Pope Francis, Progressive Conservatism, and the Renewal of the Church

Pope Francis

“I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (27)

On March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the Roman Catholic Church’s 266th Pope and its first from Latin America. Soon after his election to the papacy media pundits and onlookers from the Christian and atheist West began to speculate what his historic ascendency would mean for Catholicism and the world. Latin American Catholicism served as a genesis for liberation theology, with its holy preoccupation on loving the poor through justice, and there was hope that this pope, unlike his predecessor, would be much more liberal on social issues. It wouldn’t be too long before Pope Francis, like his namesake Francis of Assisi, would prove to be concerned with the poor, with justice, and with reform. Pope Francis forsook the “worldliness” of papal materialism and privilege by refusing to live in the apostolic palace, being chauffeured in luxury vehicles, and wearing designer threads (like Pope Benedict’s Prada shoes). This pope has rebelled against religious respectability, praying for and touching lepers of all kinds. In his most recent “apostolic exhortation” Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis calls for an evangelical Catholicism semper reformanda  secundum verbi dei (always reforming according to the word of God).

In many ways this pope is no different from many of his Petrine processors, like the well beloved Pope John Paul II. Yet he seems to be a breath of fresh air with the (extra)ordinariness of his style of evangelization in word and deed.  What I’ve noticed about much of the mainstream media, however, is that they want him to be someone or something he never promised us he will be. To be sure, his compassionate and at time brutally honest comments about the Church’s relationship to LGBT and divorced faithful, the crushing impact of unbridled capitalism, and the demands for ecclesiastical reforms are all his own and incite a kind of hopefulness among liberals, secularists, and even Christians on the Evangelical Left and Right. But often the media engages in confirmation bias, cherry-picking the elements of Pope Francis’ theology and praxis that align with their narrow interests. What is often ignored is that he maintains and speaks authoritatively in common voice with the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, especially its theological and ecclesiological orientations since Vatican II. This pope will still embrace creedal Catholicism and the culture of life that opposes abortion and homosexuality and women’s ordination on theo-historical grounds. Though deeply compassionate and reformative, the Franciscan revolution will be neither liberal nor conservative, but Catholic, a more excellent way, some would say, from the religious and political extremisms that captivate the Western imagination.

As a non-Catholic Christian shaped by streams of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism flowing through the Black Church Traditions, I have much respect for Pope Francis and am encouraged by his moral vision. Since I’m not Catholic I reserve the right to affirm and disagree with various things Pope Francis believes and does. But I do not seek to make him into anything he is not; he can speak for himself. What I do hope is that this papal reformer will inspire us in the black church traditions to take up the righteous task of reforming our local churches and denominations, both of which are in desperate need of reform, renewal, and revolution. And I am inspired by the way he’s going about these things: seeing in his own Tradition a tradition of openness to the work of the Holy Spirit, to a missionary impulse, to a church with and for the poor. May Baptists and Pentecostals, too, see in our traditions both the piety and the protest that will call us to renewal for the sake of our present age.


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