The humility, joyfulness and commonality of Pope Francis have captured the hearts of Americans, regardless of denomination or faith. No other world leader, secular or spiritual, could command the attention and adoration as the Pope did during his recent visit to the United States.
More pastoral than doctrinal, the Pope’s enduring influence on Catholicism is much less clear. His legacy as the Pope who cared for the unfortunate and strove to improve the lives of all people, however, is set in stone.
Rather than proposing major changes of Catholic principles, Pope Francis tends to his followers and speaks more to social and political issues than he does of fundamental beliefs or liturgy. But his progressive views and a more inclusive attitude toward homosexuality, divorce and even abortion are seen by church conservatives, both clergy and lay members, as verging on heresy.
Remember his question “Who am I to judge?” in speaking of gays and lesbians. He has suggested atheists may go to heaven. He’s reported to have granted an audience to a transgender man. He has spoken of an “agonizing and painful decision” made by women who have abortions, and he empowered all priests to “absolve the sin of abortion.”
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal authority, has called these kinds of statements “conflictive” and said it’s not possible to absolve violations of church doctrine. “It’s not an academic doctrine. It’s the word of God.” The Washington Post reported Cardinal Raymond Burke, a conservative Vatican operative, as exposing “what is fast emerging as a culture war over Francis’s papacy and the powerful hierarchy that governs the Roman Catholic Church.”
In his American speeches, Pope Francis advocated numerous progressive causes: acceptance of immigrants and refugees; affirmation of his papal encyclical on global warming, chiding “committed and prayerful Christians” who “ridicule” concern for the environment; restraining the greed of capitalism and an economy of exclusion and inequality; unity of government, “cooperating generously for the common good;” abolition of the death penalty; and social justice in all its manifestations.
But the Pope is orthodox in many beliefs and is true to Catholic doctrine. He strongly supports traditional marriage, the sanctity of life “at all stages of development” and religious freedom, all of which appeal to a broad demographic. He continues to reject women as priests, quoting Pope John Paul II simply as saying “that cannot be done.” But he praises “the immense contribution which women, lay and religious” have made to the life of communities.
Most of all, the Pope’s visit to America will be remembered for his humble nature and his service to the poor, the homeless and the needy, and his love of children. After his speech to Congress and meeting with Speaker of the House John Boehner in his sumptuous office, the Pope left the halls of power to serve and eat lunch with 300 homeless people. He visited a school in Harlem and a penitentiary in Philadelphia.
And who will forget the Pope riding around in a Fiat almost small enough to fit in the trunk of a presidential limousine? There’s much more than symbolism in that choice.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aid and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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