The Free Press, Mankato, MN


July 31, 2013

Our View: A new pope, a new tone for Vatican

Why It Matters: Pope Francis is carving his own path as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Francis' week-long return to his home continent of South America served to underscore his stylistic differences with his predecessor.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is an academic, a theologian of intellectual repute, who lacks both the easy charm and appeal of his predecessor John Paul II and the natural humility of Francis.

Benedict, who was noted for his red Gucci shoes, embraced the exalted status of the papacy; Francis has refused to reside in the luxurious papal quarters in the Vatican. There is something to be said for both approaches to the job, but Francis is certainly walking his talk of humility and service.

It is difficult to imagine the remote Benedict striding into a shantytown, even more difficult to imagine him exhorting a gathering of bishops to get out of their sacristies and minister to the margins of society — both of which Francis did last week in Brazil.

Francis' public statements have been heavy with calls for social justice, a secondary theme at best for Benedict and John Paul, and a point of emphasis that may well be popular with the dwindling number of priests and nuns in the United States.

None of which, to be sure, portends significant doctrinal changes ahead. Francis has given no reason to believe he splits from the church's established positions on such issues as birth control, priestly celibacy or the role of women in religious life.

But he does carry an air of greater openness. Whereas Benedict once formally declared gay men unfit to be priests, Francis voices, at least informally, a less rigid stand on the topic: "Who am I to judge?" (One imagines Benedict and others of his mindset replying: Who are you? You're the pope!)

The church is shrinking in its long-time strongholds of Europe and the Western Hemisphere. Benedict's reaction was to re-emphasize doctrinal purity; the church might shrink if the "cafeteria Catholics" left, but the remaining church would be stronger, and its greater certainty would ultimately gain appeal. Francis' reaction, at least so far, is to push the bishops to be more relevant to the masses.

Benedict made little headway in reviving the church in Europe. It's far too early to tell if Francis' approach will do any better.

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