The last thing I expected three months ago is that I would end up devoting column after column to the new Catholic pope.
I had expected, when Pope Benedict retired, that the church would elect another conservative, most likely a brilliant theologian and even more likely a competent administrator to reign over a dying religious empire.
I mean, that's what they did the last time. When you elect as pope a man whose nickname is "God's Rotweiler," you do set a certain precedent.
It's not just the person of Benedict; it is the attitude that created him. The church was out to reclaim its authority and those who didn't like it could get out of the way.
The first time I met Madison Bishop Robert Morlino he told me his vision for the church was for a more "faithful" body, even if that meant a smaller body.
Subsequent events proved him to be a man of his word. The church now cracks down on liturgical deviations that would either have been ignored or handled very privately by past administrations. Liberal priests keep their heads down, way down. Liberal laity...well, church parking lots are rarely full these days.
The nation's Roman Catholic bishops virtually declared war on President Obama and on the Democratic Party, a remarkable feat because so many leaders of the Democratic Party -- including the vice president -- consider themselves faithful Catholics.
And, then, along came Pope Francis, eschewing the crimson and lace that has come to characterize ecclesiastical dress, striving to make his homilies accessible to the humblest in the audience, referring to clericalism as "leprosy" (and, apparently, doing so without incurring the outrage of the world leper community).
Francis keeps insisting that the key to evangelism is not insisting that people take account of the superior insights of the bishops but that the bishops, and their church, take account of the people they purport to serve. Shepherds, he said, should smell like sheep and the way the church redeems itself is not through superior theological tomes but through giving itself to the poor.
It's an incarnation thing. Since Jesus said he will be found in the "least of these, my brothers," then the church ought to be out mingling with the least of these.
I see no real evidence that the theology of Pope Francis differs in any real way from the theology of Pope Benedict or, for that matter, with the theology of Bishop Morlino.
But there is one way he does differ. When Francis talks about the church being "faithful" he is not talking about the little people being obedient to their ecclesiastical betters, he is talking about the church letting go of its influence and privilege and searching out the poor and the hopeless.
If God grants this guy just a few more years, my guess is that the world, especially those of us who are not Catholic, are going to look at the Roman Catholic Church with a respect we've been lacking for at least a generation.
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