Cover Story: The Pope That Changed the World

Pope Francis salutes the crowd in St. Peter’s Square on October 22, 2014. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Why do children suffer? When a Filipino child put that question to Pope Francis in January, the pontiff saluted her and called it the “question without an answer.” When she began to cry, he took her into his arms and said: “Only when we are able to cry are we able to come close to responding to your question. Those on the margins cry. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry. Those who are discarded cry. But those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don’t know how to cry.”

In her innocence, the Filipino child pointed to one of the great surprises of our time: Against all secular odds, and even against the hope of chastened religious people, a figure has arrived on the world scene to whom the question without an answer can be put. And when he responds — not by pretending to remove suffering, or by denying it, but only by acknowledging it, and by joining in it — all the world, if despite itself, leans forward to listen.

Two years on from his election, this oddly garbed old man from Argentina has upended the assumptions and expectations of a generation. As a center of cultural and intellectual influence, much less as a moral force, religion was supposed to be finished with, except in the global backwaters of reaction and fundamentalism. In Europe, churches were empty — the most recent Pew data showed that only 25% of Italian Catholics considered religion “very important” in their lives. Among the French, only 15%. In America, Protestantism had been hijacked by science-denying evangelicals on the right, and Roman Catholicism had been crippled by sex-abuse scandals. Who imagined ever again taking a clue, much less encouragement, from a pope?

Make no mistake, this pope, however radical, is a man of the church, whose basic beliefs are in sync with doctrine and tradition. Yet the way he holds to those beliefs is different. By insisting that the culture wars about sexual morality, gender discrimination, and gay rights are not the only moral issues, or even, perhaps, the most important ones, the pope has changed their meaning. The absolutes of Christian ethics are not absolute now in the way they were when this pope was unexpectedly elected. Whether he has meant to or not, Francis, just by changing the ethos of hierarchical moral judgment, has laid the groundwork for a radical revision of how ethics are taught in theory and applied in situations. Mercy, at last, is trumping law. No one intuits this transformation more firmly than once marginal Catholics — the divorced, those unmarried but in intimate relationships, the previously beleaguered liberal nuns, or gay people. Catholic women, though still forbidden admission to the priesthood, also recognize something new at work. It is morning in Roman Catholicism.

Far more remarkable than Francis’s invigorating effect on the Church, or even on religious believers generally, however,
is his effect on the broader world, a vast population long since satisfied to forego any reference to the life of faith. Other popes have been objects of global fascination, most notably the now-sainted John Paul II, who as a participant in the peaceful denouement of the Cold War achieved a rare level of world- wide celebrity. But John Paul II, like his more reticent successor, Benedict XVI, mistook
his geographical perch atop the Vatican hill for a position of all-transcending moral superiority.
That the papal election of Jorge Mario

Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was preceded by his precursor’s stunning resignation was enough, perhaps, to mark a new day. The fundamental reordering of Catholic leadership had already been made necessary, across two decades, by the Catholic hierarchy’s rampant failure to reckon with the sex abuse scandal. But no one could have imagined how different this reordering would be.

At first, observers spoke of the style of Pope Francis, as if modes of papal garb, residence, transportation, and diction were what mattered. But the new pope’s eschewing of the Apostolic Palace, the ermine cape, the Vatican limousine, and the papal “we” was paired with an immediate and emphatic insistence on the meaning of such renunciations. With ringing authenticity, Francis declared his identification with “those on the margins, those who had fallen by the wayside.” Prisoners, criminals, migrants, refugees, slum dwellers, the disease-ridden — he not only spoke of them, but he also went to them. He embraced them. He cried with them. I am with you, the pope said to all these desperate people. And to the rest of the world, he said: That so many suffer, and suffer so much, is wrong!

In his encyclical “The Joy of the Gospel,” published in 2013, the pope not only expressed compassion for the impoverished, but also denounced the structures of free-market capitalism that weigh like granite blocks on the backs of the poor:

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new…. Those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised — they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’

This “something new” is not an accident of the human condition, nor is it an axiom of history. It’s a direct consequence of unjust social, economic, and political structures. The structures are legal, even celebrated, but they are wrong. He continued: While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules…. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

Pope Francis embraces two children, including 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, during his visit to the University of Santo Tomas in Manila on January 18, 2015. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Charity is not enough, the pope was saying. He demanded justice. For the poor, but also for the planet. Remarkably enough, this un- flinchingly radical social critique, which in developed nations had been mostly missing from economic and political discourse for two generations, has been getting through lately. Is it only coincidence that Francis’s tenure, to take only the American example, matches exactly the period during which savage income inequality has surfaced as
an issue that must be faced? With an eye on elections, even Republicans address it. But the question has international bite. With Francis as its most vigorous critic, the global gulf between a tiny minority of the extremely affluent and the vast population of the poor is increasingly seen not only as a moral outrage, but also as a deadly harbinger of universal catastrophe.

Just this January, Oxfam reported that the share of global wealth possessed by the most fortunate 1% percent had increased to 49% in 2014, from 44% in 2009. This social system will not endure. The rich fool themselves if they imagine their enclaves as gated com- munities from which the unwashed hungry, or any other “them” — Arabs and Africans
in Europe, Latinos in America, Muslims on both sides of the Atlantic — can be walled out. In the 21st century, there are no gates high enough, and all borders are porous.

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his weekly general audience at St. Peter’s Square on May 21, 2014. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Francis has emerged as the tribune of this new meaning of the human condition. In the past two years, to take only the most dramatic emblem, no prelates from the affluent United States have been elevated to the College of Cardinals. Instead these critical, future-shaping promotions have gone to clerics from places like Haiti, Cape Verde, Tonga, Myanmar, Hanoi, Bangkok, Uruguay, and Ethiopia. A deliberate choice is being made by a once decidedly Eurocentric organization that counts more than a billion members across the world, with potentially game-changing consequences for the whole human family. Francis is doing more than preaching.

Still, his most compelling act, perhaps, re- mains the utterance of a word, the first word he spoke as pope — and that was his name. Even after three years, and endless commentary, its revolutionary significance has yet to be fully plumbed. It is true that the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, a rich young man who renounced all worldly possessions to live as a mendicant, inevitably solidifies his name- sake’s identification with the poor, but that is not the half of it. If there is one global crisis that competes with material inequality as a danger, it is the already unfolding disaster of environmental degradation. St. Francis lives in the Western imagination, above all, as an icon less of human respect for the natural world than of love for it. His 13th-century Canticle of the Sun says: “Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures…through Brother Sun…and Sister Moon…Brother Fire and Sister Water…through Brothers Wind and Air and clouds and storm and all the weather. Be praised!” More than any other saint of the narrowly religious tradition, Francis of Assisi belongs to everybody whose heart lifts at the sight of a sunset or a flowering tree or a winged creature — regardless of belief. Not only churchyards and cloisters, but also front lawns and public gardens are furnished with statues of the tonsured friar balancing a bird on outstretched fingers. But what if that bird is of a species that is in danger of disappearing? The extinction of whole classes of living things is at issue now — tens of thousands of species are known to be endangered — including, in an era of weapons of mass destruction, humanity itself.

Where is the surprise, then, that another major encyclical of Pope Francis addresses the urgent problem of man-made glob-
al warming? Ahead of this year’s historic United Nations Climate Change Conference in December, the pope adds to the over- whelming scientific evidence, and fresh political momentum, an urgent exhortation rooted in the profound responsibility for creation for which the biblical tradition pro- vides the most compelling moral mandate.

It is as though, when taking up the gravest questions facing the human family, the pope asked himself the question: What would St. Francis of Assisi do? The question belongs not to a particular religion, much less ecclesiastical office, but to a profound human intuition in the face of looming perdition. The pope, it turns out, is bigger than the papacy. Neither the prophetic campaign on behalf of the poor; nor the potent sacralizing of the environmental challenge; nor even
the nonmoralistic good humor with which Francis advances his proposals: None of this fully explains his broad appeal. These efforts, and the unfailing air of kindness with which he pursues them, palpably flow from a deep current in the man, an evident fullness of life — a fullness for which many people hunger, no matter what defines their background.

For the Jesuit pope, that fullness is particular. It’s rooted in — how else to say it — a lifelong, if evidently hard-earned, intimacy with Jesus Christ, and the God he makes present. But neither narratives about Jesus Christ, nor even language about one referred to as God, exhaust that fullness,
or explain it. Perhaps, in the realm that extends beyond religious faith, all you can say is that in Francis can be glimpsed
a transcendent horizon that humans are drawn to. There is an ever-elusive longing built into human life, and perhaps that is what Francis so broadly addresses. It’s easy to see why the abject poor see him as an ally, but what about Americans? In a culture rife with material excess, the inadequacy of material achievement and possession as fulfilling that deep human longing can seem blatantly apparent. Without proselytizing in the slightest, without putting himself forward as any kind of model, Francis suggests that a fullness of life — a home on that ever-receding horizon — is available to all people. That is why everyone absolutely deserves respect.

For the people outside Francis’s narrow religious zone of reference, it does not matter, to him, that dignifying fullness is
a gift of God. What matters is simply its givenness, even if taken to be anonymous. And that givenness, above all, is what this good man exemplifies. The religious word for such virtue is grace, yet the effect of the fully honest witness of Francis has reached far beyond organized religion. That is so because he so unselfconsciously upholds the possibility that human life, including suffering, is meaningful, and that history, including tragedy, has a purpose. Francis is a man of explicit faith who makes such implicit hope seem real.

So, yes, a suffering child can entrust him with her unanswerable question. Indeed, most children in the world are suffering grotesquely. Francis knows it. He insists that we must all know it, too — not just abstractly, but in feeling and resolution. Such knowledge is the beginning of change — not only of economics and politics, but also of what humanity expects of itself. Above all, Francis insists not only that such change is necessary, but also that it is possible. Otherwise, he would not have bothered us. Nor would we have taken such notice.

Pope Francis at his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square on May 21, 2014. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of BlackBook Magazine.

Atheists Can Go To Heaven, New Pope Says

We’re still a little flabbergasted by this—we did just dispense with the Nazi Pope, after all—but apparently it’s not a mistranslation: Pope Francis (first of his name!) just told the world that even atheists are redeemed by Jesus Christ if they do good in this life. So you’re saying I had to wear a white Colonel Sanders suit to get first communion for nothing?

All your prayers were moot! There’s actually no reason to sing hymns! Pope Francis even cited the Gospel of Mark to make his point—take that, fundamentalists. Between this comment and his earlier remarks condemning a global culture of money that precludes compassion for the poor, he is really angling to make some conservative heads explode. For that, we must salute him.

But I’m also really enjoying this idea that people can be redeemed almost against their will. Take someone like Ricky Gervais, who’s completely obnoxious in his atheism but gives millions to charity—how mad would he be to find out that heaven exists and he has to hang out there with the devoutly religious for eternity? Jesus saves whether you like it or not, I guess. And if you don’t, better cook up some evil deeds.   

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Photo: The Independent

Christopher Waltz Spoofs Quentin Tarantino In ‘DJesus Uncrossed’

Well. This isn’t going to go over well with some fundamentalist Christians. Christopher Waltz hosted Saturday Night Live last night—at the begining of Lent, mind you—and appeared in a spoof Quentin Tarantino historical revenge flicks called DJesus Uncrossed.

In the some-might-say-blasphemous skit, which is set up like a movie trailer, Waltz plays Jesus H. Christ ("The H is silent) who rises from the dead, comes down off the cross to blow to pieces the men who have betrayed him. 

Not surprisingly, already some folks are offended by the skit. Something called Red Alert Politics called DJesus Uncrossed  "insensitive" and said SNL "crossed the line." The conservative site NewsBusters also huffed and puffed

You can watch DJesus Uncrossed below:  

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Happy Ash Wednesday, People With Dirty Foreheads!

Yesterday was Mardi Gras, and you know what that means: today is the first day of the Lenten season according to the Western Christian calendar! I hope you all thought of something good to give up for the next five-plus weeks, and by ‘you all’ I mean everyone walking around with some schmutz on their foreheads.

Yes, it’s an odd coincidence, but every year I’m amazed to find that the only folks who really celebrate Ash Wednesday do not have a morning face-washing routine, or don’t look at their own reflection in mirrors and windows very often. What’s more, they seem to be the type of people with friends who don’t tell them they’ve “got a little something right there.”

But the fact of the matter is the head-stained among us believe in the love of Jesus Christ; they believe in his forty days of wandering the desert; they believe he doesn’t even want them to wear a sweatband or hat to maybe cover that stuff up because man, it looks like you fell face-first into a fireplace. If we could just stop stereotyping them for two seconds, we might find some wisdom in their smudgy faith.

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You Can Quit Being Gay, but You Can’t Quit Grindr

Oh, how easily one falls down the path of shame and sin! Isn’t it strange how it often happens to high-profile religious people who make a point to never, ever, ever do bad stuff? Not like, murder-bad stuff, but buttsex-bad stuff. Such is the case of Matt Moore, a gentleman who beat the gay away with prayer and God and such, who was then discovered using Grindr. Grindr is hard to quit, you guys.

Blogger Zinnia Jones received a tip that Moore, a Christian writer who has written extensively about being an "ex-gay," showed up on the dating app. Of course it was actually Moore and not some imposter, because, duh, who would use a fake picture on an app that is designed to meet other people in person for various activities, ranging from hugging to boning? Moore admitted his error in typical ex-gay fashion:

The grindr profile was really mine. I’ve been on it on and off for the last couple of weeks.

Like I told the guy who sent you the picture, I am wrong in having been on grindr. I haven’t changed my views on homosexuality, the bible, etc.

Creating a grindr profile and talking to guys on it was major disobedience on my part….disobedience to Christ. Disobedience to a loving and gracious God. Thankfully, I believe that He forgives me for this disobedience. I believe the blood of Christ covers this disobedience. And I won’t be on grindr again….ever.

The pastor of my church and the church body I am a part of were informed about me being on grindr (I told them) before all of this came out, publicly.

Christianity is SO CONVENIENT! I love a good blank-slate, especially after being caught on Grindr. I’ll keep that in mind if the temptation ever hits me and someone catches me. "Oh, well, sorry! God and stuff. The end!"

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The Seven People Pope Benedict XVI Follows On Twitter

Pope Benedict XVI just got a Twitter account—@Pontifex. Finally! And not tweeting a single thing so far has netted His Naziness Holiness well upwards of 100,000 followers. Dat’s alotta Catholics! Or people who find Catholicism funny (overlap: 70%). Since the digital world has been so keen to welcome Benny to their shores, might we check out the seven people he bothered to follow back?

1. @Pontifex_de: This is also the Pope, but in German! Makes sense. That’s where he’s from, we hear.

2. @Pontifex_es: ¡AY CARAMBA! The Pope en español! Again, just the main Pope Twitter feed in a different language, with added soap opera melodrama.

3. @Pontifex_pt: Almost certainly the best thing about this Portuguese version (hello Brazil!) is that here the Pope goes by “Papa Bento.”

4. @Pontifex_pl: The Polish edition, no doubt a tribute to Pope John Paul II. Will presumably have the Pope’s many, many Polish jokes edited out.

5. @Pontifex_it: Does Italy really need this? I thought the Pope just stood out on his balcony with a microphone when he wanted to talk to Italians.

6. @Pontifex_fr: France’s Pope Benoît XVI posts here. No word yet on whether Pope Benedict will excommunicate Benoît for blasphemy, or what this apparent schism means for the church.


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If The ‘Real Housewives Of Atlanta’ Had Found Jesus

It figures our wife-obsessed popular culture would come up with this concept eventually: a reality show about preachers’ wives in Atlanta. 

The Sisterhood, which airs on TLC on January 1st at 9p.m. EST/8p.m. CNT, stars the five black and Latina women who are married to religious figures in the Atlanta faith community. Preachers’ wives are called "First Ladies" and are supposed to set an example for other women in the church. But, of course, this is a TLC reality show, there’s tattoos, an ex-crack addict, and a lot of not-very-church-lady-like fighting.

I would watch The Sisterhood for no other reason than the gender dynamic in the marriages. I suspect that the men are "heads of household" in at least some of the marriages. I also suspect some of the churches — at least one is evangelical, according to IndieWire — preach wifely submission from the pulpit. Should be fascinating/infuriating.

Watch the trailer below:

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Just Fielded My Very First Jehovah’s Witness House Call

For years I thought I must have brought a menacing spiritual aura to the places in which I lived—some sign that the irretrievably condemned dwelt within—for at no point had any proselytizer approached my home’s threshold to inform me of the one true faith. But all that changed this morning. Apparently Jehovah believes I can be saved! By reading newsletters.

A pleasant older man in a tie and his silent niece in braces caught sight of me through the kitchen window, so I had to answer the door. I listened to some rambling about the flawed education system (the one from which I guess this niece had been removed to spend the day learning her uncle’s trade). It’s unclear whether he noticed I was wearing a Collegiate sweatshirt. He said, “I don’t know if you have any children,” which might have offended me if I hadn’t been busy trying to get my dogs to stop barking at him.

Anyway, got my copy of The Watchtower and something called Awake!, and you know, without even opening them, I think I’m convinced. Being awake is definitely the way to go through life, for one. The Watchtower has the headline “Corruption: Will it ever end?” with a picture of some shady business dudes exchanging like four hundred dollars in front of a construction site. I had no idea embezzlement paid so poorly! And that therefore god exists. Truly, I’ve learned a lot today.

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Cher Tweets An Anti-Mormon “Magic Underwear” Crack

Regardless of our individual opinions on organized religion, I think we can all agree no amount of nuanced commentary can be captured in 140 characters. Alas, Cher did not get that memo. (Er, tweet.) The singer and actress is now fielding accusations of bigotry against Mormons after she tweeted a comment on Thursday critical of Mitt Romney and his "magic underwear." 

Cher was griping about President Obama on Twitter and implied that he could lose the election to Mitt Romney:

"I feel like if he doesn’t get all his ducks in a row we’ll b forced 2 listen 2 uncaring Richy Rich. The whitest man in MAGIC UNDERWEAR in the WH." 

That "magic underwear" comment is a reference, of course, to temple garments, a type of underwear worn by Mormons inside their temples to serve as a symbolic reminder of their faith. "Temple garments," "garments," "celestial underwear," or "Mormon underwear" are all phrases used to describe the underclothes, but the phrase "magic underwear" is considered a derogatory. 

In response, other Twitter users started slamming the performer — but the nuance of the fact she was making anti-Republican statements and the fact she made a crappy comment about someone else’s religion got lost in the muddle (as is wont to happen on Twitter). So when the singer retweeted some of the responses she got — "Sonny would roll over in his grave if he could see what you are tweeting" — with impassioned replies about how she’s just standing up for her beliefs, it seems as if she doesn’t actually understand what she did wrong. As of yet, Cher hasn’t apologized on Twitter or anywhere elsewhere for the "magic underwear" crack. 

I love you, Cher. But this is exactly the reason some celebs do their tweeting through a publicist.