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In Francis' First Year, A 'Radical Pope' Seeks To Save His Church


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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"Who am I to judge?" With those five words, Pope Francis "stepped away from the disapproving tone, the explicit moralizing typical of popes and bishops," writes columnist James Carroll. Francis made that statement in July, in response to a reporter's question about the status of gay priests in the Church. In a new article about Francis in The New Yorker, Carroll describes the pope as having "unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world."

Carroll was a seminarian and a priest during another great period of change — Vatican II, which, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, led to reforms that modernized the church. As a priest from 1969 to 1974, he served as Boston University's Catholic chaplain. He left the priesthood in part over his disagreements with the leadership after the death of Pope John and the beginning of what Carroll describes as a counterrevolution. He's now an author and a columnist for The Boston Globe. His New Yorker article is called "Who Am I to Judge? A Radical Pope's First Year."

"It's not new for popes to be critical of the free market economy, and it's not new for popes to be concerned about the plight of the poor," Carroll tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "But with Pope Francis there's a centrality, a passion and an urgent insistence that's unique that we haven't seen before."


Interview Highlights

On the significance of "Who am I to judge?"

[The Pope said] "Who am I to judge?" in response to a question about gay members of the Catholic priesthood in an airplane on his way back from World Youth Day in Brazil last summer. He was asked about gay priests and his response was, "Who am I to judge?" A resounding repudiation of a basic assumption of Catholic life, which is: The pope is there to judge.

"Who am I to judge?" You're the pope! That's who you are! It was an astonishing stepping away from the judgmental, authoritarian, imperative-tone-of-voice way in which authority has been exercised by popes — with one exception — going back a couple of hundred years. The exception, of course, is John XXIII, who was pope only from 1958 to 1963. But apart from John XXIII, popes have exercised authority by command.

On the lifestyle Francis has chosen during his first year as pope

Pope Francis ... in that wonderful phrase "Who am I to judge?" is exercising authority by invitation, by words of welcome and by inviting people to imitate the way he lives and the way he behaves. So, his choices of lifestyle — the fact that he doesn't live in the apostolic palace, the traditional residence of popes. He lives in a small, two-room apartment, effectively in the hostel in which the Vatican welcomes visitors. He has turned away from the regalia, the Renaissance style of the papacy. He declines to wear the traditional red slip-ons and wears his old, somewhat worn black shoes.

All of this has touched the imaginations of Catholics and many other people, clearly, and the thing that is moving about it is he initiates change at this level without attacking anybody. He has not named antagonists, he has not criticized other bishops who live like princes. He is basically making changes with a spirit of humility and welcome to other people, and that has touched people very, very deeply, I would say.

On communion as a "barrier"

Communion has been treated as food for those who are not hungry: food for the well-fed, food for the well-behaved. Popes and bishops have used the sacrament of the Eucharist, the mass, as a kind of boundary marker. You're in if you obey all the rules, and you're out if you don't. If you're not a Catholic, if you're a Protestant not in communion with the papacy, if you're a divorced and remarried Catholic, if you're using birth control, if you've committed any of the long list of sins that have been emphasized over the years, don't go to communion. ...

The word excommunication refers to being outside of communion. Pope Francis speaks in a very different way. He said, quite explicitly, the Church is not a toll house; we're not interested in having a barrier here that has to be raised only for those who are worthy. No, communion is for people who are hungry. ... It's for those who are not whole so that they can become whole.

On the tendency to oversimplify "conservative" and "liberal" Catholics

There's a cultural divide between the developing world and what we call "the West," or northern countries, but we shouldn't be too categorical when we say that, for example, Catholics of Africa or Latin America or Asia are conservative as opposed to the liberal or more secular Catholics of Europe or North America. I think that's really oversimple. Basic matters of human life are quite alike.

There are plenty of gay people throughout the developing world. If they're put upon and made to feel judged and at risk — and we know in some countries they're gravely at risk ... their problem isn't going to go away just because it's ordered to go away. So if the church broadly changes its stance on gay people, looks at gay people as Pope Francis invited us to do, the way God would — what does God see? — that will have an effect on other matters of sexuality.

On the church's stance on contraceptives

Nobody has been more vigorous in wishing for a change in the Church's position on contraception, namely the use of condoms, than leaders of the church in Africa, where AIDS has been such a savage killer of men and women. The AIDS crisis alone in Africa alone has been made worse, far worse, by those Catholics who have insisted on the immorality of condom use. You can bet that there are vast numbers of Catholics in Africa who would welcome a change in the church's position on that.

On Francis' commitment to the poor

Just this week, according to the Times and other places, [he] has replaced some very conservative senior figures in the curia with more moderate figures. His intervention seems to be the occasion for the resignation of the German bishop who was living a very lavish lifestyle, spending millions of dollars on his place of residence and the way he lived and so forth. ...

He has made it clear that he's going to measure his behavior as pope and his preaching and teaching as pope against the real effect on the lives of the poorest of the poor.

On the way the pope has handled the authority crisis in the church

The authority structure of the Catholic Church has been crumbling around all of us Catholics for a solid decade and a half. I'm thinking, of course, about the priestly sex abuse scandal. I'm thinking of, in Rome, the way the Vatican itself has been exposed as complicit in crimes of money laundering, perhaps in collusion with criminal elements; the way in which the authority structure of the church itself has been in radical collapse in relationship to some basic teachings like contraception, divorce and remarriage and so on. ...

So when this man became pope, he looked around and saw, in an image of his own, something he warned of, a house of cards that was shaken and maybe in a state of collapse. So it's not only that his conservative, traditional assertions of Catholic positions on hot-button issues has been in some way left behind; it's also that he has been, as I see it, responding to the actuality of the life of the church.

After all, thousands and thousands of Catholic priests, we know now, around the world have been abusing children in the most grotesque of ways in violation of trust and of the meaning of the Gospel that is impossible to articulate fully and appropriately. We know that almost all of the bishops of the world supported them instead of the children. This has led to a catastrophic moral situation for Roman Catholicism. This pope has responded to it, in my view. That's the most important element of his "radical" character is that he's responding to a crisis that preceded him in papacy.

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