If you think Pope Francis is much different from Pope Benedict XVI in terms of doctrine, then you didn’t know Pope Benedict XVI very well.
Some said Benedict was a "conservative" and that he wasn't open-minded, caring, loving, or other accusations. These are not accurate descriptions and he doesn't deserve to be accused of such things. Rather, he (like Francis) is Catholic. That means he doesn't fit into the neat political framework of being either liberal, conservative, progressive, traditionalist, moderate, etc.
Take these quotes from Pope Benedict XVI for example – most would call them "liberal":
"It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church's pastors wherever it occurs."
“It is theologically and anthropologically important for woman to be at the center of Christianity. Through Mary, and the other holy women, the feminine element stands at the heart of the Christian religion.”
"[T]he prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated capitalism"
"If we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, we make of our possessions a false god. How many voices in our materialist society tell us that happiness is to be found by acquiring as many possessions and luxuries as we can! But this is to make possessions into a false god."
So, what label should we put on Benedict? How about Catholic. Just as Benedict shouldn't be reduced to political labels, neither should Francis. It isn't fair to either of them.
Why is it that Francis gets some people upset? I think there could be several reasons and here are seven of them.
2. Francis is frequently speaking to those on the fringes of the Church and outside the Church – not those who are already faithfully Catholic. If he doesn't focus on what many Catholics find are the most important issues (culture war topics (e.g. abortion, sex, etc.) then he must not care about them. This is false. He has said he is a child of the Church and accepts all the Church teaches. If he doesn't focus on them, it is because he knows that he will drive more away than he will attract if he starts with those topics.
3. Francis is a very simple man. He connects with the poor like few of us in the Western world do. Personally, it would be tough for me to give up the luxuries and pomp of the Pontificate. That is because I would want others to focus on me. But, Francis seems to want to constantly draw attention to the poor, the simple, and to the one who loves them best – Jesus. So, he lives humbly and simply. This is why so many non-Catholics are attracted to him. We should take notice if we want to reach out to them
4. His off-the-cuff speaking style is easy to misinterpret. We should have seen this one coming. He is a preacher and pastor by nature, so he speaks naturally from the heart. This is getting him into some trouble by having ambiguous statements twisted to sound like they are agenda-driven by the media and his opponents. What a shame. If there is any agenda, it is one of spreading the name of Jesus.
5. Catholics don't like change. Heck, nobody does. When was the last time someone really pricked our conscience or challenged our preconceived notions about faith and we thanked them for it?! Francis is a radical departure from the norm when it comes to style. He isn't what we expected in a Pope and he is challenging us to look at the role of Peter in a different way. This may hurt a bit.
6. He is reminding us the being a Christian isn't "safe". We have to shuck off the idea that being a Catholic looks like being a Republican or Democrat. It isn't about having the perfect way of explaining doctrine. Nor is it about a policy, rule, or document. It is about Jesus. All about Jesus. In some ways, we have forgotten this and it is going to take a lot of work to get back to it.
7. If Francis choose to emphasize different aspects of Catholic teaching that disturbs us, maybe we are the ones out of balance. I see this in myself all the time. It is easy for me to be pro-life, pro-family, etc. But, I have a harder time being pro-poor, pro-immigrant, etc. So, when I am especially challenged by such teachings it is because I am out of balance, not the teaching itself. I need to take these to prayer and let God work on my heart – not throw the Pope under the bus for proclaiming the teachings of Jesus!
Our communities, our Church, and our world needed a Pope like Francis. Someone to shake us up out of our comfort zones.
As Catholics, we have to be careful about criticizing our Holy Father, as if he is just another one of the many Catholics in the world. He is the Vicar of Christ on earth and the guardian of right doctrine and practice. We are not.
When we start to rely more on our own opinions vs. the Pope's teachings, we put ourselves in a danger zone. I challenge you to see Francis as an earthly spiritual father. Sometimes he is going to ask us to grow in ways we don't want to. But, it may be good for us anyway.
Lastly, pray for him. He needs your prayers.
Since you are here…
…we’d like to have one more word with you. We are excited to report that Aleteia’s readership is growing at a rapid rate, world-wide! Our team proves its mission every day by providing high-quality content that informs and inspires a Christian life. But quality journalism has a cost and it’s more than ads can cover. We want our articles to be accessible to everyone, free of charge, but we need your help. To continue our efforts to nourish and inspire our Catholic family, your support is invaluable. Become an Aleteia Patron today for as little as $3 a month. May we count on you?