On the flight home from World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis gave an unscheduled, no-holds-barred interview to the journalists travelling with him. He spoke on a wide range of topics including the role of women in the church and the alleged “gay lobby” in the Vatican. He denied knowing of any gay lobby, but said with regard to gay people: “If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?”
These words have been seized upon by liberals who want to believe that they indicate a shift in church teaching, but so far this is more a question of style than substance. Francis has not yet made any significant changes in the Vatican, and there are no signs that he is any more liberal than his predecessors on issues such as same sex marriage, contraception and abortion.
What is different is the shift in emphasis. In his first four months in office, he has said nothing about these issues, which had become a litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy during the last two papacies. Steering clear of the absolutism of his predecessors, he appears more willing to enter into dialogue, to listen and to learn.
He has shifted the focus from sexual and reproductive ethics to economic and social justice, and he insists repeatedly that the church must be a church of the poor. Some have likened him to Pope John XXIII, who took the church by storm when he inaugurated the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.
Francis practises what he preaches. In his native Argentina he used to travel on public transport and was known for his pastoral work among slum dwellers and prostitutes. Since his election, he has refused to live in the papal apartments and has abandoned the baroque style of Pope Benedict XVI in favour of a simpler appearance.
In Rio de Janiero, he visited the notorious Varginha slum. He insisted on mingling with the slum dwellers on foot, to the consternation of his security personnel. Rejecting the traditional bulletproof “Popemobile”, he put accessibility before his personal safety.
Or ecclesiastical enigma?
Yet Francis remains an enigma, and it would be naïve to portray him as a kind of ecclesiastical Robin Hood figure. His radical message in Brazil had echoes of liberation theology which swept through the Latin American church in the 1970s, but as Cardinal Bergoglio he was archbishop of one of the continent’s most theologically conservative Catholic hierarchies. He never openly challenged the military junta in Argentina, despite the fact that it was responsible for torturing and killing thousands of people. Questions remain as to whether he did enough to secure the release of two Jesuit priests kidnapped by the regime.
But perhaps he has been emboldened by the level of popular support he has received during his first few months in office, including an estimated 3m people who attended the World Youth Day mass on Copacabana Beach.
Conservatives watch him with increasing trepidation, hastily qualifying or correcting some of his impromptu remarks, but he has clearly captured the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary people hungry for a vision of hope amidst the economic injustices of our time. His message to the young people gathered in Rio was uncompromising, though his concern was perhaps more directly a call to mission and evangelisation than to political activism.
Brazil has the world’s highest population of Catholics, but the church there has lost an estimated third of its members owing to the influences of Pentecostalism and secularism. Speaking off the cuff in Spanish, he said that he wanted World Youth Day to create “a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses! … I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves”.
But Francis has done more than any of his predecessors to make the church’s message of social justice inseparable from the Gospel, so his call to faith goes hand in hand with an exhortation to young people to transform the world by challenging injustice.
Again, it is hardly surprising that he chose this as a central theme for his visit to Brazil. That country is now a leading global economy but is experiencing increasing social unrest because of the economic crisis and growing inequalities between a super-rich elite and a vast underclass of desperately poor people.
It remains to be seen what the enduring effects of all this might be. The young people who flocked to Rio represent a global church that is highly diverse in its cultures and values. But while Catholics may differ widely in their attitudes to the church’s teachings on sexuality, there is more consensus with regard to challenging poverty and injustice.
So back to that question of style over substance. It might be true that we have yet to see any substantial changes in the Catholic Church, but these are early days. Francis may have a deep pastoral concern for the poor and marginalised, but he is also a shrewd politician. It is one thing to step aside from the power and privilege of the papacy to touch the lives of ordinary people, but it is another thing altogether to tackle the corruption and ruthless ambition among some of the Vatican power brokers.
A man who once had to negotiate with one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships might well be the right person to change the church. Let’s wait and see. In the meantime, many of us are just enjoying the honeymoon.