Pope Francis saidin late July that he would never call terrorism “Islamic terrorism” since all religions contain fundamentalist groups. He made the comment in response to questions about a French priest who was targeted and killed in a terrorist attack.
His statement came on the heels of progressive remarks he made in June when he called for the Catholic Church to apologize to the LGBT community for centuries of discrimination. In his efforts to move the church towards a new era of cultural acceptance we should view Pope Francis with as much scrutiny as we would any politically savvy public figure. And whether or not you believe that the Pope is doing his best with a centuries-old system or that he is not moving fast enough on certain issues, we can all agree he is moving. Then the question becomes: how sustainable are these progressive movements after Pope Francis resigns or passes away? After all, Pope Francis changed the tenor of the church pretty quickly after his conservative predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, stepped down at the age of 85. With that in mind, many wonder how far Francis, who is 79 years old, can move the church before he has to hand over the job to somebody else.
In grappling with these questions, it becomes important to look at what has actually changed since Pope Francis took control of the Vatican. In terms of concrete policy the answer is not a huge amount. One of the main changes Francis made is who he appoints to the College of Cardinals. Traditionally bishops at certain dioceses become Cardinals and many of those dioceses are in Italy and wider Europe. Francis has made new, unexpected bishops Cardinals as part of his movement against careerism in the church. In doing so, he has given new parts of the world more representation in the College including Haiti and Myanmar where there have never been Cardinals before. This is significant because the College of Cardinals votes to elect the next pope and Francis has given a voice to regions with traditionally very little power in this arena. As of now, Africa and Asia have their highest (or nearly highest) representation in history, though it should be noted that Italy and Europe are still dramatically higher. And while it is true that the next pope can easily re-staff the College of Cardinals to his liking, just as Francis has done, since the Cardinals elect the next pope, the addition of Cardinals who share Francis’s beliefs has the potential to create a lasting impact on the church.
Many of Francis’s other changes have been cultural, such as his apology to the queer community or his comments about terrorism. Only time will tell if his statements have a lasting impact on the way the church and its members behave, although there is no doubt he has shifted the image of the church. Among his many bold stances he has endorsed the State of Palestine, warned people about climate change, and criticized the church for past failures. He has emphasized the church’s compassion for vulnerable groups.
More than just statements, though, Francis has been the impetus behind what may be lasting cultural change. Perhaps the best way to characterize the shift Francis has crafted is with his 2013 statement, also about homosexuality. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis asked, as jaws dropped all over the globe. Refusing to pass judgment plays into the way Francis paints himself as a man instead of an idol – and he pairs his humble words with humble actions. He refuses to live in the palatial lodgings past popes have preferred, instead opting for a simple guesthouse. He takes care to wear plain clothes, uses Twitter, and rides the bus. He does not present himself as a high and mighty man bringing the word of God to the masses. Instead he is gentle, thoughtful, authentic, honest, and kind. In short, he is acting human. And that transformation can very well follow the office long after Pope Francis leaves it. Especially if the next pope carries on the legacy.
So though Francis has not yet made many changes with the power to outlast him, he has changed the attitude and culture of the church. In order to effect real change he must move from cultural adjustment to new policies during his time in office. And perhaps there is even more pressure on the College of Cardinals, when the time comes, to elect a new pope who will continue to push the church in a progressive direction.
Sarah Aschis a summer editorial assistant atTikkun and a lover of words in general. She is a sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont where she is a staff writer for the school newspaper and is considering an English Literature major. Before working atTikkun, Sarah was the Editor-in-Chief of her high school paper, theTam News, and she interned atHot English Magazinein Madrid. Sarah loves being outdoors, swimming, and traveling, reading, and writing.
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