Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bringing It All Back Home: Pope Francis and a Return to Compassion

It has been less than a year since Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina became the Bishop of Rome, but already Pope Francis has transformed the Catholic Church, embracing its mission as a church of service and healing to a troubled world. He leads by example, living simply and acting compassionately. By his words and deeds, he reminds us of the good religion can achieve when its focus is on justice, peace, and service to the poor. He has helped bring Catholicism back to the teachings of Jesus, a radical movement for economic and social justice, love, and understanding. It is an anti-materialistic, counter-cultural message that the global community desperately needs.

As a non-Catholic, I am impressed by this new Pope, a man of humble beginnings named after Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor. He is a pastor to the people who considers strict adherence to doctrine an unnecessary distraction from the true mission of the Church. “Who am I to judge?” as he replied when asked about gays in the priesthood, is a sign that this is a Pope who “gets it.” It remains to be seen whether he will reform the Catholic Church in areas of sexual ethics and inclusiveness, but in other areas of life and faith, by extending open arms to the broad brush of humanity, he has re-engaged the flock and reminded Catholics and non-Catholics alike of what is, or should be, the essence of the Christian faith. “I prefer a Church,” writes Francis, “which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” He desires not just talk and prayer, but societal transformation.

There really is nothing new in the Pope’s emphasis on love and justice; it was the essence of my faith and teachings for as long as I can remember. But it is, unfortunately, a message that has far too often been overlooked or ignored by more rigid, misguided expressions of Christianity that have so dominated our culture for the past thirty years or more.

I was born in 1959, when liberal Protestantism still held some influence over many of our nation’s institutions. The son of a Lutheran minister, I was taught that the inner life of faith should reflect, not define, how one encounters the world. I came of age in the 1970’s, when my father was Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod and most of my friends were Catholics and Jews. I witnessed first-hand the struggle of the Lutheran Church, and of all the major religions, to stay relevant in a time of cultural and political upheaval amid the increasing secularization of American society. It was often in church or my teen youth group where I debated and discussed Vietnam, Watergate, the sexual revolution, civil rights, and women’s rights. How were we as Christians, as Lutherans, to address the many issues confronting a divided and torn world? The answers were not always clear, as a fast-changing standard of morality and ethics affected every institution in America, including the Lutheran Church.

As the decade progressed and I went off to college, I shared my father’s increasing concern over the rising tide of Christian fundamentalism, which combined biblical literalism with an aggressively conservative political activism. It was a form of Christianity greatly at odds with the more compassionate religion of my upbringing -- a theology publicly articulated by progressive theologians like Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and other liberal preachers who spoke prophetically against racism, injustice, and war. Unlike their conservative counterparts, these ministers believed that true faith was not confined to the inner life of the soul but required a commitment to justice on earth. “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man's social conditions,” said King. “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” Like King, I believed that churches and synagogues could remain relevant only if they opposed poverty, inequality, and injustice. But as the years went by, the country seemed less interested in the prophetic voices of my youth.

The religious right gained even more prominence in the 1980’s with the election of Ronald Reagan, who articulated a vision of America that emphasized individualism, self-interest, unfettered capitalism, and a narrow view of morality. As the decade progressed, the voices of religious compassion were outflanked and outshouted by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other conservative preachers who wanted a Christianity limited to their own notions of personal salvation, sexual morality, and a repentance from a sinful society. They seemed to want nothing to do with the iterant rabbi of two millennia ago, that Jesus of Nazareth fellow.

But then, in 1986, as a young attorney in Washington, D.C., my parents encouraged me to attend Luther Place Memorial Church, which was then led by the Reverend John Steinbruck, a charismatic and engaging preacher. Steinbruck had played handball with my father 25 years earlier when they were both young Lutheran ministers at neighboring churches near the borders of northeastern Pennsylvania and northwestern New Jersey. When Steinbruck moved to the nation's capital in 1970, he took the reins of a declining church at 14th and N Streets and turned it into an oasis of hospitality, serving the homeless, treating the sick and sheltering refugees. He quoted from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught that the  "task of the human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God." From the pulpit of Luther Place, Steinbruck helped me to understand the essence of faith lived in the messy reality of life on earth:  
We are on this planet to exemplify that light, that bread, that living water, those metaphors that Jesus used, to live out the truth in a non-violent way, simply to do justice, live justly, try, in the space over which you're responsible . . . to create an oasis . . . to which the stranger can come and find refuge.
Steinbruck believed Christian witness was most needed in urban churches, which reflected the suffering and afflictions of their surroundings -- poverty, crime, decaying neighborhoods. At Luther Place he emphasized the religious duty to welcome the stranger, shelter the homeless, and care for the sick. With the help of others, the congregation began a collection of shelters and clinics, called the N Street Village, which continues to this day to serve the city’s poorest citizens. "You don't need five years of seminary,” Steinbruck later said, “to realize that, when someone knocks on the door, you should open it."

Steinbruck and my father, along with many of the clergy I have most admired over the years, have long since retired, or passed away. With the decline of liberal Protestantism, my faith often a mix of doubt and ambiguity, I have drifted away from orthodox Christianity for several years now. But watching the new Pope in action, I sense a man with a familiar sense of faith and justice, who believes the duty of Christians is to help mend and heal a broken world. To Francis, poverty is not merely about charity, but justice. “How can it be,” asks Pope Francis, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Francis wants the Church to look outward and bear witness to the larger world. He understands that “our culture has lost a sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world.” To be a person of faith, he says, is to “take a stand.” But the emphasis should be on love and compassion, understanding and the search for peace. Doctrinal certitude properly takes a backseat to these higher callings. His only “dogmatic certainty” is that “God is in every person’s life,” even lives destroyed by drugs and other vices. He recognizes that life is complex, and that it is not always irrational or irreverent to walk away from religion and the church. "Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open,” he said, “let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent."

Pope Francis has emphasized the dignity of the struggling servant and the moral dubiousness of the economic status quo. He has spoken critically of a profit-driven capitalism that renders human welfare an irrelevant annoyance. The continued belief in trickle-down economic theories, he says, “expresses a crude and na├»ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system." The Church and society, he says, must together work “to eliminate the structural causes of poverty.” The Pope is outspoken in his expressions of concern for the oppressed and marginalized. He is leading by example, a true pastor to the people, a stark reminder of the political and social dynamic of the early Christians. “If you want to find Jesus,” Steinbruck told me several years ago, “go to where the outcasts are -- the sick, the homeless, the poor." 

In many ways, Pope Francis is bringing it all back home for me, a long-needed reminder of what the Christian church can and should represent, but too often does not – a warm and accepting place of refuge for the stranger; an institution that embodies hope and provides a model for peace; and an oasis of love, understanding, and compassion, where all are welcome.  I like this new Pope. 


  1. Mark,

    But how has Jorge Bergoglio “transformed” the Catholic Church? What was it before? When has the Catholic Church ever been anything less that the greatest provider of comfort to the needy in the history of the world? When has the Catholic Church strayed from the teachings of Jesus? How, exactly, has the new pope brought the church back to Jesus? There are some sweeping statements in this essay that cry out for justification.

    It’s been rather amusing to watch liberals fawn over this new pope simply because he has said some things that have been interpreted as being anti-capitalistic. The Catholic Church, as the largest religious provider of “service and healing to a troubled world,” is well aware of the wonders of capitalism since it is the fruits of freedom and capitalism that fund everything the church does. You could not be more wrong when you say, “It is an anti-materialistic, counter-cultural message that the global community desperately needs,” in that it is capitalism (freedom) and “materialism” that generates the wealth that eases a global poverty caused by oppression and an abandonment of the belief that all men are free to pursue their own self-interest.

    I had always assumed that the holy grail for liberals was defending a woman’s right to murder her children, followed closely by the “right” of homosexuals to marry and the duty of citizens to disarm themselves, but apparently socialism trumps all of these, since they are willing to embrace this new pope despite his traditional views on baby killing, marriage and the right to life. But just because the pope says, “Who am I to judge?” does not mean that he has embraced liberal enlightenment; it means simply, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” or “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

    It is the height of arrogance to suggest that the Catholic Church must “reform” to achieve the seal of approval from a political class that has succeeded in “defining deviancy down” to the point where man is indistinguishable from animal in many ways. “Sexual ethics”? Here’s the church’s “sexual ethics”: a virgin man marries a virgin woman. Result? No venereal diseases, no deadly diseases, no unwanted and aborted children, and a stable family structure in which to raise healthy children. If society, even liberals, had embraced this simple ethic how many millions of human beings would have been spared a torturous death inside a mother’s womb?

    Exactly how, before the new pope, was the Catholic Church not inclusive? Again, it’s love the sinner, hate the sin. The Catholic Church embraces all, but it, of course, does not embrace, or excuse, all behavior.

    What is, exactly, the essence of Christian faith?

    And why do liberals continuing insist on remaking Jesus in their own image? Try as they might, Jesus was not some sandal-wearing, pot smoking, hippie freak who went around saying a million times, “You are forgiven,” without ever once uttering, “Sin no more!” Do you really think you understand Christianity better than the average priest, minister, or even the bogieman of liberal fantasy, the fundamentalist preacher? It was not, after all, the Falwells and Robertsons of the world who were indulging “their own notions of personal salvation, sexual morality, and a repentance from a sinful society.” They were taking a radical Nazarene at his word when he said things like, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Sounds damn intolerant to me and not very inclusive to boot! In fact, it sounds like Jesus might have been the world’s first fundamentalist!


  2. (con't)

    It is fortunate though that the new pope has been misunderstood by liberals (and some conservatives) and I’m thrilled that you like him and that he is a “reminder of what the Christian church can and should represent...” First and foremost, what the church represents is a belief in the sanctity of life. All life. In that respect, I certainly hope you continue to follow The Light of Faith.

    By the way: Welcome back! And you might be interested in this balanced essay about the pope from a recent college graduate, blogger, registered Democrat and “raging moderate.” His “balance” may have more to do with the fact that he also has his resume posted and doesn’t want to alienate potential employers, but it is still refreshing:

    And there is also this from a non-Catholic Christian that seems to strike the right notes:

    And to put your essay into perspective there is this:

    Rich R.

  3. I too read Pope Francis's recent Apostolic Exhortation and find it refreshing that he again brings forward the great Catholic Social teaching reminiscent of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum which also challenged unbridled capitalism and spoke to rights of workers and the concept of the common good. The Church in recent decades has focused so much on enforcement of doctrine particularly around issues of homosexuality and women's reproductive decisions that I felt the rich teachings of the church's social gospel reflecting Jesus' compassion for 'the least of these' had been subjugated.

  4. Rich,

    Whether or not Pope Francis has “transformed” the Catholic Church, there can be little dispute that the Pope is a reformer who is substantially changing the doctrinal emphasis of the Catholic Church. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible,” he said in his interview published in the Jesuit magazine America. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”

    “The church’s pastoral ministry,” he went on, “cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. … We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” Thus, while Francis may not be changing church doctrine, this major change in emphasis has profound implications.

    For the past approximately 34 years, Rome and the Church hierarchy have placed great emphasis on culture-war issues. Francis rejects this approach, stating, “The message of the Gospel . . . is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Christ.”

    Perhaps, then, you should direct your question, “What is the essence of Christianity?” to the Pope. It is, in fact, a question that has been debated by and among Christians for over 2,000 years, and explains in part why there are so many diverse denominations and theological disputations that encompass modern Christianity.

    The pope has stated that religious men and women should preach God’s love, not condemnation, in daily life. By stating he does not "judge" gays and lesbians, including gay priests, he signals a clear shift from his predecessors and modifies the church's approach to historically marginalized groups. Again, while he may not be changing church doctrine, he has clearly “transformed” the manner in which the Pope, at least, believes the Church should treat issues like gay marriage moving forward. As the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at America said, “Pope Francis's brief comment on gays reveals great mercy. . . . [He] has, once again, lived out the Gospel message of compassion for everyone.”

    The pope also is de-emphasizing clericalism (i.e., placing priests and Bishops on authoritative pedestals) and he has rejected the lush Vatican papal apartments for more simple living. He also says the church must increase the participation of women in Catholic institutional decision making, an issue past popes have largely ignored. “We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of women within the church,” he said. “The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”

    And on the issue of economic justice, while it is true that John Paul II and Benedict XVI were both highly critical of unbridled capitalism, and while the Catholic Church has been progressive in its economic justice statements for quite some time (you should really pay attention to them on these issues), Pope Francis is placing far greater emphasis on society’s responsibility for doing away with inequality. In addition to his statements noted in my essay, he has also has condemned “an economic system which has at its center an idol called money” and “the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”

    “To all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world!"

    “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling.” (cont'd)

  5. Rich (cont'd):

    Finally, please take note of the following statement from the Pope:

    “If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him. . . . If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists – they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.”

    Like I said, I like this pope.

  6. Mark,

    Good response, although you must watch out for the usual Markisms: “There can be little dispute...”

    And I caution against making the same mistake with the new pope that you have made with the president: elevating words above actions. Let’s give the pope some time to see if his accomplishments match his rhetoric.