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John Gehring : Pope Francis shakes up Catholic Church by focusing on people

March 18. 2014 4:37PM

The Vatican thinks in centuries. Formal and glacial of pace, the epicenter of global Catholicism is anchored in the deep waters of tradition and ancient ritual. Change is an unsettling visitor, especially when he shows up with sensible shoes and a plan.

Enter Pope Francis.

The first pope from Latin America, the first from the Jesuit religious order and the first to take the name of the most beloved saint of the poor, Francis has emerged as a spiritual troublemaker with a disarming style.

A year into his papacy, it turns out the Francis Doctrine isn’t really much about doctrine at all. His vision to build a church “for the poor” and efforts to broaden the Catholic conversation beyond the flash points of sexual theology have lifted the spirits of many weary of culture-war Christianity. When the world’s most visible religious figure warns the faithful that “small-minded rules” hurt the church, people sit up and take notice, for good reason. “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards,” Francis said.

Catholic bishops and other Christian leaders would be wise to take a page from the Francis playbook. The old models of leadership are failing. One in 10 Americans is a former Catholic, and one in five Americans no longer identifies with a religious denomination, according to Pew Research. This is even more true for the “millennial generation,” those between ages 18 and 33. In his vision for a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” Francis provides a better road map for reaching the disaffected.

Preaching the Gospel’s radical message of solidarity and sacrifice is countercultural. But Francis has proved that joy, mercy and even a sense of humor are undervalued tools for evangelization. “We must always consider the person,” he says, in what could be described as a distillation of his pastoral approach. Doctrine has its place, but Christians should “fascinate the world” and convey the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” For Catholics who want everything “clear and safe,” he said, faith only becomes “an ideology among other ideologies.”

Some liberals are frustrated that the pope has not lifted the ban on women’s ordination to the priesthood or overturned the church’s teaching that contraception is an “intrinsic evil.” Conservatives point to the same issues as proof that Francis is on their side. Both camps talk past each other and miss the big picture: The Francis revolution is first a project of profound spiritual renewal.

“We always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. ... The first reform must be the attitude,” Francis told Antonio Spadaro, editor of a Jesuit magazine and a Jesuit priest, in a lengthy interview.

The pope’s turning of the ship also has implications for the future of the Catholic Church and secular political debates.

In his efforts to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, Francis is looking beyond Rome for new insights. Only one of the eight cardinals he has named to a new council charged with restructuring church governance is a Vatican official. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the lone American on the council, is a Franciscan known for his modest living and focus on the poor. Last summer, Francis removed top officials at the scandal-ridden Vatican bank in an effort to address allegations of money laundering.

Francis has also called for a high-profile meeting of bishops in October that will address difficult family questions, including that of divorced and remarried Catholics who are denied communion unless they go through an often cumbersome annulment process. In preparation, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri directed bishops around the world to distribute a questionnaire asking Catholics about their views on contraception, cohabitation before marriage, same-sex unions and other hot-button topics. This solicitation of feedback is a sign that Francis values dialogue and consultation.

Along with his efforts to drive church reforms, he is already having an impact on political debates. This will only intensify in the run-up to his expected visit next fall to the United States, a year before the 2016 presidential election. Already, Congress has issued an invitation to the pope to address a joint session in 2015.

The pope has taken aim at what he calls an “economy of exclusion and inequality” at a time when President Barack Obama has described inequality as the “defining issue of our time.” In sharp words that knocked many conservatives back on their heels, Francis said “trickle-down” economic theories have “never been confirmed by the facts” and express “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”

His description of abortion as part of a “throwaway culture” that devalues life should not be ignored by progressives and will undoubtedly be raised if, as expected, several Catholic abortion rights advocates run for President in 2016.

Francis can’t change the church or elevate political debates to a higher plane alone. The real test in the months and years ahead will be whether Catholic bishops, clergy and those of us in the pews get the new memo from Rome.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. You can follow him on Twitter @gehringdc.

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