Pope Francis last week released his first book as pope, The Name of God is Mercy (2016). The publication aligns with the beginning of a Jubilee of Mercy, which marks most of 2016 as time of prayer and remission of sins.
The book provides an insight into the theology and life experiences of Francis that underpin his unorthodox approach to the papacy, and his push to re-fashion the public face of Catholicism to a more compassionate ethic based on Gospel values.
It comes from a pope who, arguably, has had the most significant impact on Catholic faith and secular-church relations since John XXIII instituted the 2nd Vatican Council in the early 1960s. That council was designed to guide the Catholic Church and its one billion adherents into an easier relationship with the modern world and humanistic values.
Under recent popes that relationship took a backward step. John Paul II and Benedict XVI both took hardline positions on the moral stance of the church towards significant social issues – particularly homosexuality, divorced Catholics, married priests and gay marriage.
While the secular world began including these issues in their human rights agendas, the church resisted this trend. John Paul II famously called homosexuality “part of a new ideology of evil”.
A new moral agenda
The election of Francis in March 2013 marked a significant shift in papal attitudes to controversial social issues. Francis has demonstrated both compassion and theological liberalism in his treatment of thousands of marginalised Catholics.
As well, Francis has spoken widely on important economic issues including the evils of capitalism and the politics of climate change. He has humanised the papacy and made it relevant to current world concerns. He has signalled the need for reform of church bureaucracy. The days of the papacy as above human concerns are well and truly gone.
In The Name of God is Mercy, Francis recounts his views and thoughts on the role of the church, the importance of confession and forgiveness and the place of mercy and love in faith. The heart of his thinking comes from a deep sense of humility: “Who am I to judge?” he asks over and again. He also reaffirms his desire to see homosexual Catholics remain within the church:
If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?
For Francis, mercy is at the heart of Christian practice and can only come from an engagement with one’s own experience of wretchedness and acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Mercy must be the centre of the church’s response in the modern world. Francis says:
To follow the way of the Lord, the church is called on to dispense its mercy over all those who recognise themselves as sinners, who assume responsibility for the evil they have committed, and who feel in need of forgiveness.
The Church does not exist to condemn people but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy. I often say that in order for this to happen, it is necessary to go out: to go out from the churches, and the parishes, to go outside and look for people, where they live, where they suffer and where they hope. I like to use the image of a field hospital to describe this ‘Church that goes forth'…
The image of the church as a sort of humane theological triage unit saving people from danger might be engaging but is this the basis for real change in the church? Or merely a softening of language that will keep intact oppressive doctrines and a bureaucratic culture that is often conceived as medieval and misogynistic?
The quality of mercy
There are two central issues here. First, no matter how much Francis wants to reach out to marginalised Catholics, the idea of mercy is premised on the recognition that we are all sinners and that in admitting to our sinfulness, the door to forgiveness and healing is opened.
That means that gay and divorced Catholics must admit to their wrongdoing to receive forgiveness and be included in the Catholic community. This sits against widely accepted humanist values that understand sexuality as an integral part of selfhood, and not a “sinful” lifestyle choice; and likewise, of divorce as a painful but positive process of adult maturation. In short, they are not examples of sin, but of human experience.
Secondly, even if Francis was determined to welcome gay and divorced Catholics into the fold, he is politically stymied. Indeed, it has been widely reported that Francis has made enemies within the Vatican and the broader church: conservatives who want to maintain tradition as inflexible and unchanging hate him.
His liberal stance has exposed church politics as rife with ideological sectarianism. Real doctrinal and social change is a long way off. No matter how much Francis wants church reform, the structure and decision-making bodies of the church remain with a celibate male gerontocracy where real power resides in the hands of the cardinals, most of whom are profoundly conservative.
Pope Francis has shifted the language of Catholicism and a door of hope has opened. Whether he can translate this to meaningful church reform remains to be seen.