Following the traditional and literal approaches of Pope John Paul II and particularly Pope Benedict XVI, Jorge Mario Bergoglio began his papacy as Pope Francis I on March 13, 2013. Even only a few months into his papacy, he has already caused much stir over his non-traditional approaches to papal speech and behavior. He has forgone the papal "throne" and opted for a less adorned seat in addition to wearing only white.
|Source: Pope Benedict XVI (left) and Pope Francis I (right)|
He has also washed the feet of a Serbian Muslim woman and of prisoners instead of traditionally having his own feet washed after his appointment.
|Source: Feet-washing by Pope Francis I|
More recently, he was under media attention after carrying his own luggage on his trip to Brazil for World Youth Day.
|Source: "Only Pope Francis would carry his own bags aboard the plane for Rio!"|
But perhaps most important are the words that he has said about traditional Church positions that have prompted prominent members of the Church and the Vatican itself to issue correctives. I cannot emphasize the irony and importance of this statement enough: prominent Church leaders and the Vatican have corrected the appointed voice of God on Earth, the infallible and unerring. Pope Francis I said on his return from Brazil that he and others should not judge the calling of gays to the priesthood. For a Church who argues for the immorality of gay marriage, this is really only a small step for acceptance, but is revolutionary nonetheless. This statement, however, was rejected by prominent New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan in a statement confirming the Church's official position that still considers sexual relations outside of male/female marriage immoral.
Additionally, Pope Francis I made a statement regarding the morality of atheists. Even those without a belief in God, let alone a Catholic follower could still do good and "we'll find a meeting point." People have interpreted this to mean that good people, no matter their religious affiliation, could be allowed into heaven. After this statement, the Vatican issued a statement that anyone who rejects the Catholic Church "cannot be saved."
What does it mean for the ethos of the Pope to be challenged? Is the Church so tied to tradition and antiquity that it must reverse even the slightest hint of progressive, liberal, and welcoming rhetoric? What role does Pope Francis I play if his position as voice of God is subject to human correction? Can he be trusted and considered an authority by followers?
I do not believe that these small statements truly mean that Pope Francis I is a liberal or that the Church is anywhere close to changing its positions (considering the correctives). To say that finding a place for women in the Church is revolutionary is really to forget the fact that it is 2013. The implications of these statements should not be completely ignored, however. What these statements represent is a small, but meaningful step towards increased inclusion in the Catholic Church. These symbolic gestures, though rejected by others, might promote the increased openness of Catholics or at least temper Catholic backlash to liberal social issues. At least this is a positive step away from some of the past teachings that were highly restrictive and more concerned with pomp and circumstance than change.