Pope Francis: Style over substance? Or is style the substance itself?

So we all know that Francis has said some vaguely encouraging things regarding the place of women and gays in the church. The resounding tone amongst the 20 & 30 somethings I know is something like “he’s so awesome,” based on a few media-hyped statements and photographs:



He’s also shown humility by choosing to live in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the papal apartments, giving up the fancy shoes, and taking the cardinal bus instead of the pope limo.

But why have so few media outlets picked up on Francis blessing the anti-gay adoption sentiments in a Christmas sermon by the Maltese Bishop Charles Scicluna, or his excommunication of Fr Greg Reynolds for supporting gay marriage and the ordination of women?

Despite acknowledging Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s (as he was known before assuming his role as supreme pontiff) opposition to marriage equality, The Advocate named Pope Francis their Person of the year (as did Time, and Esquire named him the Best Dressed Man of 2013, seriously).

So Francis has said some things that sound encouraging to progressives, and done some things that should piss us off. But what can we make of all this? Well, for one, we must first understand the difference between ecclesiastical law and divine law. As the head of one of the largest organizations on the planet, Francis is bound to a number of things that have come out of this 2000 year old tradition. The ordination of women and approval of gay marriage are far beyond the scope of what one pope is capable of doing. But does that mean that he needs to bless anti-gay sermons and excommunicate a priest who goes against these church teachings? Probably. Is privately approving of civil unions for gays (as a Cardinal) as radical a move as possible for somebody who wants to keep their job? Probably.

It seems like many Catholics are hearing what they want to hear and either ignoring what they don’t like or are simply not keen enough to dig a little deeper. And that is starting to produce real and lasting impacts, such as lawmakers citing Pope Francis as critical in their decision to legalize gay marriage. Perhaps many other Catholics are finally able to resolve their identities as both Catholics and supporters of gay rights or womens rights? And what does that mean for the church as a whole? A lot. If we imagine “the church” not as simply the physical structures and hierarchy, but as every single member of the congregation, we are approaching a radically different concept than the pre-Vatican II image that Benedict imposed.

The style (all of the neat things Francis has done and expressed in vague statements) is creating more of an impact on the congregation than the substance (i.e. excommunicating Fr Reynolds.). If Catholics empower themselves to not simply follow the church, and instead be the church, we might sooner find a meeting ground between those on top (the clergy) and those below (the people). So whether Francis publicly or privately approves of homosexuality or the ordination of women, the people are coming out in droves to finally speak up for the rights of some oppressed groups, and that is unquestionably good. But to think that a lot of this sentiment is based on limited information is a bit concerning.

… . And we’re just starting to get into sexual abuse and consumerist capitalism.