LATELY, there's been a lot of talk about the pope. You know which one I'm referring to: that breath of fresh air from south of the equator who set the world atwitter (and a Twitter) with his commentaries on life, love and the human condition. Not since Evita has someone come out onto a balcony to mesmerize the world and, not unlike Juan Peron's blonde consort, Pope Francis is doing it with inimitable style.
And that's the point. The thing that is so revolutionary about this Jesuit is not that he's changing centuries of dogma and doctrine. I don't expect to see any female priests in my lifetime (and since I just turned 52 on Wednesday, we're talking a few decades). Catholics who think abortion is a moral "choice" won't get a pat on the back from this fellow, who likens the termination of pregnancies to killing Christ. ("Every child that isn't born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord.")
Faithful who heard the pope ask for a more compassionate treatment of homosexuals shouldn't expect to see him at any rallies for marriage equality. In 2010, then-Cardinal Bergoglio made his views about same-sex marriage clear in this letter he sent opposing Argentina's push for them: "At stake is the identity and survival of the family: father, mother and children. At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God's law engraved in our hearts."
No, Francis isn't writing a new blueprint for what it means to be Catholic. What he is doing is simply repackaging a message that has existed for two millenia, one that people on both the left and the right have conveniently ignored. Hanging out on the starboard side of the Fisherman's boat, I tend to think that liberals are the ones doing the most damaging spin when it comes to Catholic theology. They take compassion for acceptance, and therefore think that the man who refuses to judge gay priests is giving the Holy "See-al" of approval to homosexual relations. They think that Francis has taken theological lessons from Nancy Pelosi, who once famously declared that the Catholic church is unclear on when life begins. (As an aside, and completely off topic, I hope the FDA is seriously looking into the effects that prolonged use of Botox has on reasoning capacity.)
I tried to make this point a few months ago, when the pontiff was first elected. Many readers wrote back with an almost fanatical need to tell me, "He's ours now, Christine, just deal with it!" I felt a bit like what I imagine Czechoslovakia experienced when Hitler annexed the Sudetenland.
I don't doubt that many liberals feel particularly heartened by a Catholic leader who seems to affirm their own squishy positions on social issues simply because he eschews the more tendentious or critical tones of his predecessors. But if they took the time to read what he's really saying and not merely latch onto the tone he uses when saying it, they'd know that he rejects their stands on abortion, gay marriage, birth control and female priests.
On the other hand, I have some news for Rush Limbaugh and the increasingly defensive conservatives who miss John Paul II: This pope, who understands what it means to live under a totalitarian regime, is not a Marxist. I broke with Rush years ago, realizing that his schtick was primarily packaged for its entertainment value. He's a brilliant marketing specialist, himself being the only product on the shelves, but his rhetoric does more damage to the conservative movement than Pelosi, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the pink-sneakered blonde from Texas combined. I wish he would just shut up.
No, Rush, the pope is not a communist. Simply because he decries the effects of unchecked capitalism and believes that there is an obligation to minister to the poor does not signify his transformation into a sacred Sandinista. As my friend Dan Cirucci noted a few days ago, "Every day the church clothes, feeds, houses and educates more people than any other organization of its type anywhere in the world. . . . All of the good which the church does would not be possible without the economic engine of capitalism."
Pope Francis is obviously aware of this fact. He knows what happens when governments strangle private enterprise, whether they do it with the "right" or the "left" hand. So, his comments on market economies have to be taken in context, just as his understanding of human imperfection doesn't mean that the church is rewriting the definition of "sin."
In many ways, this pope is a mirror. We see our hopes and dreams for a better world reflected in his radiant smile. The arrogance comes in seeing our own faces there, instead of God's.