Skip to main content

The Pope's revolutionary message

By David M. Perry, Special to CNN
September 23, 2013 -- Updated 1835 GMT (0235 HKT)
Pope Francis makes some <a href='http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/29/pope-francis-on-gays-who-am-i-to-judge/'>unexpected comments on issues facing the Roman Catholic Church</a> on Monday, July 29. He spoke on the record to journalists on a flight back back to Italy from Brazil after finishing his first international trip as pontiff. Among the topics he addressed were homosexuality, the church's alleged "gay lobby," the role of women, abortion, divorce and the Vatican Bank. Pope Francis makes some unexpected comments on issues facing the Roman Catholic Church on Monday, July 29. He spoke on the record to journalists on a flight back back to Italy from Brazil after finishing his first international trip as pontiff. Among the topics he addressed were homosexuality, the church's alleged "gay lobby," the role of women, abortion, divorce and the Vatican Bank.
HIDE CAPTION
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
Pope Francis on hot-button issues
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Perry: Pope Francis has not called for any new doctrines or changed anything
  • Perry: Francis' impact comes from his behavior and words, not his executive power as Pope
  • He says that the pope can seem so transformative is a testament to the power of his reform
  • Perry: When will the rest of the Catholic Church hierarchy catch up to Francis' revolution?

Editor's note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history and director of the Catholic studies minor at Dominican University in Illinois. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- It's time to stop being surprised by Pope Francis.

Since he became pontiff, he's made a lot of news. His tweets echo around the world. He embodies principles of humility and piety. He eschews the fancy trappings of office favored by his predecessor, from the Popemobile to the red shoes. He washed the feet of prisoners, including a Muslim woman, on Holy Thursday. He telephones ordinary people who write to him.

In Rome, he called for "revolutionaries" to leave the comforts of their home and bring the word into the streets. In Rio, he told the gathered youth to "make a mess" in the dioceses as they help the church shake off clericalism.

David M. Perry
David M. Perry

He has sought to create a "culture of encounter" in which atheists and Catholics might come together. "Do good," he said memorably. "We will meet each other there." When he announced that he would canonize Pope John XXIII, the great reformer, on the same day as John Paul II, he emphasized continuity among all Catholics, even those of different factions. When asked about gay priests, he replied, "Who am I to judge?"

Most recently, he gave a long interview in which he articulated a new vision of the church that does seem revolutionary. In the West, reaction has focused on his statements about hot-button social issues. For example, he said, "the teaching of the church (on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception), for that matter, is clear ... (but) it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

Given the constant drumbeat of the American church hierarchy on exactly those issues, the line comes off as a surprising rebuke. Deeper critiques lie within the interview as well. When he spoke about doubt and dialogue, he said, "If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing."

At the very least, Francis has found a message that resonates with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But as repeatedly stated by commentators and church officials, he has not changed anything. He has called for no new doctrines. His reorganization of the Vatican goes slowly. The problems besetting the church before his election remain. Traditionalists, who wish to preserve gains won under the past two popes, and reformers, who are frustrated by the pace of change, agree on this one thing. To this point, Francis' impact emerges from his behavior and his words, not his executive power as pope.

New pope, new path?
Pope Francis' views a 'slight departure'
What is Pope Francis' message?

And yet, he has this power to surprise. Every time he demonstrates his humility or his empathy, his words resonate with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They bring both pleasure and surprise that such a seemingly honest, humble and holy person really could be pope.

Don't be surprised at what Francis is doing; instead, wonder if the rest of the church hierarchy is going to catch up. Francis' revolution emerges out of the core of Catholicism. He emphasizes humility, poverty, social justice, non-judgment, peace and especially mercy. That he can seem so transformative without changing any theological principles is a testament to the depth and power of his reform, not its limitations.

Such a reform has historical precedent. More than 800 years ago, another Francis, the son of a cloth merchant in Assisi, came to Rome to see the pope. The church of the 13th century relied heavily on formula. This reliance distanced the priests from their parishioners and was a growing problem in an era of societal change. Francis and his disciples, who attempted to live in perfect poverty and humility, had dedicated themselves to preaching and outreach to the people. They tried to pattern their lives by the principles of Christ.

The pope, Innocent III, gave Francis his approval and supported the new Franciscan order. He hoped that the charismatic humility of Francis might help address some of the problems the church was facing. Eight hundred years later, Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio became the first pope to take Francis' name as his own.

St. Francis' revolutionary message focused on a return to first principles, as he saw them. While Pope Francis has ascended to the throne of St. Peter and St. Francis never chose to be ordained, one can locate certain parallels unfolding between the two men and their efforts at reform. This pope is also turning to the first principles as he perceives them. Pope Francis makes the argument that everything he needs to transform the church already exists within the core teachings. And if this is the core, how can anyone choose not to follow?

What would it look like for the rest of the hierarchy to go where Francis is leading? For one thing, they might find lots of their lay parishioners and the women and men in holy order already there, working.

But while the hierarchy clearly elected Francis to reform the workings of the Vatican, it's not clear that they expected his personal piety to put such pressure on them. Traditionalist response to Francis has concentrated on his personal charisma while emphasizing the orthodoxy of his doctrinal positions. Such responses seem to indicate a resistance to the idea that they might need to change anything.

In a recent interview with the New Catholic Reporter, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York talked about the new pope. He said that in the wake of Francis, he found himself "examining my own conscience ... on style, on simplicity, on lots of things." The cardinal wondered whether his living arrangements, in the historical residence of the archbishops of New York, were appropriate. But the cardinal wasn't quite sure what to do about it, given that he can't sell the building.

St. Francis would have agreed. He carefully never argued for the church to sell of its property or divest itself of income. Of course, he was outside the church hierarchy and relied on papal protection for his safety.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, might have a plan for an empty archbishop's residence if Cardinal Dolan wanted to downsize. After all, he did recently suggest that empty church property should be used to house refugees.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Perry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT