An Orthodox Pope Enthralls the World

By Greg Sheridan

Pope Francis, Time magazine's Person of the Year, the most popular man in the world, is going to disappoint a lot of people, especially liberal Catholics, and others looking for the church to change in essence. Since he became Pope in March, Francis has morphed into a global phenomenon, remarkably similar to what happened to John Paul II.

Before becoming Pope, he had lived for decades as a Jesuit, then a bishop in Argentina. This experience certainly shaped this fascinating and intriguing man.

Francis's stylistic innovations have generated worldwide fascination. But he is perhaps best understood as a very old-style Jesuit: prayerful, self-sufficient, self-reliant, he takes his vow of poverty seriously.

Most famously, he does not inhabit the papal apartment but lives in two modest rooms at a Vatican hostel. He spends time with the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the homeless. This is powerful symbolism but it's not just symbolism. It is consistent with his pre-papal life.

Francis has become an unlikely hero to liberal Catholics and to the secular liberal media. This is mainly for two reasons.

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One is that he is trying hard to change the style and image of the church. He does not want the whole, or the primary, message of Catholicism to be its rules about particular sexual practices - priestly celibacy, the refusal to remarry the divorced in church, abortion, contraception and the rest - which have so agitated the Western view of the church since at least the 1960s. Instead, Francis wants to centre the church's image on its preaching of Christ.

Second, the Pope strongly emphasises the church's concern for the poor and the ethical obligation on all people, certainly on all Catholics, to help the poor. That's challenging and rightly so.

But, and it is an enormous but, on all the grounds where modernism has had its most trenchant battles with the Catholic Church for at least the past 200 years, Francis reaffirms traditional doctrine.

Francis is undeniably a disconcerting figure for Catholic conservatives because of the pastoral innovations and intensity he espouses, and because of some of his comments about economics.

Recently, the Pope issued a 60- page exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. It is a remarkable and gripping read, but as someone happy enough to wear the label conservative myself, I would say it reconfirms all the contentious Catholic doctrine it considers, is extremely challenging in the demands it makes of the faithful, and has a couple of odd paragraphs about economics that I think show a faulty understanding of the way wealth is created.

Conscientious Catholics believe the Pope has special authority on matters of faith and morals, but is no more authoritative on complex social and economic policy matters than anyone else. As one American wit put it: I believe the Pope is infallible, but he also gets a lot of things wrong!

The Pope is important not only to Catholics but to the entire world, given he heads a church of 1.2 billion people and is at the apex of the most important non-government organisation in the world.

As I say, on all the grounds where modernism has confronted Catholicism, Francis has reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching. But a funny thing is happening to Francis. Because the media lauds him as a liberal, nothing conservative he says gets considered. This is an exact mirror reverse of what happened to John Paul II.

A lot of attention has been given to various interviews, reported encounters and even stray remarks of the Pope. Famously, when asked about a gay priest, he replied: "Who am I to judge?", and this has become a media leitmotif. In truth Francis seems a little naive, perhaps indiscreet, in his dealings with the media, and this is part of his refreshing differentness. But it can lead to confusion.

So his considered papal writings surely give us the best guide to his actual thinking.

The Pope's strong view that he doesn't want the church's teaching on contentious sexual matters to be its defining image has mistakenly led many liberals, Catholic and secular, to think he might change those rules.

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Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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