Thursday, August 1, 2013

Refreshing but not fresh - Pope Francis

Pope Francis, returning to Rome from Brazil on his first overseas trip, gave a lengthy (80 minute) interview to the reporters on the papal plane. According to all reports, the Pope was candid, informal, and answered every question asked.

Fr. Bill Dailey, a Roman Catholic priest who is the Thomas More Fellow at Notre Dame's Center for Ethics and Culture, wrote a guest column, "One priest's early thoughts on Pope Francis's ways," for the Washington Post's WONKBLOG (July 31, 2013).

Dailey's column prompted four different musings about Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church, and Christianity in general.

First, Pope Francis is a refreshing change in the character of the papacy. His humility, his openness, and his self-confidence strike me as profoundly Christian. Few world leaders would agree to ride in, much less insist upon, a family sedan in lieu of a limousine. Members of the press flying aboard the papal plane seem likely to be reporters that the Vatican considers friendly or at least tame. Even so, initiating and welcoming eighty minutes of unscripted questions reflects commendable openness and self-confidence.

Second, Pope Francis and my bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, share a similar focus in their ministry. Dailey suggests that Pope Francis wants to shift the Roman Catholic Church's focus from the inward look of his two immediate predecessors to an outward engagement with the world. For several years, Bishop Curry has emphasized his diocese and its congregations going to Galilee, that is, taking the church into the world. The Church exists for the world, not the reverse.

Third, people tend to see in leaders traits or emphases that suit the observer. I've noted with interest an assortment of commentators who praise the Pope for his openness to gays and another assortment who criticize him for upholding the Roman Catholic Church's teaching that homosexuality is a sin. Thankfully, Dailey's column is anomalous. He reports the Pope's remarks, says that Francis seems very comfortable with the Church's teachings, and that his remarks may offer pastoral encouragement to people on both sides of the debate. Francis similarly nuanced his comments about women: he acknowledges that the Church's teachings need more depth while holding the line against the ordination of women.

Fourth, the Roman Catholic Church is in decline and Pope Francis seems unlikely to reverse the decline. The Roman Catholic decline mirrors what is occurring in religion more generally. With improved education and higher standards of living, people appear to be drifting away from organized religion. This trend is far advanced in Europe; in the United States, the decline in the Roman Catholic Church would be far more apparent without an influx of Catholic immigrants.

The Roman Catholic Church, Christianity more broadly, and religion in general are in decline not because they have abandoned their historic teachings but because they have failed to keep pace with expanding knowledge, updating teachings and theology to incorporate the best available wisdom. Going into the world may temporarily slow the decline, but this represents at best a rearguard action. Reversing the decline will require honest grappling with questions that ancient theologies and teachings never imagined.

For Christians, one of those questions is how to make sense of the Bible's prima facie claims of Jesus' unique necessity for salvation in view of other religions in which people experience life-giving, liberating transformations identical to what occurs in the lives of people walking the Jesus path. For one answer, you might want to read my book, Charting a Theological Confluence.

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