Pope of Paradox

Robert A. Chesnut, Ph.D., author of Transforming the Mainline Church, co-authored this piece.

What are we to make of the new Pope? Sometimes it seems we've gone from Benedict the orthodox to Francis the paradox. Various surprising combinations of apparent opposites are observed in the new pontiff. One of us has already characterized him a "charismatic liberationist," detecting in his comments and actions a blending of the two major movements which have often vied for dominance within Latin American Catholicism over the past half century. These are, on the one hand, liberation theology with its focus on social justice for the poor and oppressed. On the other hand is the Pentecostal/charismatic movement which has also reached out to the poor, but with an emphasis on the Holy Spirit's gifts of spiritual healing, ecstasy and personal transformation.

Mary Eberstadt, Research Scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institute, brands the new Pope "a Radical Traditionalist." Eberstadt points to Francis's efforts to downplay the church's myopic, judgmental focus in recent decades on issues of sexual morality, while, at the same time, making clear that he is "a son of the Church" with no intention of overturning traditional Catholic teachings on issues of homosexuality and abortion. Maybe "compassionate conservative" would be a better label for the combination of tendencies Eberstadt seeks to identify in Francis.

Looking to the new Pope's personal disposition and style, we might also call him a "pastoral prophet." Francis goes out of his way to set himself alongside rather than above others, to be a good listener, collaborative rather than hierarchical and authoritarian. Yet he does not hesitate to state his own views on potentially controversial matters, as when asked what he thought about homosexual priests, he declared "Who am I to judge?" Coming from the supreme pontiff, that statement itself is an astonishing example of both humility and assertiveness.

The new Pope's latest surprise is to undertake a poll of Catholic dioceses worldwide on sensitive issues of marriage and family life. How should divorced Catholics, for example, be treated pastorally; might they receive Holy Communion? What about gay couples who want to adopt and raise their children Catholic? Another, unprecedented, audacious move--a Pope who actually asks the rank and file for their opinions! Still, it's also a shrewd move. Catholics in the generally more conservative Global South heavily outnumber the more liberal population of the Global North. Worldwide results of such a poll might serve to mitigate any liberal pressure for radical reforms while also possibly reinforcing movement toward a more pastoral approach to those who fall outside the church's traditional moral code.

So what are we to make of Pope Francis so far? Is he a cautious reformer? A fence straddler? A middle of the road compromiser trying to please everyone all around? Of course that could prove to be the way to please no one on either side of the liberal/conservative divide within the Church. Some conservatives have already expressed concern and dismay, especially since he has declared himself to be "no right-winger." Liberals, hoping for another John XXIII, may already sense they will not get the reforms they want to change the church's stance on birth control, women priests, and so on.

But maybe Francis is looking to Jesus as his guide. That would be the Jesus who saved the woman caught in adultery, declaring to the crowd ready to stone her, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." It would be the same Jesus who, though he said to that woman, "Your sins are forgiven," also added, "Go and sin no more." This the same Jesus who criticized leaders of the religious establishment for meticulously tithing mint and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the law, the essence of which he said was to love God with all one's being and one's neighbor as oneself. Thus Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Honor the law but discern the spirit of the law. Maybe Francis is following the Jesus who taught his disciples to be "as wise as serpents, as innocent as doves." Does that suggest a principled pragmatism?

Christianity itself, of course, offers a path of paradox. Jesus is both human and divine. God is both three and one. Jesus's defeat is also his victory. So Pope Francis professes a faith that affirms both/and, rather than either/or. It is an attitude and a vision that can produce the most creative, innovative, problem-solving leadership. In this age of bitter political polarization and of violent religious extremism, Pope Francis offers us, it seems, exactly the sort of moderating, reconciling leadership that our divided world so sorely needs.