When Pope Francis responded, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a reporter’s question about gay clergy in the Catholic Church, I had to scrape my jaw off the floor. Prior to this statement, the new pontiff had already ushered in a breath of fresh air to the Church when he called for a return to focusing on issues of social justice, such as caring for the poor. Rather than chastise nuns for spending too much time helping the poor instead of speaking out about abortion like his predecessor Benedict XVI, Pope Francis declared that the Church’s focus on issues such as abortion and gay marriage should shift.
In his first week as pope, Francis declared, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.” (James Carroll, The New Yorker) The new pope’s style is in keeping with his message. He has toned down the pomp of the office, wears simple white garb and traded the papal Mercedes for a Ford Focus. He goes out among the people and meets them on their level. And he practices the Gospel message of serving the marginalized members of society. Last year on Holy Thursday, he celebrated Mass at a correctional institution and got down on hands and knees to wash the feet of the inmates.
Despite this more compassionate tone, the Holy Father insists that he is not out to change doctrine. Those of us wanting to see women ordained priests, for example, should probably not get our hopes up. Yet Pope Francis made this iconoclastic statement:
“I would not speak about ‘absolute’ truths, even for believers. . . . Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” (Carroll)
Non-Catholics might not find this statement remarkable. But for Pope Francis’s flock, this statement signifies an openness that has not been present in the papacy for decades.
Don’t get me wrong. No one, including even the Bishop of Rome, is perfect. Some Argentinians have criticized his lack of action during the so-called “dirty wars” when hundreds of people disappeared in ruthless government crackdowns. And many people are unhappy with the low profile he has given to eliminating the child sexual abuse that has plagued the Church and claimed thousands of victims worldwide. However, just this week Pope Francis appointed an Irish woman named Marie Collins, who was herself abused by a priest as a child, to an advisory panel designed to “fight the clerical sexual abuse of minors that has haunted it for over two decades.” (Chicago Tribune, Sunday, March 23, 2014)
Unlike his predecessor Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is viewed as a man of the people. He has even graced the cover of Time Magazine as Man of the Year. Even the Vatican press secretary, Federico Lombardi, is singing a happier tune these days. Referring to his job before the new pope took office, he said, “The people thought I always had a negative message for them. I am very happy that, with Francis, the situation has changed. . . “Now I am at the service of a message . . . of love and mercy.” (Carroll)