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For Pope Francis, 87, It’s Out with the Old and In With the New

Pope Francis Crowd Cell Phone Selfie
Image: Shutterstock

As a transitional pontiff, Francis will not be pulled backwards.

Pope Francis shocked the world in 2013 when he responded to a question about gay priests by saying, “Who am I to judge.”

Francis later explained what he meant by that statement: "On that occasion I said this: If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person? I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized.”

Since that time, Francis has been true to his word. This week, he approved priests to bless same sex-couples, which was preceded by his endorsement of civil unions for same-sex couples in 2020. At that time, he said, "They're children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable because of it."

Francis made it clear that it’s OK to bless same-sex couples so long as they aren’t married in the traditional sense, and the blessings are not part of church activities. In other words, he went right up to the line without crossing it, which is what he did by endorsing civil unions. This year he called for the elimination of laws in countries that criminalize homosexuality, by saying, “Being a homosexual isn’t a crime.”

And as transgender people have come under gruesome attack, Francis has treated them like human beings, saying they could be baptized and serve as godparents to newborns.

To some, Francis hasn’t gone far enough. To others, like me, a lifelong Catholic, his words and missives have been like a bolt of lightning, electrifying a church that has been dormant and dismissive, more worried about exclusion and less about welcoming.

The only thing Francis is excluding these days is conservatism in the church. In August, he surprisingly and boldly said U.S. conservatives were going “backward,” replacing faith with ideology. He explained what he meant by saying, “I want to remind these people that backwardness is useless, and they must understand that there’s a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.”

Similarly, when I spoke to Dr. Tony Fauci last month, he seconded that sentiment that the country was going “backwards” on queer rights, noticing the antigay rhetoric is as bad as he’s seen it. When someone like Fauci speaks out, Francis is paying attention.

Though the world doesn’t revolve around the United States, Francis’s overtures toward our community aren’t being formed in a vacuum, and his outspokenness and dismissal of church conservatives don't come out of thin air.

Last month, the pope took an unusual step by dismissing Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, one of his fiercest critics, a rabid, fervently anti-LGBTQ+ conservative. In addition, Francis revoked retired anti-LGBTQ+ Cardinal Raymond Burke’s salary and his right to a subsidized apartment in the Vatican.

To understand just how dramatic Francis’s moves have been, you need to understand the rigor behind any announcement from the Vatican. Yes, Francis has spoken off the cuff in the past, but what has followed are very well-thought-out and deliberate words and actions. Nothing that happens for public consumption at the Vatican happens by accident. When Francis issues any news, he and his close circle know what the implications will be, and they also know what will be coming next.

The removal of conservative bishops and Francis stepping out more on LGBTQ+ issues this year were well-planned, illustrating his resolve in pushing the church forward to an age of inclusivity. If anything, 2023 is the year that Francis accelerated his “out with the old and in with the new” strategy.

Francis faced some serious health challenges this year, and at 87, he uses a wheelchair much of the time and has appeared frailer; nevertheless, Francis perseveres, and if anything, he is confronting his own mortality by making sure all the pieces of his vision for an open Catholic Church are in place before he dies or resigns — and don’t be surprised if the latter happens. Francis has made clear that he doesn’t want to end up an infirm pontiff like John Paul II.

But before he goes, he’s doing everything he can — again, without stepping over the line — to prepare the church for the next generation. Francis understands incrementality, and that under his papacy and in this era when conservative Catholics still have a say, he’s not going to move mountains. Francis, more than likely, looks at himself as a transitional figure, leaving it to the next pope, likely a handpicked successor, to continue the Francis doctrine.

Pope Francis is a far cry from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in both his life and his actions. Benedict liked his red Prada shoes and limousines and was arguably the church’s leading conservative. He was also ill at ease with the public. On the contrary, Francis wears old black shoes, defying the long red shoe tradition, he’s driven around in economy cars, and his moves toward liberalism for the church has been head-spinning.

Plus, Francis loves his job and the part where he interacts with crowds; however, be careful how you treat him. In 2019, during a walkabout in St. Peter’s Square, a woman grabbed Francis’s hand and yanked him toward her hard, almost causing him to fall. He slapped her hand and scolded her.

It was a telling reaction, showing Francis is a human being, something other popes seem to forget in their loftiness. And the moment was also a metaphor for how Francis is shaping the Catholic Church. He will not be pulled backwards.

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.