Pope Francis - Changing the Face of Catholicism

Pope Francis by Semilla Luz (Flickr)

The "Flaming Sorting Hat"

It's an interesting thing for me to watch the current transformation of the Catholic Church. Although I was raised in an evangelical Christian home, I "converted" to Catholicism when I was seventeen and had the unique opportunity to study theology under a Jesuit priest. So when Pope Francis' name was pulled from the "flaming Sorting Hat", as I imagine such things to go in my little nerdy mind, I told my wife that the Catholic church was in for a big surprise...and I have yet to be disappointed in that assumption.

"Now for Something Completely Different."

Being raised evangelical, I was taught that only the people who followed the EXACT same teachings as our denomination were going to heaven. My grandfather taught me that only the Church of Christ offered the actual truth of scripture, and anyone not following the Bible according to the Church of Christ’s interpretation was just doomed. By their teaching, faith was not enough, nor baptism, or any of the other myriad prescriptions various denominations say one must do to be a “true Christian”. So the first time I heard a Jesuit priest offer a sermon, I was FLOORED. It was the difference between night and day to me. Where I had been taught to fear God and hell in my evangelical upbringing, here I was being presented with a very different message, and oddly enough it was the ACTUAL message of Jesus according to NT (New Testament) teaching. All the emphasis was not on "hell" or "damnation," but rather on love and compassion. It only took one sermon to have me hooked and to abandon evangelism for good. And in all honesty, Catholicism was the reason I left Christianity altogether. Under Catholicism, I learned so much more about the history of Christianity, and gained a more complete understanding of its various interpretations. The Bible was no longer a direct source for factual information.

When Pope Francis says that salvation is a gift and cannot be earned, he is teaching what the Jesuits believe that the NT truly says and what Jesus truly taught...if such a man existed. Under Jesuit theology, the only ones who will not receive salvation are those who reject it—not as atheists who say “We see no evidence for God or for the validity of the Bible,” but rather those who directly reject salvation through their actions, by deviating from Christ’s teachings in the way they treat others and conduct themselves. Being an atheist does not stop a person from living in a way consistent with how the Bible says Jesus lived, which is with love and compassion for all people and a desire to do “good” in all things. In truth, many atheists who have embraced humanism live a more “Jesus-like” existence than most evangelicals. Don’t tell the fundies this, though. It might damage their fragile egos.

A Bit of Perspective

For those of you unfamiliar with the Catholic Church, you probably think, “A Pope is a Pope. What difference does it make which order he comes from?” Quite honestly, it makes a lot of difference which order the Pope comes from. You see, Pope Francis is the first of his kind in the long history of the Catholic Church. He’s the first Jesuit Pope ever, and we’re talking about a history that spans over 1700 years. And the biggest reason for this is that the Jesuits are considered a bit of a “fringe society” among the Catholic Church, mainly because they question the church’s long-standing statement of Christian supremacy and theological interpretations. The Jesuit order itself is actually known as the Society of Jesus because of their strong belief in living like Jesus and have often been at odds with the main body of Catholicism over issues such as indulgences and the church’s use of power in government.

Regardless of whether or not you are familiar with Catholicism, it would take a blind and deaf man not to see the radical changes that this new Pope has implemented since his taking the seat as Pope. The glitz and glamour has all but disappeared with this new Pope. The massive “throne” that was once an icon in the Vatican has been replaced by a fairly modest wooden chair. The audacious golden cross worn by past Popes has been replaced by a simple metal one. But most noticeable and certainly most important is the whole new attitude this Pope is seeking to instill in the followers of the Catholic tradition and in the world at large who hears his words. His message is simple…be good to one another. Show kindness and love and compassion to all people all the time. Even as an atheist, I can clearly see the merit and virtue of this idea.

The Words that are Shaking Foundations

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Many people have been somewhat dumbstruck by this new Pope’s statements of late. Many more have either misunderstood his comments or just rejected them without any real thought. When he made the analogy that even an atheist who does good IS good, many thought that he was saying atheists are going to heaven if they just do good. Of course this was not what he meant by this analogy. What he was saying is that he has no right to say who is or isn’t going to heaven—that determination would be left to (his) God. He is saying that we as humans must judge our fellow man by their deeds rather than fealty to any religion or doctrine. The man who does good deeds is indeed a good man, and is well deserving of our respect and kindness.

As I came to writing this particular blog post, I was reading through an interview that Pope Francis gave to the Catholic magazine “American,” just keeping in tune with the goings on in the religious world. The entire interview is rather good, for what it is and what it’s about, and offers some real insight into the mind and heart of this new Pope. However, one line in particular struck me as quite possibly the most provocative thing this Pope has said to date: “But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.” Now I’m not sure how each of you may take that, but to me this is a statement that says; living with love and compassion, as religious people believe God is the embodiment of those qualities, is more important than going to church every Sunday or even receiving communion. In my personal opinion, if more people could understand such a thing we would have far less turmoil between various religions and between religion and the secular community.

A Final Clarification

Undoubtedly some will read this and think that it is merely a “puff-piece” that paints a pretty picture over the dark and tainted canvas of Catholicism and even this Pope. That however is not my intention in the least. I still take issue with both the Catholic Church and the Pope, especially over issues of protecting child molesters from legal prosecution, the continuing pervasive misogyny of the church, their generally homophobic attitude, and their stance on birth control which has been crucial in the spread of HIV in Africa and has also had a large hand in the increasing overpopulation of the planet. I am in no way saying the Catholic Church is “good” or even that this Pope is “good.” What I am saying is that I see hope for improvement and reform in the Catholic Church that is not present in the evangelical community.

Just as I agree with many of the things that the Dalai Lama SAYS, I do not agree with the man’s actions on many matters, and I can clearly see the hypocrisy of espousing the virtues of piousness and anti-materialism while living the life of a veritable “rock star.” But that does not make his words untrue or invalid. The ideas themselves stand on their own merits, even if the man espousing them does not live up to them himself. And the same applies to this Pope. Whether he lives his words or not, if those words touch the minds and hearts of others and affect change for the better, then those words have merit and are worthy of my respect. If I let my own personal bias against religion be the guiding force behind my examination of the situation, then I am no better than the hypocrites I rail against on a daily basis. And from my perspective, I have an obligation to lead by example… because “There’s those that do, and those that just do talking.”*

*excerpt from the Lamb of God song “Broken Hands”

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