Pope Francis is doing something radical in the Roman Catholic Church: he is encouraging people to have conversations about formerly taboo topics.
By and large, the media focuses on what he says–and what he might be thinking–e.g., will he support same-sex marriage (unlikely any time soon) or change church teaching about divorce or abortion (also unlikely)–rather than what seems to me to be the most important thing he is doing, namely engaging laity to think for themselves. He may be the most Protestant Pope we have ever had!
Of course, theological and ecclesial conservatives are alarmed. They see “confusion” where before there was order.
I have long believed there are two kinds of models for church. They are in some ways polar opposites of each other, and all churches fall somewhere along the continuum between the two ends.
One is the church as an ideological institution in which the church, and its leadership, promulgate and enforce doctrines and behaviors. I call this the Rule Church. The other is is church as a gathering place for people who want to receive and share the unfolding truth and love of God. I call this the Free Church. You probably can tell my bias.
No church in existence, or in history, is precisely one or the other. Rule Churches include gatherings of people which at least look somewhat like the Free Church. And the Free Churches have rules and people to enforce, or at least articulate, them.
Right now, the Rule Church known as the Roman Catholic Church is being challenged, not just by lay people and a few unruly dissident priests. Now it is the Pope himself (so far, it must always be a “him”) who is raising questions about the rules and their enforcement (and sometimes the enforcers).
One response to this untidiness is to invoke the historic doctrines, or rules, of the church, and to remind the Pope, and others who support him, that “The pope does not have the power to change teaching [or] doctrine.” That is the voice of Cardinal Raymond Burke, a Wisconsin-born prelate recently demoted by Pope Francis.
Francis. The name is a clue. This is the saint who gave up worldly wealth and power, stripped off all his stylish clothes and became a Christian ascetic. He got along with those in high authority but at the same time he built the order he founded the way he wanted. He did not seek high office, never becoming a priest. He lived by a few rules, and told others in the order to do so as well. Mostly, they focused on serving the poor and outcast.
In his emphasis on humility and service and love, as well as his willingness to break with authority and custom when it denies life to others, St. Francis seems to me to be the most Jesus-like of all the saints.
Unlike many of his critics, Pope Francis seems to believe the rules exist to serve the people. Perhaps he, like his saintly forebearer, is less interested in power and rules and more interested in service and love.
That sounds a lot like Jesus to me.