In the 11 months since Pope Francis began his papacy, he has gained widespread approval and a reputation for shaking things up.
In July, he surprised the world by asking, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question about gays in the Catholic Church. In December, Time magazine selected him as the Person of the Year for 2013. And a worldwide poll of 12,000 Catholics published this month by Univision set the pope’s approval rating at 87 percent.
Three theological studies professors from Saint Louis University joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh today in a discussion that ranged from the pope’s popularity to his vision for the future of the Catholic Church.
One reason the pope is so popular with Catholics and non-Catholics alike is his “authentic humanity” and “simplicity of heart” said Father Christopher Collins, director of the Catholic Studies Program.
To Associate Professor Julie Hanlon Rubio, part of his appeal is because “he’s willing to talk about uncertainty” and his “willingness to admit his own failures in the past.”
Rubio, Collins and Assistant Professor Randy Rosenberg agreed that Pope Francis was unlikely to change church doctrine on homosexuality, contraception or priest celibacy, but was seeking to melt divisions that have built up around differences in opinion.
One way he would do so is by his emphasis on pastoral outreach, said Collins.
“We’re supposed to go out of ourselves and go out to the peripheries … go out and meet people who are vulnerable and marginalized,” Collins said.
Part of that change is a change in tone and focus, said Rosenberg, who pointed to the pope’s analogy of the church as a field hospital after a battle as a sign of the pope’s priorities. Rather than focusing on small wounds, the church must first heal the deep ones.
“The story he tells is would you ask somebody who has been severely wounded in battle if they have high cholesterol,” Rosenberg said.
Response to the Sexual Abuse Scandal
For all of the pope’s popularity and reputation for change, he has yet to directly address the sexual abuse scandal.
According to Collins, “having Cardinal O’Malley from Boston being one of his closest advisers … that in itself is giving indication that Pope Francis wants to listen to the American experience.”
But Rubio would like to see more done. “I don’t see us moving forward without it,” she said.
Marginalization of Cardinal Burke
In December Pope Francis removed former St. Louis archbishop Cardinal Burke from the Congregation of Bishops, a Vatican committee that nominates priests to be bishops.
“I’m not going to guess what’s in Francis’s mind” said Collins of the removal. “But what comes across to people is that there’s a new kind of bishop that Francis wants to see and have appointed in the church, that as he says ‘have the smell of the sheep’ – that are more of the people.”
Future of the Church
In the future, said Collins, the pope wants to have real conversations. “That’s a real centerpiece in Jesuit formation,” Collins said. “We all have a vow of obedience and a superior can send us to different places but it is dependent on very honest dialog with one another, and that’s why he is eliciting that.”
“One of the things that [the pope has] preached is that the first reform is a change in one’s attitude, to prioritize descending into people’s darkness” Rosenberg said. “And then secondly, structural reform happens. And so I look for, in the next year, all of us -myself included- to be challenged to that first reform.”