WELCOME! Do you find contemporary life a challenge? Are you a confused Catholic, or even just someone seeking to understand faith? Since 2003, CrossCurrents has appeared 40 times each year. My aim: to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! Find information about my pastoral consulting at http://www.crosscurrents.us/ NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST. YOU MAY ALSO CHECK OUT LEGAL OPERATIONS.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

#432: “Everything is Connected”—10 Reasons Why Pope Francis’ Ecology Encyclical is a Game Changer

The wave of media attention that initially greeted Pope Francis’ new encyclical was submerged almost immediately by last week’s news cycle, moving from the Charleston shootings to the free trade vote to the Obamacare victory to the legalization of same-sex marriage. But the real test is: what impact will Francis’ document have long term?

Few actions by any pope have received as much public attention (from media, candidates, office holders, scholars, and ordinary readers) as Pope Francis’ new ecology encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home.” Naturally, some embrace it, some dismiss it, some rationalize their opposition, others debate its pros and cons. But in the eyes of history, these reactions matter less than the answer to the most basic question: “Will it make any difference?” 

My quick response, after merely scanning the document and its commentators, is “Yes, this document could indeed turn out to be the game changer that alters the course of public policy, business practice, and personal behavior for years to come.” I offer 10 reasons. 

1. A Compelling Vision in which “Everything is Connected.” Many commentators wrongly described the encyclical’s theme as “climate change.” In fact Francis presents climate change as just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. He roots the problem of climate change in runaway carbon emissions, which are generated by our unsustainable reliance on fuels needed to power a runaway capitalist system that treats self-interest and greed as our most important social virtues. This system despoils the global environment while generating not only intolerable levels of pollution but also intolerable levels of inequality. The result, he says will be a progressive degrading of earth’s ecological systems which, while caused by the world’s wealthy, will disproportionately affect the world’s poor. Violent resistance (what Francis says is already "World War III") will continue to block the road to peace. The solution to this massively dysfunctional global system is nothing less than a planetary ethical revolution that dethrones runaway capitalism as we know it and replaces it with a system that reflects more authentically humane values. 

In short, rather than focusing on science or environmentalism or economics or public policy or social justice or religion--Pope Francis has integrated them all into one big coherent vision. No wonder he calls it “integral ecology”: it is not just the “big picture,” it is the biggest picture of all. 

2. Perfect Timing, Part 1. Elected in March 2013, Francis has arrived in the world stage at the very moment of history when our ecological challenges are approaching the crisis point. The signs of environmental decline are everywhere. The scientific consensus makes a compelling case for action, and the resistance to economic inequality is cresting. Across the globe, hundreds of millions of people--especially the poor--sense the urgent need for change and demonstrate their unwillingness to passively accept the words of those defending the status quo. It is at this moment that the papacy--one of the planet’s few truly global offices--is occupied by a certified champion of the poor from a southern hemisphere country, trained in chemistry, whose warm simplicity has made him the most popular man in the world and given his voice a public power without rival. At the very moment any revolution would need a moral authority to believe in, Francis is the man of the hour.

3. Perfect Timing, Part 2. In the next six months at least four major events will provide Francis high-profile opportunities to promote his message. In September he will visit the U.S., and will become the first pope ever to address a joint session of Congress, where his audience will include enough climate change deniers, unfettered free market apologists, and 1% millionaires to sink Noah’s Ark. They will have no choice but to listen, and they will also know that millions of American viewers are also hearing this stunningly popular man speak truth to power. They may not like what they hear, but they will dismiss his message at their own peril.
The pope will also address the General Assembly of the United Nations, where his message will have an international (even global) audience. And since the U.N. has already taken the lead on environmental matters, Francis will be linking his moral authority and the global reach of his Church (2/3 all Catholics live south of the equator) with the political influence of another international organization.

December will bring two more events. December marks the 50th anniversary of the closing session of Vatican Council II, which secured the support of the world’s 2000 Catholic bishops for much of the vision that Francis has embraced. And the U.N.’s own summit conference on climate change will be held in Paris, where delegates pushing for radical governmental reforms and regulations will find ample ammunition in Francis’ vision.
Francis of Assisi, Patron of the Environment

4. Linking Faith and Science. Since Galileo, faith and science have too often seemed at odds, going their separate ways and even forming separate and conflicting worldviews. (The Catholic Church has not always been the worst of offender: witness how fundamentalist Christians have dug in their heels by proposing “creationism” to deny evolution.) The result has been a scientific community that often shies away from ethical categories to avoid unscientific intrusions. But Vatican II’s vision called for the reconciliation of science’s power with the wisdom needed to guide it toward the common good. And now Francis has linked the wisdom of Catholic social teaching to the powerful scientific consensus of our day--and the scientific community is acknowledging that this can give their concerns both a popular and a political impact they cannot achieve on their own. This historic breakthrough might even restore the ancient notion that faith and reason are only truly relevant if they are together.

5. Preaching Beyond the Choir. Like John XXIII before him, Francis addresses not just Catholics, but “every person living on this planet.” He is speaking on issues that concern us all, and he is evoking facts and values that are relevant to us all. He seems perfectly aware that his papal office allows him to command worldwide attention, and moreover he seems perfectly ready to use the office to do just that. Stop and think: what other public official can command such attention?

NEXT: 5 More Reasons

© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

#431: We Need the Right Kind of Leadership

Events in Ireland El Salvador can teach powerful lessons for the leaders of the Church in the United States. 

The recent Pew Research Center study on religious affiliation brings disquieting news: the number of American Catholics who have stopped practicing their faith has increased, especially among the millennial generation, since the last Pew study in 2007.  The Catholic Church is losing members faster than ever, and faster than any other Christian church.
But this begs the question: how can we stop, or even reverse, this trend?  I suspect there is no single answer, but last week’s events in two other countries suggest that one answer is: we need the right kind of leadership.
These countries are Ireland and El Salvador, and their contrasting experience shows the difference between two kinds of leadership: the right kind and the wrong kind.
This contrast may surprise us, since on the surface these two countries, though distant, are similar in several respects.  Both are small countries with small populations  (Ireland 4.6 million, El Salvador 6.3 million).  Both have overwhelmingly Catholic populations.  Both countries’ church hierarchies have had powerful cultural and political influence.  Both share a history of oppression at the hands of a foreign colonizer.  And both have seen grinding poverty.
Yet last week we saw sharply contrasting events.  In Ireland, the vast majority of Catholics, refusing to follow the Irish hierarchy’s opposition to same sex marriage, approved a constitutional revision legalizing civil marriage between gays.  That same week, thousands of Salvadorans attended (and millions celebrated) the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, soon to be Saint Oscar Romero.

Common sense tells us that leaders cannot lead if no one follows.  This raises a new question: why did Romero inspire such following, while the Irish hierarchy inspired rejection?  As we Americans witness so many (especially young) Catholics rejecting their Church, the question is both practical and urgent.  So the cases of Ireland and El Salvador are not just relevant, but also instructive.
One can argue that both the Irish and the Salvadoran church leaders have bad track records.  Once Ireland gained independence from Britain, the country’s clergy were among its most powerful figures (some have called Ireland at that time a Vatican colony!). Before becoming Dublin’s archbishop, John Charles McQuaid was a major architect of the Irish constitution, constructed on the principle that Irish law should reflect Catholic doctrine. The constitution specifically notes the "special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church" in national life. As Scholar Timothy White wrote:
By the time [Irish leader Eamon] De Valera wrote and Ireland enacted a new constitution in 1937, the Catholic religion was guaranteed a special role in society and the entire document adapted principles of corporatism that were popular in Church thinking at that time….De Valera’s constitution provided an effective and formal merger between the Catholic Church and the Irish nationalist elites.
Ireland was, as the New York Times wrote, “a theocracy in all but the name.” Many public institutions (like the schools) were in fact run by the Church. Several generations were thus raised by a domineering and harsh hierarchy who taught a version of Catholicism obsessed with rules and sex and guilt.  The result was not only a morally repressive culture but an appalling array of oppressive Catholic institutions (from parishes to schools to hospitals to convents to orphanages to homes for single mothers) that achieved the psychological and even physical enslavement of many Irish Catholics.
In my first parish job, in 1972, I asked the pastor and his assistant priest, both Irish nationals, why they had come to America to work.  Without hesitation or reflection, both give the same answer: “I came to escape the Irish clergy.” Since then, revelations of widespread clergy sex abuse and exploitation of girls has reinforced popular disgust with the hierarchy.
In El Salvador, the story was slightly different.  Independence from Spain left in place a moneyed elite that owned most of the country’s land and dominated its institutions, including the Church itself.  The Salvadoran clergy, as part of the country’s small educated elite, came mostly from the wealthy landowner families.  This was especially true of many Salvadoran bishops.
Thus El Salvador’s Catholic leadership maintained a longtime partnership with the ruling elite (including the military) that maintained its status by perpetuating the gap between rich and poor.  By preaching that their suffering was God’s will, the hierarchy helped keep the poor in their place.
But by Romero’s time, the hierarchy was shifting its mission, as Vatican II (1962-1965) inspired change in the Church in Latin America. At the historic Medellín (Colombia) conference in 1968, the region’s bishops decided to abandon their traditional role as defender of the status quo and to support the poor struggling for social justice.
Romero was known as a conservative, skeptical of both Vatican II and Medellín. Yet on his appointment as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Romero became almost immediately outspoken in opposing injustice and defending the poor. He had witnessed the suffering poor and government violence even against priests in his previous role as bishop in Santiago de María, which made him distrust authorities and fear for his people.

Oscar Romero had the courage to break with bad leadership and lead another way.  He took the side of the poor, decried their oppression, and became a prophetic voice for all the marginalized and destitute of El Salvador.  But this break made him not only a threat to the elites but even a traitor to his class, and his punishment was assassination during Mass at the hands of a government-sponsored death squad.
The 1980 Funeral of Oscar Romero
Thus Romero became a blessed martyr because he championed the suffering poor against their powerful oppressors.  In this he communicated the truth of the Gospel.
But the Irish hierarchy, meanwhile, was not the partner of an elite oppressor - -it was itself the perpetrator of oppression.  And unlike Romero, it never broke from its harsh and abusive practices.  Instead, as Ireland grew more prosperous and Ireland’s links to other countries (especially the U.S.) grew stronger, the nation’s culture drifted away from the rule of bishops.  In effect, the Irish began to assert a “second independence” (first from the British, now from the Church).  The huge turnout for the gay marriage referendum and a 2-to-1 vote in favor was the result.  For many, the vote was not so much about redefining civil marriage, or about accepting gays, or even about expanding constitutional rights.  Instead, for many Irish voters, this was their “Declaration of Independence” from the Catholic hierarchy.
For me, the lessons from El Salvador and Ireland are obvious and important.  First, leadership that distorts Catholic tradition to serve some other agenda (especially the preservation power) is bad leadership, so finally people refuse to follow.  Second, defending systematic inequality as God’s will is one such distortion of our faith.  Third, rule by sexual repression is another such a distortion of faith.  Fourth, only by breaking away from such distortions and preaching the authentic Gospel message can Catholic leaders restore people’s confidence in their own leaders.  Only then will people follow the leader.
For American Catholics, these lessons invite reflection.  If we are losing members, especially young members, is our leadership somehow responsible?  Has our hierarchy championed the Gospel message?  Has it been, like Jesus, committed to “preach good news to the poor”? Has it, like Jesus, chosen “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed”?
Or has our hierarchy too often complacently accepted the growing gap between the 1% in the 99%?  Has it too often been sidetracked by its “culture wars” obsession with all things sexual?  Has it lost the trust of millions of millennials by its horrific failure to protect children and discipline their priestly molesters? 
In short, is the hemorrhage of U.S. Catholics best understood not as a crisis of faith among the young, but rather as a crisis of credibility of among our leaders?

Blessed Oscar Romero inspires millions of Catholics (in America as well as El Salvador) as a model of holy, courageous, and effective leadership.  Does he also inspire our bishops?  Can they become credible leaders like him?  If yes, perhaps more of us will be inspired to follow them.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Thursday, April 23, 2015

#430: 10 Reasons to Choose the Life Penalty

After several weeks of a trial to convict the Boston Marathon bomber who had already admitted his guilt, the question now is: will the jury choose life or death?

Martin Richards, the 8 year old boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, went to school just a few hundred yards down the street from my house.  This week his killer’s trial has entered the penalty phase, when jurors will decide if Dzhohkar Tsarnaev will be sentenced to death or to life without the possibility of parole.

But just before the penalty phase began, the boy’s family publicly requested that the death penalty be set aside.  No one suffered more than the Richards.  Martin’s sister lost a leg, his mother suffered serious injuries, and his father was forced to make the soul-rending decision to leave his dying son in order to say his sister.  Their plea now is to be released from the further suffering the death penalty would bring.  Known as active Catholics in a heavily Catholic neighborhood, the Richards intended to speak only for themselves, yet they can also be seen as representing modern Catholicism’s increasing rejection of lethal violence.

The taking of human life has many forms, but none is more central to Christianity than the death penalty.  Jesus himself was a victim of capital punishment, and the instrument of his execution--the cross--has long become the “trademark” of his followers and their faith.  Indeed, we’ve become so accustomed to the cross, and even the crucifix, that we might be shocked to imagine, as one Bostonian suggested this week, walking into a church to find Jesus hanging from a noose or strapped to an electric chair.

Most of Jesus’ apostles were also killed by the authorities.  We call them martyrs, but they effectively spent their last days on death row.  The same is true for more than a few Christian saints even into the 21st century, executed for their faith.  The image of Christians killed by ISIS is tragically fresh news. 

Sadly, Catholics had been not only victims of the death penalty, but agents of execution as well.  The Inquisition regularly tried and condemned “heretics” and “witches,” even if the actual killing was done by civil authorities.  And we should never forget that France’s patron saint, Joan of arc, was only canonized after being burned at the stake following the Church’s condemnation.  Over the centuries, then, the Church has been both the victim and the perpetrator of the death penalty. 

But recent years have brought a dramatic shift, as Catholic teaching has come to reject virtually every argument used to justify capital punishment.  That teaching has had its effect: fewer than half of U.S. Catholics support the death penalty, down from 70% a generation ago.

But it is still worth seeing why the Church now opposes virtually any use of the death penalty, even for cases as uniquely heinous as the Boston Marathon bombing.  In view of Pope Francis’ plea to build an encounter culture, these reasons might help us to encounter others at this very moment, when the death penalty is urgently debated.

The Vatican, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the U.S. bishops collectively, and many bishops of individual states have gone on record opposing the death penalty.  They have joined together in a growing consensus about why the death penalty is wrong.  Drawing on their views, here are 10 good reasons:

1. Playing God.  Catholics believe the power over life and death belongs to God alone.  Murderers usurp that power for themselves, which is the most profound reason for calling murder evil.  And executioners, no matter how good their intentions, usurp God’s power as well.

2. Cycle of violence.  Catholics are supposed to believe that violence is not the greatest power on earth.  We believe, in fact, that love can conquer violence.  But answering violent acts that take human life by taking another human life means we give in to the power of violence and thereby perpetuate it.

3. No deterrent.  There is no evidence that executing people reduces crime.  In fact, states that execute have higher crime rates than states that don’t.  And European countries, all of whom ban executions, have much lower crime rates than the U.S.

4. Expensive and inefficient.  It cost several times more to implement a death sentence than it does to impose life without parole.  Years or decades of appeals often mean criminals eventually die on death row anyway before they can be executed.

In the specific case of the Marathon bomber, the killer’s lawyers publicly stated that, had the federal government taken capital punishment off the table, Tsarnaev would have pleaded guilty, thus avoiding any trial at all, and would already be out of sight, serving a life sentence without parole. Thus the trial was only needed for one thing: to secure a death penalty. That means that this week’s penalty phase—as well as the entire trial before--are but one wasteful part of the unnecessary price we pay by insisting on the death penalty.

5. Prolongs victims’ sufferings.  Execution is not magic.  It will not bring back the dead, or make their families suffer less.  On the contrary, the death penalty keeps a case alive far longer than the disappearing act of a life sentence.  This is precisely why the Richards family fears the anguish they will undergo after a death sentence.  The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen, who has listed all the terrorists already waiting on death row since 1993, predicts Tsarnaev’s death sentence would never actually be carried out.

6. Racism.  In U.S. history as well as today, minorities are disproportionately targeted by the death penalty.  In part, this reflects the difficulty poor people have obtaining effective counsel.  The result: a double standard by which better-off criminals are likely to evade the death sentence. Thus, while African-Americans make up only slightly more than 10% of the American population, they constitute more than 40% of those on death row.

7. Innocence. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 152 people sentenced to death have been exonerated since 1973. An increasing number of these were exonerated when DNA evidence proved they were innocent. On average, these people spent 11.2 years on death row before being released!

No human institution will ever be perfect, so we must always be prepared to identify and correct our errors. But once a person is executed, it is too late to correct that mistake! How many innocent have been executed before they could be exonerated? How many innocent deaths are justified by our desire to kill the guilty? 

8. Cruel and unusual?  Cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited by the U.S.  Constitution, but those words have yet to be clearly defined.  Yet every attempt to invent a more “humane” form of execution ends up in grotesque suffering, mistakes, and mishaps.  The result is the irony of people shocked to learn that a state might return to firing squads because lethal injections have proved so difficult to implement.  As the rest of the world leaves the death penalty behind, the American practice of it appears even more to be cruel and unusual. 

Some argue that while in general the death penalty is wrong, in the specific case of the Marathon bomber it is uniquely justified.  But of course that simply makes the penalty that much more unusual, and no less cruel. 

9. Last resort.  In its attempts to promote a “seamless garment of life,” the Catholic Church now teaches that the death penalty must be regarded as a last resort--to be used only when there is no other way to protect society from a criminal.  But the high security prison in Colorado to which the U.S. has already sent convicted terrorists means that any threat is removed, and any further suffering is prevented.  In practice, then, the Church’s teaching of a last resort faces us with the truth that there may be no situations where there is no other alternative.  Clearly, in this case, as in virtually every other case, life without parole is an available option.  Those seeking death face the burden of explaining why the alternative cannot be justified.

10. It is bad for us.  Virtually all advanced democracies have eliminated to the death penalty--except the U.S.  By now, moving beyond executions is the world’s mark of a truly civilized country.  Given the alternatives, capital punishment serves only one real purpose: revenge. And the world now regards revenge as a relic of a more primitive culture.  In short, the presence of the death penalty in our society separates us from the truly civilized world. Thus resorting to the death penalty appeals to the worst instincts in our nature, and makes us less as a people. 

Listen to the joint statement of Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downs, newlyweds who each lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombing, as they describe the spiritual challenge before us all:

In our darkest moments and deepest sadness, we think of inflicting the same types of harm on him.  We wish that he could feel the searing pain and terror that for beautiful souls felt before their death, as well as the harsh reality of discovering mutilated or missing legs.  If there is any one who deserves the ultimate punishment, it is the defendant.  However, we must overcome the impulse for vengeance.  

By overcoming that impulse for vengeance, by    rising above those dark instincts and choosing life, we become more—we become a better people.  And still justice is done.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015

#429: 10 "Francis Effects"

It’s become commonplace to talk about “the Francis Effect.” Now, two years after Pope Francis’ election, we can see that does not mean one thing, but many things. Here are the key examples.

The First Papal Selfie
1. Rebranding the Roman Catholic Church. After 25 years of declines, 15 years of scandal and closings, and more than a decade of culture wars, the Catholic Church wore the brand of a tired, mismanaged, even corrupt institution ineffectively pursuing a stubborn holding action against modern life. Francis almost immediately injected fresh air into the Church’s wheezing body with his vitality,  humor, and easy manner—and sent the clear message that the Church would return to its core mission of serving the world with good news and love. This injection has been a booster shot for millions of discouraged Catholics, who once again have started feeling pride in their Church.

2. Reversing Catholicism’s Bad PR.  Anyone old enough to remember Vatican Council II (1962-1965) remembers clearly the euphoria that surrounded the Council and its activities.  This was partly, of course, a “John Effect” created by the popular personality of Pope John XXIII, but it was also due to the sense that the Catholic Church was finally responding to the challenges of modern life after centuries of defensive stasis.  The upshot was the most positive media and public attention the Catholic Church had received in more than a century, not only from Catholics but from other Christians, other religions, and even the secular world at large. 

It is safe to say that, after 1968, that favorable public image began to cool and weaken, reaching its lowest point in the last 10 years. This resulted from a combination of factors, including the gap between Benedict XVI’s brilliant ideas and his clumsy public communication skills.

Francis has reversed all that, as his own wildly popular public image has rubbed off on the institution as a whole.  We Catholics are enjoying the best PR of the last 50 years--at the very moment that we observe the 50th anniversary of Vatican II!

3. Reviving the Ghost (spirit) of John XXIII.  One of the casualties of the long reign of John-Paul II was that an entire generation grew up in his shadow.  They were “John-Paul II
Catholics,” and in too many cases his giant public presence overshadowed both the Council that had preceded and produced him and the pope that made it possible.  None of the papacies we have seen since 1965 could be imagined before that, and all of John’s successors depended on and benefited from his vision of the Church’s future.  Francis has made sure we do not forget John’s impact.  That is precisely why, when it came time to canonize John-Paul II, Francis ensured that John XXIII was canonized on the same day.

4. Retrieving the Legacy of Vatican II.  Not a few Catholic leaders and commentators in the last 20 years arrived at the conclusion that the legacy of Vatican II was either accomplished, or at least on a settled path that could not change.  But Francis has clearly expressed the view that much of the Council’s vision has been left unfulfilled, and has personally described himself as “humble enough and ambitious enough to try to do something about that.” In that sense, his agenda as pope leapfrogs back over his predecessors Benedict and John-Paul II to the papacies of Paul VI and John XXIII.   

These were the popes who initiated and completed Vatican II.  These were the popes who set the Church on the course-correction called “renewal”--a course correction of historic proportions.  Francis has staked his papacy on recovering the momentum of that time.

5. Dethroning Clericalism.  This is hardly a case of the emperor’s new clothes, since the Catholic Church has worn imperial trappings for more than 15 centuries.  And the corrupting impact of human nature on the Catholic hierarchy has been largely ignored and evaded for generations.  Now Francis, in a pioneering move, has identified the symptoms that corrupt the vocations of ordained man in too many places within the Church.

Francis has made it clear that, after centuries of treating laypeople as helpless children and the ordained as faultless parents, too many clerics pursue the wrong motives for personal benefit, acquire habits that impede their service, and set themselves apart from the rest of the body of Christ.  He has even called himself “anticlerical” in the face of clericalism. Images of the many glum faces among his Vatican staff during his highly critical Christmas message reflect the wider alarm felt by Bishops and priests in many lands, who now realize that their ambitions of churchly glory have been exposed.

6. Elevating Humility.  From his very first papal moment on the balcony at Saint Peter’s, Francis has consistently eschewed any place of honor, privilege, imperial trappings, rank, or luxury.  In the true Jesuit spirit of poverty, he has refused to place himself apart from or above others, and has thus ironically elevated humility to the rank of the highest leadership gift.  His very unwillingness to pretend superiority has already made him stand out, not only among much of the hierarchy, but even among some of his predecessors.  That humility now becomes a model, not just for the hierarchy, but for all of us in all of our roles as we serve others in family, in workplace, and in community.  Thus Francis becomes the epitome of leadership not by command but by example. In the process, his humility has made him arguably the world’s most loved, admired, and respected officeholder.

7. Restoring Mercy.  It was at the opening address of Vatican II that John XXIII rejected condemnations and harsh execution of laws and rules as the norm for pastoral leadership in the Church.  Instead, he said we must replace such things with the “medicine of mercy.” Somehow someplace along the line, this message got lost.  Francis has brought it roaring back to life, making it one of the hallmarks of his papacy.  He never ceases to speak of the mercy of God, and makes it clear that this enjoins the rest of us to practice mercy as well.  For Catholics who grew up before 1960, John’s focus was a welcome relief from the notion that Catholicism was merely a set of rules to be followed.  In this day and age, Francis’s insistence on mercy brings warmth back to an institution that, in recent years, too many had found cold-hearted.

8. Promoting the Poor.  It goes without saying that the Gospel message, and the mission of the Catholic Church, has always given a central place to the poor of the world.  But it also goes without saying that the Catholic Church, as the world’s largest organization, has not always kept that priority in focus.  We now live in a world of unprecedented wealth, but also of unprecedented inequality.  Francis has made it clear that the desires for peace, prosperity, and a sustainable world will all be impossible if the problem of inequality is not solved.

This focuses our attention on the Catholic social teaching which calls for the redistribution of wealth when inequality reaches harmful dimensions. Thus Francis implies a great challenge for us and the citizens of other wealthy nations: how can inequality be reduced?  How can we redistribute the wealth? 

For Americans, of course, imbedded in the world’s largest capitalist society, this is complicated by the fact that we face not only the inequality between the wealthy and poor nations, but also the inequality between the 1% and the 99% in our own land.  In this sense, Francis has become an especially prophetic leader for Americans.  This will make his pending address to the U.S. Congress in the fall 2015 that much more intriguing and challenging.

9. “Cooling” the Culture Wars.  Catholic leaders in America in the last 10 to 15 years have often been characterized by their preoccupation with issues now identified as the “culture wars”: abortion, contraception, artificial insemination, euthanasia, same sex marriage, gay rights, sex education, etc.  Francis has been quite blunt on this matter. He’s not criticizing or questioning traditional Catholic teachings on any of these issues, but he is convinced that the culture wars made two mistakes. First, their preoccupation on these issues distracts them and Catholics in general from our mission to evangelize with mercy and joy.  Second, they distort Catholic tradition:

The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

Francis has announced in no uncertain terms that he does not want culture warriors nominated to be future bishops, since he believes that the culture wars represent a distortion of our core priorities as Catholics.

10. The “Cooling” of the Papacy.  The first two years of the Francis papacy have been not only dynamic but remarkably congenial. Even when uttering controversial, off the cuff remarks, this pope tends to be lighthearted, quick to smile, easy to approach, comfortable in his own skin.  The image of Pope Francis beaming into the camera on the cover of
Rolling Stone magazine now overshadows the radiant, even regal image of “John Paul Superstar” on the cover of Time magazine. 

Francis lacks both the looks and the charisma of John-Paul II but, like John XXIII, he projects a down-to-earth, human appeal that people find nearly irresistible.  It was one thing to attract 3 million youth to the World Youth Day in Rio (his two predecessors had performed similar feats). 
Listening to a reporter's question on the plane from Rio
But the 90 minute interview on the plane back to Rome showed a man willing to walk back to the press seats and mingle with the media in a familiar, ingratiating way.  And his decision to wade into Rio’s worst slum on foot to greet poor residents showed a fearless love of people that is making him the most beloved pope in many people’s memories.

So the papacy itself has suddenly become cool! Two short years ago, few Catholics would have believed that this could happen, and none of us believed it could happen so fast. 

Francis himself speaks as though his papacy will probably be a short one.  But the accomplishments of his first two years are already enough to mark him as a historic figure--and a gift from God.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015