Like America, the Catholic Church is composed of “conservative” and “liberal” people. And a bunch more middle-of-the-roaders. Conservatives tend to defend traditional viewpoints and liberals tend to embrace changing things up. There’s always been this sort of tension in the Church, in our country, and in just about every other human institution I can think of. We like labeling people and their opinions or beliefs into one camp or the other. When folks challenge these black or white labels, or seem to us to be inconsistent in staying in whatever box we’ve assigned them, well, it’s uncomfortable. It’s confusing. It challenges us to examine what we think is true and to defend what we believe. It makes us look beneath the surface of things to see what lies beneath. It doesn’t fit into our quick and easy newsbite world. In our recent history, no one exemplifies this more than Pope Francis.
From the moment he assumed the papacy in 2013, we’ve seen him do things differently from the other popes in our lifetime. His simple white vestments and work shoes. His choice to live in a few furnished rooms instead of the Apostolic Palace. Leaving his house at night to visit the poor. He shook up the management in the Vatican offices and banks. He likes speaking “off the cuff” to reporters and even when he has a prepared speech in front of him, he likes to lay it aside and speak from his heart. He likes to mingle with the crowds who flock to see him. In some ways, both his security team and his Vatican “handlers” often seen a half-step behind him. Comments are often being “explained” or “clarified” to the media. He showed this during his recent trip to America.
Liberals were relieved when the Pope didn’t mention either abortion or Planned Parenthood by name in his several public addresses. Conservatives point out that Pope Francis did focus on the protection and defense of life, at all its stages. Likewise, he failed to spend time shouting against same-sex “marriage” which thrilled many liberals. Yet the whole purpose of his trip was to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which was a celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony within our society. Francis has a habit of keeping us on our toes. Even though he came for the World Meeting of Families, he also met with a gay couple with whom he’s friends. And then he met with the Kentucky court clerk who’d been jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. You may remember, too, that he was once asked for his thoughts on homosexuality by a member of the press. He famously replied, “Who am I to judge?” Yet just a few days ago, when a Vatican priest publicly “came out” with his boyfriend, Pope Francis wasted no time in relieving him of his job and banning him from further Vatican duties. Liberals celebrated his comments that Christians shouldn’t finance or manufacture weapons. Conservatives reminded them that he also spoke out in support of a US war against ISIS, saying that war is acceptable “to stop an unjust aggression.” On the one hand, he’s said that uncontrolled capitalism exploits the poor and the environment. On the other, he’s said that business is good because it provides wealth and employment. Children and the family are the future our our faith—–but “Catholics don’t need to breed like rabbits.”
It can leave you scratching your head. Is he a liberal or a conservative, or something else? Well, it’s even more complicated than that. He doesn’t fit into our easy categories because the Gospel isn’t a political party. And the Holy Father is more interested in our souls than in our labels. He confounds us because grace confounds us. The kind of love that died on the Cross to save us confounds us. We want to put the Church in a tidy little box. But our Savior calls us to be more than our human labels. Pope Francis is just trying to teach us how to do that.
“Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.”
—–G. K. Chesterton