The defining moment in the papacy of Benedict XVI, at least for this Protestant, was in January 2012, when the Obama administration was getting set to release its regulations for what insurance companies must offer in basic health care plans as dictated by the Affordable Care Act.
It was no secret that contraceptives likely would be among those required to be fully covered; their role in reducing unwanted pregnancy, protecting women, fighting poverty and ultimately reducing abortions was too great to be ignored.
Yet Pope Benedict chose a different emphasis when addressing American bishops in Rome, decrying alleged threats to religious freedom, including what he called attempts to “deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.”
Two months later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter they asked all priests to read in their Sunday mass, criticizing the mandate and painting it in the stark hues of religious freedom – this despite support for Obamacare by Catholic nuns, whom the bishops then attempted to muzzle. Later in the year, when Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan proposed budgets that would cut services to the poor to pay for defense spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, the response from the bishops was much more muted.
The message was clear: Under Pope Benedict the church would go to much greater lengths to protect its own power than it would the powerless.
That might not be entirely fair – Benedict did call universal health care an “inalienable right” in November 2010 – but when the stakes were high during an election year, Benedict and his bishops chose to circle the wagons.
So it’s heartening to see the new pope, Francis, take the name of the beloved saint who was defined by his love and care for the poor, the environment and the unity of the church. And it’s certainly promising to see that Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s passion has been for protecting the poor and prophesying against the systems that perpetuate injustice upon them:
We live, apparently, in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.
Which isn’t to say Francis will be all sunshine and roses for progressives. It’s wonderful that he might move the Catholic church “economically to the left,” as this column argues, but he remains socially conservative, having condemned Argentina’s move toward equality for gays and lesbians with unnecessarily apocalyptic language.
That said, I’m not sure what else we can expect from a 76-year-old man selected by a group of similar-aged men, all of them appointed by two very conservative pontiffs in John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Frankly, those wishing to see progress in the church should be thrilled to see the appointment of a pope largely described as moderate, as opposed to another unflinching conservative.
Further, the selection of Francis’ name seems to indicate a desire to heal and rebuild the church, rather than further a culture war. I’m leery of projecting too many hopes onto a pope who is still largely a cipher, but it seems possible that Francis will downplay social issues while emphasizing economic ones; if he does, that’s good news for those of us who would like Christianity to be more accepting and protective of minorities – not only racial, but also socioeconomic, gender and sexual.
To the extent that Francis will be willing to criticize our faith in free-market capitalism, it will be a welcome counterweight to the prevailing assumptions of western, especially American, thought. To the extent that he attempts to bridge the divide between left and right, it will be a welcome relief from the culture-warrior ethos embraced especially by American bishops. Further, his criticism of what he clearly considers the often-insular nature of the Catholic Church is perhaps a sign that he will be less interested in protecting the church’s interests and more in protecting the interests of the voiceless:
If I had to choose between a wounded church that goes out on to the streets and a sick, withdrawn church, I would definitely choose the first one.
I’m just a lowly Protestant, and I feel a little strange commenting on this at all, but the pope is the world’s most public Christian, and as we saw in 2012, his statements and emphases have widespread effects. I see reasons for optimism today with the selection of Francis. May God guide him and the church to a place of unity, peace, and rigorous support and protection for the truly powerless in our societies.