Reflections on Pope Francis

Is he a reformer, a traditionalist, or both?

General Audience with Pope Francis. © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

By Francis Schüssler Fiorenza

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as pope on the second day of the conclave was a surprise to the world and a historic event. A German cardinal went into the conclave convinced that the Roman Catholic Church needed to have someone from the Third World as pope. Many expected an Italian to be elected, since they were the largest majority. However, the initial votes were divided, and many of the cardinals had been deeply moved by Bergoglio’s short talk at the conclave. That Pope Francis was not only the first Latin American, but also the first Jesuit elected to the papacy might be of equal importance. During the last decade, as the conservative society Opus Dei grew in influence in the Vatican and within the Catholic Church, the Jesuits were increasingly viewed with suspicion even though they had made significant contributions to theology at the time of Vatican II.1 Known for their establishment of many universities, the Jesuits represent not only a religious order, but also an intellectual and academic voice. Pope Francis’s election locates him within an international network of fellow Jesuits. His first major interview was published in Jesuit journals. In the United States, it was published in America—a journal that the Vatican had earlier criticized for its open, two-sided discussion of controversial issues.

Despite these important characteristics, the central question remains: will Pope Francis’s papacy lead to decisive changes in the Roman Catholic Church? After all, for some, change is what they hope for; for others, change is what they fear. Pope Francis’s actions, lifestyle, preaching, and interviews have already set a very different tone from that of both his immediate predecessors. Are these differences mainly stylistic or rhetorical, or will they constitute a more significant transformation in the Roman Catholic Church?

Here, I will discuss several areas of tension in the pope’s profile. At first glance, Pope Francis presents an enigma. His personal engagement, empathy, and humility are impressive, as are his openness to individual persons and the unusual concreteness of his language. Pastorally, he is a church reformer; he is calling the church, including the bishops, to live out the radical prophetic message of the Gospels. Yet, on doctrinal and moral issues, Pope Francis is clearly a traditionalist, even though he calls for the church to focus on the poor and to emphasize social justice—concerns that appear to have been neglected in favor of hot-button issues involving sexuality. If he envisions little or no change in doctrinal or moral teaching though, what change is then possible?

His shift in symbolic actions, rhetoric, and tone are in themselves significant and may lead to change. If one looks carefully at what he has said and what some episcopal conferences have even proposed, some changes appear more likely than others. In the end, Pope Francis may disappoint both traditionalists and progressives in the church, but he will surely pave his own distinctive way.

Symbolic and Rhetorical Differences

The name this pope has chosen is already symbolic. Cardinal Ratzinger picked Benedict as his name to emphasize the role that the Benedictines played in saving Christian culture as Europe transitioned from the demise of the Roman Empire to the medieval period. Ratzinger was convinced that Europe was neglecting its spiritual roots in Christianity. It was this decreasing influence of Christianity in Europe that Ratzinger saw as the challenge of his papacy. He suggested that the Catholic Church had to propose a positive message rather than just provide negative condemnations. However, his initial actions in this regard received little attention because they lacked the concreteness of Pope Francis’s language about misplaced emphasis.

Faced with the intractability of this issue during his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI began to advocate, with many echoing him, that the Roman Catholic Church should focus on its central message and clearly enunciate its religious identity. (Pope John Paul II had the same conviction stemming from his Polish experience in positioning the church against the dominance of the communist party.) The Catholic Church would need to become more like a small community of believers than a Constantinian church that encompasses the culture. Only then could it preserve its identity in the face of a hostile world.

This argument shocked many, especially theologians, trained in the classic distinction between church and sect that Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch had articulated. Pope Benedict’s appeals for the Roman Catholic Church to become like a small sect seemed to reverse the last two millennia of Christianity. Ratzinger reinforced this rhetoric with other symbols. He sought to retrieve the sacral by using more medieval vestments. His own celebrations of the Eucharist had people kneel rather than stand. He rejected the rock-style music that accompanied John Paul II’s open mass celebrations. His writings disparaged the practice of the priest facing the people and the overemphasis on the Eucharist as a meal, and he allowed the reintroduction of the Latin mass in certain circumstances.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio began his papacy with quite different symbolic actions. He selected the name Francis to stress poverty and simplicity. This choice pointed to a saint who, in his own context, had strongly reacted to the way a medieval institution merged wealth with religious and feudal hierarchies. The new pope’s decision to live in the guesthouse rather than the papal quarters and his visit to a prison (where he washed the feet of imprisoned Muslim women) have also evoked powerful symbols. These actions moved people to perceive the new pope as embodying the religious sacredness of Christian identity.

Moreover, rather than advocating a vision of the church as a small flock, Pope Francis has urged that the church should focus outside of itself to the edges of society. He points to the parable of the lost sheep, in which the shepherd leaves the flock to search for the one lost sheep. Today, the dominant mentality in the Catholic Church is to concentrate on saving the one sheep in the fold rather than going out to look for the ninety-nine, so for the pope to say that the church has to pay attention to these ninety-nine that live in the world and on the periphery is notable. His rhetoric entails a fundamental shift not only in tone, but also in substance, since it signals how the Catholic Church should relate to society. His words also echo the pastoral intent of the Second Vatican Council. The council’s “Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” urged that the church should enter into dialogue with the world. Soon after its publication almost fifty years ago, Joseph Ratzinger, in a scholarly commentary, criticized the council’s language about dialogue with the modern world.

These examples make it clear that the shift in rhetoric represents a basic change in attitude that sets the path toward a genuine dialogue. Still, what about more concrete questions, such as those concerning structural reform in the church, dialogue with Islam, homosexuality, admittance of divorced Catholics in new marriages to the sacramental life of the church, liberation theology, and the relationship between the priesthood and women, and the possibility of married clergy? I shall touch briefly on each of these.

Institutional Reform of the Curia and Collegiality

The Second Vatican Council ended with a call for collegiality between the bishop of Rome and the bishops throughout the world. Pope Paul VI put the brakes on the discussions within the council about the role of episcopal conferences and the Synod of Bishops. The decades following Vatican II saw this hoped-for collegiality weakened rather than strengthened. Today, however, the impact of the scandals concerning the Vatican Bank, allegations of infighting within the Roman curia and of corruption, the unauthorized release of documents, and the cautious and slow response to the sexual abuse scandals have reopened the issue. Pope Francis has been remarkably outspoken, criticizing the careerism, clericalism, insularity, and Vatican-centrality of the curia. He has established an international commission of eight cardinals to propose reforms. These eight cardinals have already suggested they do not intend simply to revise “The Good Shepherd” (the constitution of the curia), but to write a new constitution. The problems, however, are more than organizational. The basic issue remains one of authority and control. How is authority distributed between the center and the periphery of the church?

In recent years, considerable friction has arisen. Pope Benedict insisted that the liturgical text be translated as literally as possible. The responsible Vatican congregation was convinced that it knew better than the local conferences of bishops how to translate into local languages. Just recently, in the wake of Benedict’s resignation, an episcopal conference has rejected the Vatican’s suggested translation for the text of the mass. In addition, the curia has been incredibly understaffed. As a result, decisions that needed to be made within a reasonable amount of time were not made. Decisions about annulments of previous marriages by couples seeking to marry, or decisions about the removal of priests who were found guilty of sexual abuse, have often taken years rather than months. Even disciplinary procedures against theologians have frequently taken almost a decade. Any attempt at reform will have to allow more local decision making. But such a change will also entail a practical shift in authority.

Dialogue with Islam

The difference between Benedict and Francis on the relation of the church to Islam became immediately evident. When Rat-zinger became pope, one of his first acts was to remove Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, one of the church’s leading experts on Islam and Christian-Muslim relations, from the presidency of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to which Pope John Paul II had appointed him in 2002. Moreover, in stark contrast to John Paul II, who referred to Muslims as “our brothers,” Pope Benedict referred to Muslims as “our friends,” recalling Augustine’s sermon on Psalm 32, in which Augustine distinguished sharply between those we call our brothers and those we call our friends. These actions took place before Ratzinger’s Regensburg address in which he quoted Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus’s statement from 1391: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”2 Since Pope Benedict did not distance himself from this quote in his address, it appeared as if he was using it to express his own opinion.

Pope Francis’s consideration of Muslims stands in stark contrast. He is known for his good relations with Islam in Argentina, which has the largest number of Muslims in Latin America. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he explicitly stated that Pope Benedict’s views did not reflect his own and that those statements could destroy in twenty seconds the relationship that Pope John Paul II sought for twenty years to establish. As pope, Francis immediately started to call Muslims “brothers,” as Pope John Paul II had done. This difference between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict is a neuralgic point for some defenders of Pope Benedict and has already stirred up debate. Sandro Magister, known for his columns on the Vatican, distributed worldwide in several languages, has been cautiously critical of Pope Francis. He has suggested that the violence against the Coptic Christian Churches in Egypt demonstrated that Benedict was right.3

Catholicism and LGBT Communities

Pope Francis’s statements on gay priests and same-sex marriages have come under intense public scrutiny. In response to the question of why he had not removed Monsignor Battista Ricca, whom he had appointed to a supervisory group at the Vatican Bank, he affirmed his nonjudgmental affirmation of the person and his willingness to keep him in the position—despite allegations that Monsignor Ricca had a homosexual relationship in his past. He has distinguished sharply between homosexuality and sexual abuse of children, which he has labeled as criminal behavior. His response took people by surprise. On the one hand, it represents a very traditional position, distinguishing between a homosexual person and a homosexual act and maintaining that homosexuals, like heterosexuals, could aspire to the priesthood as long as they were celibate. On the other hand, his statement represents a stark change from recent attitudes.

When the sexual abuse scandal came publicly to the fore in Boston, church leaders at first blamed the press (as did Ratzinger, in an early statement). These leaders blamed American seminaries for fostering a morally lax as well as a gay culture. The Vatican ordered a high-level investigation of all North American seminaries. In 2005, the Vatican Congregation of Christian Education issued a statement on dealing with the discernment of vocations for the priesthood, in which it asserted that any individual with a homosexual orientation should not be admitted to any seminary, and neither should he be ordained. Previously, either a heterosexual or homosexual person could be a priest, as long as he was committed to the celibate life demanded of the clergy, but this traditional view had been changed. Thus, Pope Francis makes an important shift insofar as he sharply distinguishes between the criminal act of sexual abuse and homosexuality—and he did not withdraw his appointment of Monsignor Ricca. Will this distinction also lead him to move against bishops who cover up sexual abuse by transferring priests from one parish to another? If he does, that will signal an even more significant shift.

On the issue of homosexuality, he also took a different position than that held by his predecessor as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Whereas Cardinal Quarracino had stated that homosexuals should be “locked up in a ghetto,” Bergoglio advocated that homosexuals have recognized rights, including to civil unions, and he disagreed with those who linked homosexuality with pedophilia. However, he was opposed to the Argentine government’s plans for same-sex marriage and even argued against allowing same-sex couples to adopt children. His proposal for allowing civil unions was fought by more conservative bishops who were supported by the papal nuncio and the Vatican, and it lost out in the episcopal conference in Argentina. His opponents even prepared a dossier about his view, which they forwarded to Rome, hoping (without effect) that his retirement resignation would be accepted at age seventy-five rather than postponed as usual. As archbishop, Bergoglio resisted the more restrictive recent declarations on homosexuality, but he remained within the framework of traditional Roman Catholic anthropology.

Divorce, New Marriage, and the Sacraments

An important question concerns the church’s attitude toward divorced and remarried Catholics who want to participate in the sacramental life of the church. In seeking to deal pastorally with this issue, the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference suggested that the Catholic Church should admit remarried Catholics to the Eucharist as long as they fulfilled some criteria, which included the existence of a newly established and enduring relationship and the intention to participate as a family in the Eucharist. Their pastoral solution takes cognizance of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where one remarriage is possible. Nevertheless, John Paul II vetoed this proposal. Recently, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, again raised the question of the exclusion of remarried divorced Catholics. Zollitsch made reference to Christian Wulff, the president of Germany, as a divorced person who has remarried a Catholic and who lives his faith, and yet he is excluded from participation in the sacraments under present church law.

This recommendation led to a sharp rebuttal. Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, head of the Vatican Congregation for Doctrine and Faith (CDF), published a detailed rejection of the German bishop’s decision. In response, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, quoted Pope Francis’s earlier statement that one should not get too upset with a statement from the CDF. Meanwhile, Pope Francis took the unusual step of requesting that, in preparation for the international synod on the theme “Pastoral Challenges Facing the Family,” the bishops of the world should poll the Catholics in their dioceses not just about the admittance of divorced and remarried to the Eucharist, but also about other marital issues, such as cohabitation, gay marriage, contraception, and difficulties in obtaining an annulment.4

Where will Pope Francis stand on the issue of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist? He has acknowledged the prevalence of divorce within society and equally among Roman Catholics. His own sister, Maria Elena, is divorced—though not remarried. In interviews, he has expressed the desire that divorced people live within the church and has suggested that there should be a new pastoral approach, but with the proviso “especially when there is a defect in the original marriage.” Does his statement about an original “defect” point back to the traditional view that welcomes Catholics only when their previous marriage has been annulled? Whether the pope is open to a change that would make many Catholics who are remarried feel welcomed in the sacramental life of their church still remains an open question.

The Role of Women in the Church and the World

The shortage of priests in some parts of the world represents an enormous challenge to the Roman Catholic Church because many parishes have had to be closed. Hence, it is not surprising that the pope’s newly appointed secretary of state has raised the question of married priests. Pope Francis has observed that this is a practice that existed for around one thousand years (obviously taking the medieval Lateran Council rather than the early Council of Elvira in 306 as the definitive starting point). He suggests, therefore, that a strictly celibate priesthood is open to change, but that if a change is made, it should be limited to certain cultures or regions rather than be universal. However, he is adamantly against the practice of priests living married lives in secret (although this perhaps happens in some locations more than in others).

The matter of the ordination of women is often discussed in this context, although it concerns more the question of equality of women in the church. Pope Francis does indeed call for the further inclusion of women in the ministry of the church, but he has affirmed that John Paul II has definitively decided the issue of the ordination of women. It is not clear why he has given such weight to that judgment. One widely quoted interview gave the impression that Francis subscribed to John Paul II’s claim, expressed in his 1988 Apostolic Letter, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” that Christ linked the Eucharist to priestly service because he wished “to express the relationship between man and woman, between what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine,’ ” as a relationship belonging to both creation and redemption. However, it subsequently emerged that the English translation of the interview with Francis mischaracterized his views.5

Justice for the Poor and Liberation Theology

Pope Francis’s initial statements and his lifestyle point to a strong concern for the poor in a way that raises the question of his relation to Latin American liberation theology. The answer to this question is complex because of changes within the diverse Latin American liberation theologies and because of developments in the pope’s own stance. As a young Jesuit and later as provincial, he favored many ideas of church practice and theology that appeared to be quite traditional and opposed to liberation theology. He became a member of Comunione e Liberazione (“Communion and Liberation”), an organization opposed to liberation theology. On the other hand, as archbishop he increasingly brought the issue of poverty to the fore, and this emphasis is clear in his early statements as pope.

It is clear that his fundamental conviction is more personal than structural. He advocates that first one has to change persons and attitudes, and then changes in structures will follow. Consequently, he stresses the importance of love and mercy as central to the Christian message. What is clear is that he is much more open to individual liberation theologians. As pope, he has already met with Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the leading advocates of liberation theology. He has encouraged advancing the process for the canonization of Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, who was shot on March 24, 1980, while celebrating mass. Though the process for his canonization was initiated ten years later, in 1990, it has since been held up, despite his martyrdom. Many assume that the archbishop’s close ties to liberation theology was behind the delay. Pope Francis also intends to write his next encyclical on the environment and has already consulted with Leonardo Boff, who has sought to bring issues of the environment into liberation theology.

Remaining Questions

On November 26, 2013, Pope Francis addressed an apostolic exhortation, “Joy of the Gospel,” to all Catholics. This sixty-four-page document emphasizes that the church’s evangelization requires a radical reform of the church and less Vatican-centric structures. It also suggests that the Roman Catholic Church needs to take cultural changes and the diversity of cultures more seriously into account. Pope Francis criticizes the dominant neoliberal economic theory that neglects the increasing disparity between the rich and poor in the world, overlooks the failures of trickle-down economies, and has led to “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” He calls for all members of the church (bishops and laity) to be totally dedicated to peace and reconciliation, and he states that he wants women to be fully involved in the church’s ministry (yet, again, he explicitly excludes them from ordination).

Though his concern about poverty is central to Pope Francis’s statements, in my view it is difficult to know where he stands on one central, remaining issue—that of the relationship between poverty and women’s issues. Evidence shows that the majority of the poor in the world are women. Therefore, any concern about poverty has to address the status of women within society, their equality and dignity, their reproductive rights, and their ability to increase their level of education. These questions are not unrelated to the issue of birth control. Yet here lies an enormous tension within the church. Pope Paul VI withdrew the issue of birth control from the Second Vatican Council and gave it to a commission led by Cardinal Döpfner of Munich. The papal commission recommended a change in the Catholic Church’s rejection of artificial birth control, arguing that the distinction between artificial and natural contraception was an artificial distinction and that, consequently, the decision should be left up to the individual married couples. The commission reflected the views of many theologians on the issue, including Joseph Ratzinger, but in the end Pope Paul VI rejected the commission’s recommendation. At that time, several episcopal conferences proposed that people should respectfully listen to the encyclical but still exercise their freedom of individual conscience. Since then, the split over this issue in the church has only hardened.

John Paul II was adamant in his views opposing reproductive rights, and it was said that the selection of bishops was dependent on their holding more traditional views on this topic. In Europe, bishops have become increasingly concerned with the declining birth rate of Christians in Europe and the increased pornographic quality of culture, both of which are seen as the result of contraception. The many diverse views in the Catholic Church on this issue come into conflict when dealing with poverty and health. One such example is the debate in the Philippines concerning contraception, where a permissive law was passed despite the overwhelming opposition of the bishops. In the United States, a major point in the opposition of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to the Affordable Care Act has been the provision about birth control, even though the act would expand health benefits for many of the poor in the nation. It is evident that the laity totally disregard this teaching, not only in practice, but also out of principled reasons.6 Consequently, the current pope’s central concern with the poor cannot be addressed in isolation from the status of women in society and the church, or from issues of reproductive health and contraception. Can the Catholic Church stand for the equality of women in society without asserting the equality of women at all levels within the church? These issues might be much more intractable for Pope Francis than the institutional reorganization of the curia. If the Roman Catholic Church is to focus on people on the periphery, it must deal with the poverty of women who live on the margins of society and church. Pope Francis can call the curia a leprosy in the church, but the unequal treatment of women is a much more dangerous leprosy and will hamper any attempt to reach out to all.


  1. Among the many influential Jesuits from that era were John Courtney Murray, Joseph Fitzmyer, Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner, and Henri de Lubac.
  2. “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” papal address at the University of Regensburg, September 12, 2006; www.zenit.org/en/articles/papal-address-at-university-of-regensburg also posted at www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/index_en.htm.
  3. One wonders, though, whether Magister was aware that his column went out the week before the anniversary of St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when, in 1572, Catholics slaughtered Huguenots in France.
  4. The crucial question is the purpose of the poll. Cardinal Newman’s 1859 essay, “On Consulting to Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” argued that the laity’s testimony was important for what should be believed. However, that position has been abandoned in the last decades, and the poll itself outlines the church’s traditional view based on natural law. It remains to be seen how the Synod of Bishops will use this data.
  5. Instead, in that interview Francis affirmed “that the feminine presence in the Church has not fully emerged because the temptation of machismo has not left space to make visible the role women are entitled to within the community.” See Phyllis Zagano, “What the Pope Really Said,” National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 2013.
  6. Melinda Gates, representing the Gates Foundation, has linked the need for improved birth control and reproductive health to increasing the status of women worldwide, because it makes them more likely to complete higher levels of education, and to overcome poverty. Melinda Gates claims her views are based on the Catholic principles that she learned in Catholic school.

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza is Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School.

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