The papers and of course the internet news has been filled with news of Pope Francis, and how he seems to be single-handedly reshaping the
perception of Catholicism, and redefining belief as moral life rather than as belonging, or adhering to specific tenets of doctrine. Furthermore, he seems to be redefining morality in political and economic modes of solidarity and altruism, rather than along "traditional" Catholic lines covered by the sixth and ninth commandments. He has not, in fact, changed much at all, but rather than talk about his faith or apostolic faith, he broadcasts the gospel after the style of his namesake, Francis of Assisi, who admonished his little company of brothers to "preach the gospel; if necessary, use words."
Pope Francis, asked to define himself as a Christian, said just that he was a sinner. Good answer, Jorge! "A sinner" defines all other relationships, breaks down walls, makes dialogue and unity possible. "A sinner" means that Francis believes in the God of Jesus; that, like the rest of the world, the Pope has to "turn away from sin and believe in the gospel." There are no insiders and outsiders, because all have sinned, and all have been forgiven. "Sinner" means that God is God, and no one else, so there is no "me and God", just "we and Thou." Pope Francis defines himself spiritually as one sinner among billions, a brother to many sisters and brothers, with a message of forgiveness and mercy that he preaches with simple gestures of love and solidarity as well as with bold administrative moves to make the machinations of what we like to call "organized religion" synch more clearly with its message.
And there has been a certain amount of blowback, too, predictable only (so far) in its politeness and non-violence. Some rich and powerful Catholics feel Francis doesn't understand them and appreciate their gifts, it seems. Some are not comfortable with faith-as-choice, a choice between gods, a choice between empires, and not a game where one can straddle the abyss, or tango between church and board room in Armanis and Louboutins, praying for the poor while building up the very structures that make people poor and keep them that way.
It reminds me of how I felt in the middle of the hubbub a few years ago when Tony Blair, and later Newt Gingrich, “converted” to Catholicism. I mean, never mind that we gave up on that word "conversion" with respect from moving from one denomination of Christianity to another three decades ago. In the Catholic church at least, “conversion” refers to conversion to Christ, not from one Christian denomination to another. That in itself was irritating to me. God love him, Blair’s been through a lot, and as an Anglican held a high-profile job in a nation where Church and state are not quite independent of one another, while married to a Roman Catholic woman and raising their children Catholic, attending Mass with them weekly for years. I give the guy a lot of credit for that.
But I sure hope this doesn’t have too many of us thinking, Oh, what a nice feather in our biretta, a head of state makes a profession of faith in the Church of Rome. I mean, it is Tony Blair, after all, the George Bush of Downing Street, with his war rhetoric and commitment of British forces to the misbegotten war in Iraq. What value does he see in Roman Catholicism, if any, that he doesn’t have in Anglican Catholicism?
As for me, I cringe when I hear of people making the move from Canterbury to Rome, because it invariably means someone is discontented with the very things some of us have come to admire the English church for, namely, its accepting women as full partners in ministry, with priests and bishops who are women. Then there’s the whole relationship between the Church and gay community, much more open and accepting, at least on the ecclesial level, than in the Roman church. A move from Canterbury to Rome has more and more meant, “I don’t want anything to do with opening the doors to women and gays. Give me a good old church with only men running the show, no matter how despicably they’ve acted toward children or abused their power. And if I can get one, throw in an incomprehensible liturgy.” For some, the run to Rome may be an escape from change.
But wait a second. This question about what it means to be Catholic isn’t just about the Brits and their Prime Minister of happy memory. It is a question for the great bloc of American Catholics who used to be able to swing elections when we stood for something. Those Catholics remembered that their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were immigrants. They voted with FDR and the New Deal, they created the labor unions, social security, private schools and universities and hospitals. Most of us got rich(er) in the last fifty years and we’ve forgotten where we came from, and what made us different. And the nation is clearly the poorer for it, with a widening gap between rich and poor, an almost erotic fascination with violence, a contagious paranoia of entitlement, and obsession with personal freedom that is blind to our founding principle of common good.
There's a sense in which American Catholics, at least, are no different now from our Episcopal, or Methodist, or Lutheran brothers and sisters. This helps to demonstrate, I guess, as to why “converting” from one denomination to another is essentially meaningless. Conversion is something one does to Jesus Christ and the empire of God. Anyone can do it, including us Catholics who cheat on taxes, condone invasions and drone strikes and run illegal political prisons; we who contribute to the poverty, alienation, disease, and hunger of others, who charge exorbitant interest, or who mastermind or execute the mass murder of war, or who profit by the destruction of the environment. Or who vote for anyone who does. For us, there's money to be made in war and exploitation for the 167 (or 168) hours of the week we're not in church.
And then along come Christmas and Epiphany to remind me that the Catholic tent is really big, at least to the extent that it wants to be God's tent. The season comes to remind me that everyone in the tent is a sinner, that no one is to be judged by anyone else including me. We all sin differently, but we all sin. That's Pope Francis's starting point. This "Easter in wintertime" arrives to remind me that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world, but that we might have life through him. God's Son came among us telling us that entering into that life is a choice: “Turn away from sin, and believe (i.e., act with love) in the good news (of the empire of God.)” That turning is conversion. Catholics like us can do it, too.