A Non-Political Pope?

You can’t tell too much from one interview, of course, but the interview Pope Francis gave an Italian Jesuit journal last month, and which was released last week, seems like a blockbuster. Everyone understands this. Progressive Catholics are elated. After long years in the wilderness, they believe, they have one of their own as pope. Traditionalists have been more circumspect, but it’s hard to miss the sense of alienation. Traditionalists are used to thinking that, however much they have to battle with progressives at the local level, the pope has their back. Now, that’s very unclear.

As an outsider, I don’t feel right getting involved in intra-Catholic debates. There’s too much I don’t know, and anyway it’s not polite. But this interview does suggest three observations. First, Pope Francis has a definite vision for the Catholic Church. When he gave his airborne interview on the way back from Brazil last month–the interview in which he famously said, “who am I to judge?”–some traditionalists consoled themselves that he had spoken off the cuff or allowed himself to be misunderstood. After this interview, it’s impossible to think so. He knows what he means and means what he says.

Second, I’m not sure the pope is correct to suggest that the Church has been obsessing over sexuality–abortion, gay marriage, contraception. Catholic friends tell me they almost never hear sermons on these subjects. One might say, with justification, that the wider society is obsessing about these issues and the Church is only responding. If the government adopts a new rule that says you must pay for your employees’ contraceptives and abortifacients, and you think such drugs are gravely wrong as a matter of conscience, what should you do? I suppose you could readjust your priorities and say nothing. But if you were to object to such a rule, you would hardly be “obsessing.”

Third, it’s striking that in a long interview the pope said virtually nothing about politics. Only twice did he refer to the Church’s position on public policy questions, once to state that the Church should stop talking so much about sexuality and once to refer to the proper approach to “social issues”:

When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it. There is a brilliant letter by Father Arrupe to the Centers for Social Research and Action on poverty, in which he says clearly that one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty. The word insertion is dangerous because some religious have taken it as a fad, and disasters have occurred because of a lack of discernment. But it is truly important.

Note a couple of things here. For Pope Francis, the phrase “social issues” connotes what Americans would call “economic issues”–an interesting distinction. More important, to address these issues, Pope Francis did not call for political action. He did not say, “When it comes to social issues, the important thing is to redistribute wealth and nationalize health care.” He may favor such programs, I don’t know. But he apparently does not think political programs are terribly important. The essential thing is for the Church to live among poor people, to share their lives, to minister to them–in order to witness to the Gospel. 

In other words, Pope Francis’s interview does not suggest he would like the Catholic Church to adopt a “progressive” politics any more than a “conservative” politics. It suggests he thinks the Church is beyond politics. To me, this is the key take-away from the pope’s interview. There is an old, old debate in Christianity. Is the faith about healing souls or social justice? It’s about both, of course, but which is more important? If I read him correctly, Pope Francis leans strongly in the first direction: Christianity is an interior matter, a question of salvation, of walking humbly in the company of the Lord and his followers. Christians can never be completely beyond politics, of course, and it will be interesting to see how this all develops. But Pope Francis seems, in his way, a mystic. And mystics don’t do politics. 

37 responses

  1. Your point about social vs economic issues is interesting. I think its a matter of our primary lens we see/think through. For Pope Francis, it seems to be humanity first, so it does make sense that he would refer to drugs as social issue- how they affect the person, the heart, soul, family, neighborhood of a person. Yes, he is starting from the internal, I dont think the categories are as academic as you define them, he seems to be addressing humanity’s woes with an eye and heart on humanity. Social here refers to the person radiating out in community.

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  2. Um…wow. I just love what you wrote. I too am non Catholic but totally catholic (can’t resist the usage) and find this Pope right on the money. I wondered a couple of days ago if this guy won’t end up being a living saint. And not facetiously. Thanks too for the great quote…I hadn’t seen it but read about it.

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  3. I’m still awaiting (but not holding my breath) to hear the Pope talk about 50% of the world’s population and give permission to those women who have a calling like their male Catholic counterparts to take up the priesthood. How great would it be to finally be done with pedophilia in the Catholic church? I’m not a practising Catholic any more due to in part to these two issues. And how did homosexuality over take women’s issues?

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  4. If the pope is a mystic, then I like him like this. It’s nice to hear a pope who isn’t outright condemning people. I’m not even Christian, but I like the fact that he’s trying to create dialogue and being civil and kind, which is something I don’t see too often from Christian leaders, official and so-called, who just have their say and won’t listen to anyone else.

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  5. You sure read a lot into one interview and take some great leaps of wishful conjecture. This Pope is as reactionary conservative on Catholic dogma as the last one. So he likes public transit, shuns the papal mansion, and doesn’t wear pricey red designer shoes. He just does a much better job at populist public relations, at posturing ‘the common touch’ and at subsuming substance into style. Not a politician? He’s a fantastic one!
    – Mo

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  6. Interesting blog.
    I agree on the statement that the wider society is obsessed with problems such as homosexuality, and the Church just responding to these problem. I think this is true for every denomination.
    One of the big aspects, and responsibilities, of the Church is in fact responding to society. Church members are not separate from society.
    You have offered another perspective on the Pope’s speech. It seems the Pope is bringing reformation within the Church.

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  7. I’m not a Catholic, used to be a Christian many moons ago. It would be great if this Pope had the compassion and humanity to endorse the use of contraceptives to release millions upon millions of women from a life of childbirth and poverty. It would be better for those kids searching amongst the rubbish for anything they could sell, all those street kids. Somebody must have given birth to them. What happened to those mothers? And a man must have been involved in the creation of life, what happened to him?

    Maybe the Pope in his infinite wisdom should address this social issue too apart from drugs.

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  8. There’s no such thing as a non-political Pope. The Vatican itself is a political entity, a sovereign country – all their actions are political, wrapped and sold as spiritual acts but political nonetheless. Popes are therefore politicians, some less power hungry than others but all seek to have jurisdiction over the lives of others. Franziskus’ policy can be summed up as ‘compassionate conservatism.’ It’s smart policy.

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  9. Sometimes I wonder how people want the Pope to present himself to them. Its a journey we all have to make, being concerned about our own future with a right conscience and clear perspective would help a lot more

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  10. This reminds of Mother Theresa, She lived among the poor, helping them have dignity. Showing compassion and doing good works with the people seems better than being “against” things. Be for something beautiful and connecting. I see kindness in the Pope’s face.

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  11. Like the author, I’m not Catholic (merely catholic). Francis’s statement “who am I to judge?” gives us hope. His call to live among and minister to the downtrodden is also tonic for the soul. It is a good starting point. But can he address and finally reverse the medieval and, let’s face it, misogynistic prohibitions against contraception and women in the priesthood? That’s a long way to go. We hope he can get there.

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  12. As a sort of Traditional minded Catholic, I must say you are doing a wonderful job of missing what the Pope is saying. All he has said is that he will not judge those who live chastely and follow Christ, that the Church is more than its sexual teachings, and that we are supposed to care about everyone. Things that Pope Emeritus Benedict also believed and which all faithful Catholics believe. The Church isn’t changing anything, the words used are just a bit different. The Church hasn’t changed Her teachings in 2000 years, and it isn’t about to start with this Pope.

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  13. As a very involved & practicing Catholic I can’t totally agree with your “interpretation” ; but it made for a good read..It’s always good to read different viewpoints..I’m also always a bit intrigued why so many non-Catholics have such an interest in the Pope or matters regarding the Catholic Faith..I find that interesting…Having said all of that this Pope is JUST as Political as any other..Majority of Catholics know that the Catholic Faith & Political stances are very much intertwined..I have heard & recently many a homily rooted in the Catholic church’s stance regarding abortion, contraception & homosexuality. Trust me it has NOT changed. Not one bit..

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  14. I don’t think it is possible for anyone in a position of extreme power such as the pope to abstain from politics. The pope a mystic – now that’s stretching it a bit, but intriguing nonetheless..

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  15. Very well said Vernasvibe… church and the state/government (politics) go together always. Different views help us understand things so, thanks to Mark for posting….

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  16. Great post, I especially appreciate your point at the end that by (at least) steering the conversation away from the political, Pope Francis is acknowledging something that seems to have gotten pushed down by many Christians at all levels: that the central message of the faith- to love one another- should be the mission and purpose of the church (Catholic or catholic). It isn’t about traditionalists versus progressives, per se (also strong proponents of either camp are likely to see it as such), so much as returning to the core mission of the church and what people of ALL political mindsets, backgrounds, etc. can contribute to that mission of love and compassion. I’m looking forward to seeing if this seed continues to grow through continued discussion and dissemination. I especially hope to see Christians of all denominations begin a shift away from focusing almost exclusively on the doctrinal details and political implications that divide us and transition back to a focus on the core messages of the faith. Let the details rebuild themselves over time from a newly strengthened foundation rooted in love. I’m sure that is, in many ways, naive and overly optimistic/simplified, but it sure would be nice to see the faithful focus on the ways we are united instead of looking for ways to make enemies of one another! Shifting the focus back to love across the board would be a small but important step in that direction.

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  17. It is impossible for the so called pope to be non-political.
    he is head of state of the vatican state..etc.
    he is always making political comments, and visiting world leaders..
    why are you trying to portray him as being non-political.?
    More roman catholic hypocrisy i suppose.???
    ……” yawns ………”

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  18. As I read your I would like to say that ‘Christianity is beyond politics, but Christians are not completely beyond politics.’ As humans we are social beings and are influenced by the political outlook of the society. But ‘Faith’ by itself is not influenced by politics. It could be the other way at times – that faith can influence politics.

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  19. Great blog. It’s true Christians can never be totally beyond politics… Pope Francis is a spiritual leader called first to guide us spiritually, but we all live with our 2 feet on the ground. (at least most of us) where we need to know how to be faithful Christians within a world full of many things that don’t have to do with our faith, politics is just one of them.

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  20. Great piece. While don’t consider myself a religious man, I am nevertheless a spiritual being. I have hope for this guy. He brings a new perspective to a religion that’s in badly need of an overhaul. Perhaps this Pope can bring about the change the Roman Catholic church needs.

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  21. Spookchristian is evidently not British or he would know our Queen is Head of State but strictly non-political. Similarly the Pope has a Secretary of State to handle political issues affecting the Vatican while he is Head of the Church

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  22. Great post Center! I do disagree with your second point though. Coming from the Midwest where a more conservative mindset is common, the issue of sexuality is more present than it may be in other demographics. I agree with your statement that “mystics don’t do politics” which (hopefully) becomes a classic statement. Being Catholic, I am very excited about Pope Francis and his visions on how the Catholic Church should evolve. A recent interview he mentioned that as Christians our goal is to love one another and listen to what others have to say (in a nutshell). His simple, yet powerful approach is maybe where we need to get back to as not only Christians but human beings.

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  23. I think what you hear from Pope Francis is a change in presentation in an attempt to get people to listen to and consider what he is saying. Conservative and liberal in the American political sense have no meaning in the Catholic Church.

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  24. Of course the Church will not change dogma. What good would a church be that claimed to teach what the Apostles taught and then changed its teachings?

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  25. I grew up in a ‘Christian’ home, not Catholic however I was surrounded by them. As a result of having had the time and opportunity to study religion as well as having had firsthand experience, I no longer believe in an external god. I do believe however that humanity would be infinitely better off, if said humanity would practice the precept of Christianity, namely treating others as one would like to be treated. What I garnered from this post is that perhaps Catholicism is beginning to move in this direction. I hope so.

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  26. Reblogged this on jenshinhoshiko18 and commented:
    It is great that the Jesuit Pope is seriously embodying the qualities of his namesake, the Franciscan Founder, St. Francis of Assisi who embraced “Lady Poverty” and exemplified “service to the poor with humility and open kindness”… 🙂

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