is a retired Inquirer book editor
The media like it when Pope Francis says something that can be construed as "progressive," even when what he says, taken in context, turns out to be pretty unexceptional.
"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill," the pontiff said in July 2013 on a flight back from Brazil, "who am I to judge?"
It is true that this pronouncement differs sharply from the position of Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict called homosexuality "a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil," and suggested that any man with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" should not enter the priesthood. This latter view seems peculiar, given that every man who enters the priesthood, whether straight or gay, must remain celibate.
But Francis' remark echoes Jesus' own advice to "judge not, lest ye be judged." Likewise, his recent call for Christians to resist the temptation of the "God of money" is paralleled by Jesus' own observation that "you cannot serve God and mammon."
Even the business about extending the right to forgive what Catholics regard as the sin of abortion to all priests is not as innovative as it has been made out to be. To begin with, bishops already had discretion in this matter, and many had already done as the pope has (and his extension is only for the Year of Mercy that begins in December).
The bottom line, though, is that if the Catholic Church is about anything, it is about the forgiveness of sins, and any steps taken to make the path to forgiveness easier can only be regarded as strictly orthodox.
Meanwhile, other things the pope has said, and that have not received much media attention, underscore how very traditional Pope Francis may well be. In fact, this pope seems at times almost to embody what a new book calls "the strain between the theological and devotional wings of the Catholic Church."
The book in question is The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age. Its author is John Thavis, the former Rome bureau chief of the Catholic News Service and the author, previously, of the best-selling The Vatican Diaries. Small wonder Thavis has won awards for his reporting. It is hard to imagine more evenhanded accounts of what are often very strange matters.
Take, for instance, the devil. Pope Francis has spoken often of the cloven-hoofed one. In a sermon last year, he told the congregation that "the Prince of this world, Satan, doesn't want our holiness, he doesn't want us to follow Christ." Francis even anticipated criticism of what he was saying:
"Maybe some of you might say: 'But Father, how old-fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!' But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here, even in the 21st century! And we mustn't be naïve, right? We must learn from the Gospel how to fight against Satan."
Thavis' book has a chapter on exorcism (the others are on relics, reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the ongoing mystery of the Shroud of Turin, the miracles needed for the canonization of saints, and the recent spate of end-times prophecies - a self-styled visionary in Ireland has even suggested that the pope himself is the "biblical false prophet.")
Thavis' chapter on exorcism actually gives a pretty good indication of where the pope comes down regarding that strain between the theological and devotional. The chapter begins with a story about a priest in Merrillville, Ind., who got a call one day from a chaplain at a nearby hospital: "Can you come over and do an exorcism?" The chaplain then explained: "Several professionals have seen a boy walk up a wall backward."
Thavis notes that Francis' point in last year's sermon had to do with "the danger of giving in to small temptations and allowing this to become habitual, describing it as the insidious nature of the devil's path."
Interestingly, also last year, the Vatican without warning gave formal approval of an organization called the International Association of Exorcists. Lest this be taken as evidence of unusual sympathy toward the practice of casting out demons, Thavis notes the approval was given with the understanding that membership in the organization is limited to "priests specifically licensed as exorcists by their bishops." Also required was "cooperation with medical and psychiatric experts who are also competent in spiritual affairs."
This strategy might be an example of how to address what Thavis calls "the question that with increasing urgency Catholic thinkers and officials are trying to answer: In the church of the 21st century, can the miraculous and the reasonable peacefully coexist?"
If so, it could prove a defining factor in Francis' papacy.