient teaching about what the church stands for: mercy, justice and good news for the poor. While some Catholics have a strange pride in what they perceive as their exclusive membership in a pure church guarded by high walls, Francis wants a poor church of open doors that is, in his words, a "home for all." By returning to the radical roots of early Christianity, Francis warns that the church grows sick when it becomes obsessed with its own procedures and institutional maintenance. In contrast, a healthy church is a "church in the streets" that isn't afraid to take risks and get bruised. "More than by fear of going astray," the pope writes in the Joy of the Gospel, "my hope is we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: Give them something to eat."
The pope is a reformer not because he wants to break with tradition or toss doctrine into the Tiber River. He doesn't want to go left or right. He asks us to go deeper into the heart of the Gospel. "We always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change," Francis insists. "The first reform must be the attitude." Along with his namesake Francis of Assisi, and also Ignatius of Loyola, Pope Francis is a reformer who wants to reclaim the best of tradition. He reminds the church what is essential but what often gets obscured behind what he calls "small minded rules." This is revolution as renewal. Even as he looks back to the past for sustenance, Francis isn't trapped by habits or customs that fail to inspire today. This pope is a spiritual troublemaker, a holy disturber of the peace who doesn't soft peddle his message to guardians of orthodoxy. "True defenders of doctrine," the pope has told bishops, "are not those who uphold its letter but its spirit, not ideas but people; not formula but the gratuitousness of God's love and forgiveness."
A "Francis Effect" on the U.S. Church and Politics?
Along with emphasizing a return to pastoral basics, Pope Francis recognizes the need to recalibrate the church's voice in the public square. In the decades preceding his election in 2013, a vocal minority of bishops, conservative intellectuals, and culture warriors wielded disproportionate influence in shaping the political voice of Catholicism in the United States. The vestiges of this era still exist. Plenty of conservative Catholics and not a few bishops seem to pine for a papal past they perceived as more hospitable to their geopolitical leanings. When Pope Francis blasts "trickle-down" economics and insists on the urgency to act on climate change, a collective grinding of teeth is audible from some corners of American Catholicism that have been too cozy with the Republican Party and corporate elites who defend a status quo that perpetuates savage inequalities. But these are the fading gasps of a movement in decline. By appointing new bishops that share his pastoral vision and rallying them to address what he calls "an economy of exclusion and inequality," Pope Francis is slowly but steadily influencing the direction of the U.S. church.
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy and Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, appointed by the pope in 2014 and 2015, are among the most outspoken "Francis bishops." Bishop McElroy argues persuasively that the pope's emphasis on the structural roots of poverty and inequality requires nothing less than a "transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation." At a time when workers' rights are under attack and unions demonized, Archbishop Cupich gave a major address last year denouncing so-called "right-to-work" laws. Both leaders also recognize that the culture wars are a dead end street for the church. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage as a "tragic error" that was "profoundly immoral and unjust," Archbishop Cupich lowered the temperature and put the ruling in context. "The proposed reason for the ruling is the protection of equal rights for all citizens, including those who identify themselves as gay," he wrote. "The rapid social changes signaled by the Court ruling call us to mature and serene reflections as we move forward together."
Bishop McElroy recognizes that the pope's focus on encounter and the "art of accompaniment" should be a model for American church leaders. In an interview for my book, The Francis Effect, he expressed some frustration that over the last several years bishops have been "consumed with a religious liberty push," largely focused on same-sex marriage and battles with the Obama administration over contraception coverage. "I do think there will be a movement out of a preoccupation with those issues, and an effort to bring poverty front and center," Bishop McElroy told me. "The bishops have the memo from Pope Francis. We're trying to integrate this into our work in the dioceses. It's like a big ship adjusting course. It can't be done all at once."
John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life. He is the author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope's Challenge to the American Catholic Church.