What Pope Francis Will and Will Not Do

Good evening everyone,

For some reason, today I have been linked to several articles about Pope Francis.

Pope Francis is the current leader of the Catholic Church – which contains 1.2 billion people, making it arguably the biggest religious denomination in the world.

In addition to having more followers than any other living religious leader, Francis’ followers can boast an unusual uniformity of teaching, since all Catholics must have a local parish priest, and all priests are rigorously trained according to a highly specific theology that the Catholic Church has been working on for about 2,000 years.

On top of all of that, the Catholics have a doctrine called “papal infallibility” – which basically means that since the Pope is believed to be God’s chosen leader of the Church on Earth, anything he says about religious teachings has to be correct.

All of this means that the Pope is a very big deal. And, as Popes go, Francis has really been shaking things up. And that has a lot of people very dismayed, or excited – speculating that he may be the first Pope to recognize gay marriage, or ordain female priests, or start pushing for greater contraceptive access worldwide.

None of that is going to happen.

However, Francis is making some very real changes that everybody, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, can benefit from knowing about. So, without further ado, I would like to set the record straight – in the face of our all-time-low standards for journalism these days – and clarify what exactly Pope Francis has done, and what it means, on each issue:

Money

By far Pope Francis’ most radical departures have been related to money. It’s no secret that the Catholic Church has developed some quite opulent traditions over the centuries. Starting with the premise that “God’s messenger on Earth” should be honored, this somehow turned into an enormous bureaucracy where thousands of bishops are chaffeured in ritzy cars and live in expensive mansions. Some oddly specific traditions include the specific $400 pair of shoes that became tradition for the Pope to wear at some point over the centuries, and of course the completely opulent “papal palace,” with its massive serving staff and luxurious meeting rooms where the Pope conducts business with all the super-important businesses. Needless to say, all of this has been the subject of quite a lot of criticism from folks who feel that Jesus would not exactly have approved. But all of it has also become so traditional that it has come to be deemed disrespectful of Church tradition for a Pope to refuse to abide by these.

Pope Francis has refused.

He refuses to live in the papal palace. Instead, he insists on living in the nearby guest house, essentially a hotel, where priests and bishops and other visitors coming to the Vatican to meet with the Pope stay. He claims that “living in community” like this prevents him from getting lonely – and the whole thing makes the opulent papal palace and its proponents look hilariously useless.

He refuses to wear the traditional “red shoes” – a pair of shoes which are indeed red, and which have been crafted specially for each incoming Pope by the same Italian family for centuries. Instead, he insists on dressing like any old priest underneath his papal vestments, “to remind himself of who he is.”

Francis has also spurned the usual chaffeured papal Mercedes in favor of an old Volkswagen – that is, when his security staff aren’t preventing him from taking the bus, like he used to do as a bishop in Argentina.

Perhaps the most lasting of his money-related departures will be his massive efforts to reform the running of the Church – he has effectively decided to reorganize several Vatican departments, demoting several high-ranking church officials and cautioning incoming bishops not to “view the job as a promotion” or “think they are joining some kind of royal court.”

His example is certainly going to make it embarrassing for the next Pope or Bishop who decides they need a brand new mansion or Mercedes!

In addition, Francis has continued and strengthened his predecessor’s calls for greater economic equality, and voiced his own strong concerns about the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy in many areas of the world.

Sex

Pope Francis has certainly made some needed course-corrections for the Catholic Church on issues of sex.

Most notably, he has taken the extraordinarily Christlike step of reminding believers and Church authorities alike that the Church does not exist to regulate sex: it exists to feed the hungry and heal the sick and protect the defenseless.

So while Francis has not actually changed any teachings – homosexuality is still not what God intended, nor is contraception, and abortion is still murder – he has urged Catholics and Christians of all stripes to be less “obsessed” with these issues, and to take other issues, such as humanitarian ones, into greater account.

The statement above was shortly followed by his global-headline-making “Who am I to judge?” remark when asked about the salvation of gay couples. This statement should not have been so shocking, as the Church’s complicated stance on sin has long stated that no one can know the destination of another’s soul for sure. But no previous Pope in my memory has had the courage to say that – all seemed to be too concerned with not promoting bad behavior (which Pope Francis was promptly accused of doing with that remark by more conservative Church leaders, including one who he recently demoted).

And it’s not just homosexual folks who are getting an unusual helping of compassion and non-judgement from Francis. In a recent document which he drew up and got approved by 200 bishops, Francis and the bishops stated that while no changes can be made regarding the nature of the marriage bond – that it is permanent and heterosexual – people living in gay relationships and in heterosexual relationships outside of marriage may have “gifts and qualities to offer,” and that Christians should focus on the positive aspects of all people and relationships, rather than the imperfections.

A call for “compassion and mercy” may ring hollow for those who want to be told that they’re not sinning at all – but it holds a lesson that can possibly apply to all of us, to spend more time focusing on what we have in common, and less time focusing on what we disagree on, be it sexually or religiously, with our neighbors.

Women

Francis has also made headlines by voicing his distress at the “lack of women in real leadership positions” within the Church. It’s not hard to see why: virtually all leadership functions in the Catholic Church are presently administered by bishops and priests who, according to Church teachings, must be male.

This statement led many enthusiasts to wonder if Francis would support the ordination of women – something which small sects of self-identified Catholics, such as the Roman Catholic Womenpriests group – have been fighting for for years.

However, it is quite clear that this has not going to happen: in some less-well-publicized moves, Francis has excommunicated six women who sought ordination into the Catholic priesthood in the U.S.A., as well as an Australian priest who taught publicly that women could be ordained.

What exactly Francis meant by his earlier, cryptic comment that women needed to be given more positions of power in the Church is unclear – but he clearly does not believe they can be ordained for priestly duties, such as consecrating the Eucharist, hearing confessions, and performing marriages.

Science

It is true that Pope Francis has made statements supportive of the Big Bang theory, evolution, and the reality of climate change.

What many readers may find surprising is that these are actually not new statements; if I recall properly, both predecessors Benedict and John Paul II made basically the same statements, saying that they would leave science up to the scientists and that the Church did not require a God who contradicted science.

Environment

Pope Francis has called all Catholics to act on climate change in 2015, stating that “we must safeguard Creation,” and that “if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us!” In a stirring passage:

“But when we exploit Creation we destroy the sign of God’s love for us, in destroying Creation we are saying to God: ‘I don’t like it! This is not good!’ ‘So what do you like?’ ‘I like myself!’ – Here, this is sin! Do you see?” – Pope Francis, 2014

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