Facebook has been uninhabitable these past few weeks, what with the war on Christmas thing combined with the Duck Dynasty flap. Both are ridiculous in my estimation, but perhaps this is because I cannot grow a beard.
Mixed into these posts, I found one from a FB friend describing the huge shifts in doctrine undertaken by Pope Francis signaled in a speech he made at the end of Vatican III. Now, I don’t follow the Roman Catholic church closely, but I would’ve paid attention to a Vatican III. My friend was duped by a faux article that in very serious tones marked official changes in church doctrine, including a denial of eternal punishment and an acceptance of all religions as true.
What is remarkable about this is that this article could be believable to some. Had this article been describing changes made by John Paul or Benedict, the article would’ve been recognized immediately as a spoof. But this pope, this guy who wants you to call him Francis (shout out to Noland and other CS fans), has been so different that we could believe massive shifts in church doctrine actually could be occurring. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine have said something to the effect, “I like this new pope.”
Yet, here’s the thing. No official teachings of the church have actually changed. None. Not abortion. Not gay marriage. Not stem-cell research. Not celibate clergy. Not even the church’s stance toward the poor, which some see to be Francis’ biggest shift in the practice of the Papacy.
So,what to make of this? First, there have been substantive new directions charted by Francis. For instance, he sees the eucharist as a table of healing. It is not to be withheld from sinners as a sign of excommunication. Rather, it is a place where sinners find the healing nourishment of Christ. And the images of Francis which have come to us: eschewing the red papal slippers (which is just so right at so many levels); disciplining the German bishop who extravagantly appointed his home; embracing the poor the disfigured, and muslims; responding to a query about homosexual priests with “who am I to judge?” (Well, you’re the pope). These acts, when taken together, constitute real and substantive changes even when the official doctrines of the church have not changed.
I’m of the mind that Francis is the real deal and that these are not merely publicity stunts to make the Catholic Church more human. But, regardless of Francis’ intention, this is what has happened. The image of the church has become more human. More merciful. Less intolerant. More humble. More engaged with the suffering of the world. And my hunch is that deep change is more likely to be ignited this way than through new papal teachings.
And this is where the Duck Dynasty folks (or at least, Phil) have some things to learn from Francis. It’s possible to believe what you believe and still live humanely toward others. (To be fair, the Duck Dynasty guys are not the leaders of a world-wide religion. Wait, on second thought…). It’s possible to have convictions and to say, “who am I to judge?” It’s possible to believe certain things are sin and still see the food of Christ as offering healing for us all. It’s possible to live the truth as love.