Pope Francis has a problem.
It certainly doesn’t look that way at first glance; after all, it seems like the whole world is infatuated with the current Bishop of Rome. Catholics and non-Catholics alike cannot help but be mesmerized by him, and for good reason: every day it seems like Francis is doing something crazy, unexpected, or remarkable. In the spirit of poverty, Pope Francis has foregone the red papal shoes, eats simple meals in a cafeteria with fellow priests, paid for his own hotel bill following the Conclave, and decided to live in a simple guest house instead of the comfortable papal apartments. From the pulpit, Pope Francis has decried food waste as stealing from the poor and treating the poor like trash, denounced pure capitalism as being equal to war, and called young people to free humanity from its enslavement to economic and social systems. He has been sighted performing a supposed “exorcism”, riding in an open car in the middle of a rainstorm to greet pilgrims, embracing disabled children, and offering his white zucchetto to a young girl (thereby appointing his future successor, according to some confused websites). The Vatican, it seems, can hardly keep up with him.
To the media-savvy Catholic, the last few months stand in stark contrast to the days when the Church was seen as out of touch, insensitive, and maybe even irrelevant. There is great hope and energy among clergy and laity alike for the future. And though much healing still needs to take place, time will tell if perhaps one of the great legacies of Pope Benedict XVI was taking the scandals the Church was facing with him into retirement.
However, Pope Francis has a problem. Everyone is talking about him and what he says. But that is mostly all they are doing. Reporters publish positive analyses of his calls for simplicity and poverty from the plush accommodations of some of Rome’s finest hotels. Politicians on both sides of the aisle incorporate his words into stump speeches but refrain from any substantial action. Catholics cling to their individual interpretations of the faith, incorporating his words into their arguments when they already agree with his position, while ignoring or spinning his calls to action when they disagree.
True, it has only been a few months since Pope Francis has held the papacy; perhaps more time is needed before real substantive action can take place. Nevertheless, these initial months have revealed a potential problem, a problem that could expand and intensify in the months and years to come, a problem that could demoralize those with high expectations and validate the Church’s cynics. In short, there is a problem that needs to be nipped in the bud. In spite of the Pope’s remarkable words praising action and his living example of solidarity, his papacy could become more and more defined by calls to action left unanswered. Fortunately, there are three major ways such an unfortunate outcome can be avoided.
First, the Vatican needs to do a better job of assisting Pope Francis. One recurrent issue, for example, has revolved around the Vatican’s policy on publishing the Pope’s daily homilies. Attempting to respect the impromptu and personal nature of Francis’ sermons, the Vatican publishes only summaries of what the Pope has said during daily Mass. But these incomplete and selective synopses can lead to quotations that are stripped of their context, make arguments sound patchy, and leave the Pope’s intentions somewhat unclear, leading to more questions than answers. If the daily homily is going to be a major part of Pope Francis’ evangelization, as it seems to be, then theologians and ordinary Catholics alike need real access to the Pope’s daily sermon texts and recordings.
Second, media agencies need to ensure their religion reporters and editors are qualified to do their jobs. This is not a Catholic-only problem. I am sure many Muslims, Sikhs, Mormons, and evangelical Christians (to name a few) feel similarly. A prime example was the media reporting of the Pope’s comments on Jesus Christ and atheism. Based on the headlines (“Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics” – “Did Pope Francis mean to open up the gates of heaven for atheists?”), one would have thought Pope Francis was leading the Holy See out of darkness, while in reality the Pope was only reiterating a position the Church has long held. The confusion came down to a failure to understand the Catholic notions of redemption and salvation, that all can be redeemed without all being saved, because while redemption is entirely God’s action, salvation requires the cooperation of the individual (the acceptance of God’s grace through free will). Someone reporting on the Catholic Church should know that. We expect our political reporters to know the nature and structure of politics like the back of their hands, and our financial editors need to be well-versed in market lingo. It is time we held religion reporters to the same standards.
Finally, Catholics need to step up and set a good example by reacting to the Pope’s words with more than just passive approval. Right now, Pope Francis is like a 21st century John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the blogosphere. And this is great, but we really need a Pope who is able to follow in the footsteps of Christ by preaching the Gospel with action as well as words. Pope Francis so far has been remarkable on this front, but his example is moot if we Catholics who enthusiastically listen to his words don’t incorporate them into our actions and daily lives. It’s a problem if his simple living doesn’t drive us to share our riches and live with modesty and humility. Francis already has enough problems (a world at war, a Church divided, people living in injustice and enslavement), let us help him by turning our verbal praise into resolved action and demand more from our Church, our media, and ourselves.
Michael Fischer is a recent graduate of Georgetown University.