Pope Francis’s message urging priests not to shun divorced Catholics who remarry is a reminder that the emerging consensus about him in the United States, at least among cable news pundits, is still inadequate.
With the pope’s recent statements on economic, environmental and social issues, some have begun to characterize him as a «liberal» on economic issues but a «conservative» on social questions or matters of church doctrine.
Our story on Sunday attempted to get at the origins of his political formation, and why Argentines who have known Francis for decades think it’s preposterous that some conservatives (ahem, Rush Limbaugh) have labeled him «a Marxist.»
But after speaking to clergy in Buenos Aires and childhood friends of the pope, I think the notion that Francis is a «social conservative» is almost as misguided as the idea he’s some sort of stealth communist.
Francis, above all, is an evangelist. He is looking to bring more people into the church, not fewer, and he wants to reenergize the faithful by steering the church’s relationship with society out of the bedroom and into the street.
Hence the statements he made Wednesday about divorce, in which he told clergy to stop treating divorced Catholics who remarry, along with their children, as if they’re excommunicated.
“They absolutely must not be treated that way,” Francis said, according to the Associated Press, speaking at the Vatican in his first general audience following a summer break. “They always belong to the church,» he said, insisting it must maintain “open doors.”
“The church knows well that such a situation contradicts the Christian sacrament,” Francis continued, but said the church’s bigger priority is to “seek the well-being and salvation of persons.”
This was a classic Francis formulation: going around church doctrine — without signaling if he plans to change it — in the interests of his larger evangelical goal of making the church more welcoming.
With Francis coming to the United States next month to address Congress and the United Nations, many Catholics and others will be looking for him to come down firmly on the major social and ecclesiastical questions facing the church.
What will Francis say about contraception? What about celibacy in the priesthood? Female clergy?
In part, it’s the desire among partisans of the culture war to know which side Francis sits on. But they may end up disappointed.
On the one hand, Francis has adamantly opposed same-sex marriage, and recently he’s made statements insisting it’s better for children to be raised by heterosexual couples.
But he’s also believed to be the first pope to meet with a gay rights activist, and said famously in 2013 to a reporters’ question about homosexuality: «if they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who I am to judge them?»
What’s perhaps more important to keep in mind is that Francis thinks there’s an unhealthy obsession with this debate, particularly to the extent that they have come to dominate perceptions of what the church stands for and why it exists in the first place.
Francis abhors the idea of the church as a kind of exclusive club for the infallible and morally pure, where clergy obsess over the sex lives of their parishioners or use their authority to mete out spiritual punishment.
It was partly this vision that helped him win over the papal conclave in 2013, when he told the other cardinals that evangelization was the church’s «reason for being,» and denounced what he called «theological narcissism.»
«In the book of Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and calling, and evidently the text refers to him standing outside the door and knocking to be let in,» Francis said, in remarks lasting just three-and-half-minutes.
«But sometimes I think that Jesus is knocking from the inside, for us to let him out,» he said. «The self-referential Church presumes to keep Jesus Christ for itself and not let him out.»
Rather than seeing Francis as a liberal or conservative on social issues, it may be more useful to think of him as a conscientious objector to the culture wars, and the idea of the church as some sort of arbiter within them.
He will likely continue to stake out positions on major social questions — like his remarks on divorce — but probably to the extent that they further his goal of getting clergy to stop thinking of themselves as gatekeepers of the faith.
He wants the church doors open, and for priests and parishioners to stop worrying so much about who walks through them.