The Roman Catholic Church — and the papacy — have become an easy target for critics in recent years. They’ve pointed to decades of sexual abuse scandals and subsequent cover-ups, and have echoed the words of historian David Starkey, who has called the Church “irredeemably corrupt.”
Then, on March 13, 2013, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis.
Overnight, everything changed.
Here are 13 things Pope Francis did in 2013:
1. He asked a 17-year-old boy with Downs Syndrome named Alberto di Tullio to ride in his Popemobile with him. Both the boy and his father were said to be overcome by emotion.
2. In November, he embraced Vinicio Riva — a 53 year old man suffering with neurofibromatosis — a genetic disorder that causes painful and disfiguring bumps. Riva claimed afterwards the act restored his faith in God.
3. Asked about his views on homosexual priests in July, Francis responded by saying “who am I to judge?” The comment — and others that imply that the Church has no right interfere in the spiritual lives of gays and lesbians — have sent a ripple through the gay and lesbian community.
4. In March, the Pope held a service at Casal del Marmo jail. He washed and kissed the feet of 12 young offenders — including women and Muslims.
5. He phoned a 44-year old Argentinian woman who had been raped by a policeman and told her: “You are not alone.” The woman later told media: “When I heard the Pope’s voice, it was like feeling the hand of God.”
6. Pope Francis reportedly leaves the Vatican at night with Archbishop Konrad Krajewski dressed as an ordinary priest to feed poor and homeless people in Rome.
7. He has said that “Atheists should be seen as good people if they do good.”
8. Pope Francis changed Vatican law to make sexual abuse of children a crime and created a committee to fight sexual abuse within the church.
9. He has said that the Church is obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and contraception rather than putting dogma before love, and putting doctrine ahead of serving the poor and marginalized.
10. Pope Francis has said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and said he hoped that Christians and Muslims could work together to promote mutual respect.
11. On December 17, he invited a group of homeless men and their dog into the Vatican to share his birthday meal.
12. A young boy ran on stage as the Pope was giving a speech. His assistants tried to remove him. Francis allowed him to stay.
13. As I write this article, just five hours ago, he sent Christmas presents to 2,000 immigrants at the Dono di Maria shelter near the Vatican. He gave them everything they need to connect with family over the holiday season — including postage stamps and a pre-paid international calling card.
All of these acts of love and courage on the part of the new Pope have made even the most hard-hearted of atheists and critics and skeptics take notice. Francis is a bit of a problem for them, because he doesn’t fit into their pre-conceived notions of the papacy or the Roman Catholic Church. He’s doing good works — motivated by his faith — and it confuses them.
And while he may not win any converts — at least not right away — “it certainly does is make it harder for me to be an ornery atheist versus a more accepting atheist,” according to atheist activist Mark Mason.
A Plea for Christian Ethics
All of these actions have been fine with conservatives — even the stuff about gays and lesbians didn’t cause much of a media stir in conservative circles — until the release of his first papal exhortation, the innocuously named “Joy of the Gospel.”
In the open letter to the faithful, Francis says:
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
Immediately, conservative commentators went ballistic.
Radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh whined: “Somebody has either written this for him or gotten to him. This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”
Fox News personality Stuart Varney was horrified: “I go to church to save my soul. It’s got nothing to do with my vote. Pope Francis has linked the two. He has offered direct criticism of a specific political system. He has characterized negatively that system. I think he wants to influence my politics.”
And James Pethokoukis, a blogger at the American Enterprise Institute, said that “innovative free enterprise is the greatest wealth generator ever discovered and the economic system most supportive of human freedom and flourishing.”
Clearly, the new Pope has struck a nerve. No one cared what he did — until he started speaking about pocketbook issues. Now, suddenly, conservatives are up in arms — a telling indication of contemporary right-wing priorities.
For his part, Francis remains unfazed:
He says: “Marxist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” He went on to say that he was speaking “according to the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church” and trying to present a “snapshot of what is happening” in the world today.
Right and left, atheist and Christian, gay and straight alike spent a good chunk of 2013 trying to figure out what to do with this problematic Pope, who seems to defy and subvert everyone’s expectations.
Perhaps the reason is that his positions are moral and theological, rather than economic or political. Instead, he makes a plea for Christian ethics. It is a powerful message — and one that is all too rare in our highly politicized world. Sidestepping the political debate, Francis writes:
“Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it threatens the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, Ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.”
Ideas like this — ideas which are truly fundamental to faith — are nothing less than radical and revolutionary in today’s hyper-politicized culture. I, for one, will be watching Francis carefully in 2014. I expect I will continue to be amazed, inspired and challenged by this unconventional Christian leader who seems to make everyone uncomfortable — including me.
And I really like that.
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