After spending the past week in Brazil in the first international trip of his papacy, Pope Francis spoke frankly with reporters aboard his flight back to the Vatican, discussing homosexuality, the role of women in the church and corruption in the papal bureaucracy:
“If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis asked.
His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, signed a document in 2005 that said men with deep-rooted homosexual tendencies should not be priests. Francis was much more conciliatory, saying gay clergymen should be forgiven and their sins forgotten . . .
He was funny and candid during his first news conference that lasted almost an hour and a half. He didn’t dodge a single question, even thanking the journalist who raised allegations reported by an Italian news magazine that one of his trusted monsignors was involved in a scandalous gay tryst.
Francis said he investigated and found nothing to back up the allegations.
Francis was asked about Italian media reports suggesting that a group within the church tried to blackmail fellow church officials with evidence of their homosexual activities. Italian media reported this year that the allegations contributed to Benedict’s decision to resign.
Stressing that Catholic social teaching that calls for homosexuals to be treated with dignity and not marginalized, Francis said it was something else entirely to conspire to use private information for blackmail or to exert pressure.
Francis was responding to reports that a trusted aide was involved in an alleged gay tryst a decade ago. He said he investigated the allegations according to canon law and found nothing to back them up. But he took journalists to task for reporting on the matter, saying the allegations concerned matters of sin, not crimes like sexually abusing children.
And when someone sins and confesses, he said, God not only forgives but forgets. . . .
In one of his most important speeches delivered in Rio, Francis described the church in feminine terms, saying it would be “sterile” without women. Asked what role he foresaw, he said the church must develop a more profound role for women in the church, though he said “the door is closed” to ordaining women to the priesthood.
He was less charitable with the Vatican accountant, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, who has been jailed on accusations that he plotted to smuggle €20 million ($26 million) from Switzerland to Italy and is also accused by Italian prosecutors of using his Vatican bank account to launder money.
Francis said while “there are saints” in the Vatican bureaucracy, Scarano wasn’t among them.
During his time in Brazil, Francis advocated social justice, addressing large crowds of young Catholics assembled for World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro and meeting with those at the margins of society:
In a visit to a slum Thursday, he said the rich must do more to narrow vast social inequality. He told followers not to become disillusioned by corruption, talked about public frustration with crime and spoke of the importance of dialogue in resolving disputes.
The pope met with prison inmates and drug addicts, and he heard confessions in a Rio park alongside priests from around the world. To the consternation of his security service and Brazilian officials, the pope broke protocol by wading into crowds and, while riding in a nondescript Fiat sedan, rolling down the window to touch followers and kiss babies.
For Ana Paula Santos, 24, who works the register at a store and came from Brazil’s Minas Gerais state to see Francis, it was a lesson in humility that to her demonstrated how the pope is living the teachings of Jesus.
“My faith has grown strong now,” she said, “and I want to embrace this faith even more.” . . .
The pontiff appealed to youthful rebelliousness, telling a group of young people from his native Argentina to “make a mess” upon returning to their parishes — meaning he wants them to do away with complacency.
“What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!” he said Thursday. “I want to see the church in the street. I want to get rid of the mundane, the comforts, clericalism, this closing ourselves off in the parishes, the schools or institutions.”
Opinion writer Michael Gerson describes the pope’s vision and strategy:
The Catholic tradition, from catacombs to cathedrals, is filled with potent symbols. There is the cross, the fish, the dove and the lamb. There is Mary’s blue, the purple of penance and the red of martyrs’ blood. Francis excels at the symbolism of humility. He lives in a two-room apartment, dresses in simple white and speaks in direct, colloquial language. His assistant is reputed to carry a cellphone, making the pope callable, maybe.
Francis has not yet issued sweeping declarations. But his symbolism has begun seeping into substance. He seeks a simpler church, more closely identified with the poor. And he sounds like an institutional reformer. Here is the Vatican’s account of one papal sermon: “When the Church wants to throw its weight around and sets up organizations, and sets up offices and becomes a bit bureaucratic, the Church loses its principal substance and runs the risk of turning itself into an NGO [nongovernmental organization]. And the Church is not an NGO. It is a love story.”
In the context of American Catholicism, the left naturally finds this heartening. Francis is not on the verge of ordaining women priests, but a reforming pope legitimizes the idea of reform. And he is also an enthusiastic critic of capitalist excess. Yet much of the American Catholic right has also welcomed the fresh air of Francis’s style, while emphasizing his complete faithfulness to traditional church teaching.
Some of this good feeling is the traditional, optimistic attempt of partisans to impute their own priorities to a yet-unformed papacy. But there seems to be something deeper at work. The problems of the Catholic Church — from abuse scandals to corruption in the Roman Curia — seem so large that other disputes have been marginalized. If Francis’s touch can stop the hemorrhage of ecclesiastical authority, both left and right seem prepared to set aside some old arguments. The result is an outbreak of patience and generosity of spirit.
Yet not all Catholics are pleased with Francis’s new style, writes Elizabteh Tenety:
Other Catholics are asking, by emphasizing the image of the simple pope, is Francis bringing the mystical office — seen as a living symbol of God’s stewardship of the world — too far down to earth? And is calling Francis the “humble pope” implying that other popes — particularly Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI — were not humble?
Speaking to National Catholic Report’s John Allen Jr., from Rio De Janeiro, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said this week that the right wing of the church has been “generally not happy” with Francis. And that’s been evident in a handful of blog posts by influential Catholics asking questions of Francis’s commitment to traditional church practices like more elaborate Masses, for example, or washing only men’s feet during Holy Week services.
In a post titled “Pope Francis’ Preference for Simplicity Leaves Much To Be Spiritually Desired … ” blogger Katrina Fernandez recently wrote of Francis’s disinterest in the finery and pomp associated with his office: “It’s just so hard to warm up to someone who feels the things you find important and meaningful to be trivial frivolities.”
Indeed, it was the richness of the church’s liturgical and spiritual traditions that led Timothy Putnam to convert to Catholicism during Benedict’s papacy.
Putnam had been a United Methodist worship pastor for 10 years when he converted — after what he describes as a “realization that the faith that I was raised with was most present in the Catholic Church.” He and his wife were drawn not to “happy clappy” Catholicism, but to the traditions of the church that predate Vatican II.
His family, which includes four children under the age of 6, attends services at a Catholic parish that hosts Latin Masses, utilizes communion rails and where many women wear head coverings during Mass, all of which are rare in mainstream American Catholicism today. He is now director of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Tulsa.
Putnam’s affinity for church traditions, he says, is “a connection to the broader church not only around the world but also in time that we have this connection that we’re doing the same things that have been done through the centuries.”
“I was very, very fond of [Pope] Benedict,” Putnam says. He was my pope. He was the one I came into the church under. And he was very much a scholar, a very deep thinker. You had to read over the things he said three or four or five times to make sure you really knew what he was saying. Coming from an academic background I liked that very much.”
Where the hesitation around Pope Francis stems from, Putnam says, is a perception that by praising Francis’ simple style, people are “pit[ing] him against his predecessor.” Noting that in the transition from Benedict to Francis, Catholics have “gone from something that was a very liturgically conservative style to one that is quite a bit less rigid,” Putnam nonetheless adds that “this pope is focusing on something different and something that just as much needs to be addressed,” namely “not being stuck inside the walls of the church.”
“What I’ve experienced with people who I know who are very traditional is a love for Pope Francis. I haven’t seen too many people who don’t have respect for him. I know that they’re out there because I hear of them through articles and blogs. I hear that they’re out there. That they’re nervous, that they’re stirring.”
See images from the pope’s trip to Brazil below.