At a time when religion is a damaged brand to many people—especially the young—and when it seems synonymous with intolerance and bigotry rather than justice and mercy, the recent words of Pope Francis are occasion for joy. Or as Equally Blessed, a Catholic support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, people put it, his words are “rain on a parched land.”
Here is what Pope Francis told the editor-in-chief of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica over the course of three separate interviews, as reported in America Magazine:
This church is … the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. … the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.
The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. … The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can … walk through the dark night [with the people] … without getting lost.
If a person says that he has met God … and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. … If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.
Religious men and women are prophets. … Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say a ‘mess.’ But in reality … prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel.”
What is remarkable about these words is their honesty, humility, and self-awareness. They resonate not just with millions of the faithful but also with millions more who have either left organized religion or have never come close in the first place because religion did not speak to them in any meaningful way.
That may be changing.
With this recent interview—as well as previous remarks where Pope Francis refused to judge gay people, aligned himself with those who are poor, and reached out to ordinary people in need—we may be witnessing the waning of a Vatican-sanctioned preoccupation with abortion, homosexuality, and birth control. What seems to be taking its place is a fierce devotion to “the least of these” and a rejection of judgmentalism in favor of a compassionate embrace of flawed humans. Beyond that, the pope has a dynamic appreciation of how religion changes over time. In the interview, he cited how views about slavery have changed as an example of how we grow in our understanding of the truth.
Such reflections make one wonder what current issues might be ripe for an evolved understanding. It would be naïve, of course, to assume that the pope’s recent pronouncements will bring about any quick changes on a range of important issues, such as the ordination of women, mandatory celibacy for men and women religious, and a ban on birth control.
At the same time, it would be overly cynical to assume that the pope’s words and actions will have no impact. We may see a resurgence of Catholics filling up the pews as those who left the church because of its narrow ways return. In addition, the “nones”—those religiously unaffiliated Americans who are spiritual seekers—might very well seek out the church as a harbor of community, inspiration, and meaning. We may also see changed attitudes in the larger society, as the pope takes steps to restore religion in the secular mind. His intellectual curiosity and emotional honesty could help transform religion from being seen as an anti-intellectual scam that preys on the gullible with unfounded promises to a valuable, compassionate, and prophetic force that strives for justice and lifts up the weak.
A Catholic colleague who has been working for years on issues of immigration reform, poverty reduction, and economic inequality wrote a blog post last week in response to the pope’s interview. John Gehring of Faith in Public Life said:
There is particular resonance in the pope’s more inclusive style for Catholic progressives. Nuns, theologians, Catholic Democrats and social justice activists have been strongly criticized by church leaders in recent years. Conservatives have largely been given a free pass for ignoring or distorting church teaching on war and economic justice. Simply opposing abortion became the de-facto definition of what it means to be a ‘good Catholic.’ The church’s broad social justice agenda took a back seat. The climate became thick with fear and guilt-by-association. The air is starting to clear. A new space is opening up.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.