Even if he were not known to the world as Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio would be a remarkable man.
Having read the lengthy interview he gave recently to Jesuit publications, I am struck by a man who is, above all, a "people person," full of love and wisdom; an honest, humble man, whose pastoral experience shines through in what he says, which is thoughtful and wide ranging.
Of course, he thinks like a Jesuit, with a broad view of the church as the people of God in need of compassion, not proclamations, as a thinker who values questions: "If one has the answers to all questions--that is the proof God is not with him." What does this say about his infallible predecessors?
"The Jesuit must be a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking," says Papa Francesco elsewhere in the interview.
About his immediate predecessor, he expresses great affection yet offers a completely opposite philosophy: the church "is the home of all, not a small chapel that can only hold a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity."
His refreshing candor about an institution that has "sometimes locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules" has caught the imagination of many, especially the largest religious group in America: the non-practicing Catholics turned off by the hierarchy of the past 45 years or by the hypocrisy of many clergy. These are people, like me, who have been waiting for the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, with its openness and breadth of vision, to be realized. At last, a new beginning is being made by a caring, thinking, compassionate man who knows that the church he presides over resembles what he calls a "field hospital."
But he knows the way to heal. His most remarkable statement has to do, I think, with his view of the church in the modern world, one that is subject to change and fresh thinking: "the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today it seems that the opposite order is prevailing."
He is taking aim at bishops who, in their ideological singleness of vision, attack gay marriage or call for more official attacks on abortion, giving the Catholic church a reputation for negativity and absolutism. This pope will have none of that: "it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time." Why? Because "the church's pastoral mission cannot be obsessed with a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."
People want pastors who display the love of God, not ones who act like bureaucrats, he says bluntly. They want priests to bring the love of God to the people where they are, not to lock themselves into a hermetic institution of incense and lace. Having taught psychology and literature, he knows this type of clericalism is unhealthy (he calls it paranoid).
This is not a pope who provides "disciplinarian solutions" to people who "long for an exaggerated doctrinal security." He is not a hard-liner, thank God, because he knows that faith presented only in terms of the catechism becomes an ideology. "The view of the church's teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong." So is a church that does not change.
In a talk I gave this past week, I was a bit taken aback by a Jesuit-educated gentleman who complained that the "Jesuits have sold out" in higher education; he seemed angry by my presentation of the progressive heritage of Jesuit education. I hope he is paying attention to this Jesuit pope, who follows the discernment taught to all Jesuits. This means, in effect, that one size does not fit all, that how one lives his or her faith with an informed conscience is what matters, not merely adhering to orthodoxy.
Jesuits know that human experience in the real world matters; it affects our moral decisions and our growing understanding of doctrine. Pope Francis has begun a much-needed reform of an old institution that has become out of touch with many people today. He has lived what he preaches: a Christianity that is not about official doctrine or about certainty; it is about love, mercy, and compassion. It includes the humility of doubt; it does not see the world in unchanging categories. It is not about following the clear and safe beliefs of the past; it is a faith to be lived in the here and now.
Thank God we have a man who has a big heart open to God, one who embodies the best thinking of a vast church in need of ongoing reform.