Thomas Jefferson thought Jesus was the world’s greatest moral philosopher. Jefferson scoured versions of the New Testament in four different languages, highlighted and cut out everything Jesus said about morality, love, and goodness … and excised all the passages about miracles and doctrinaire Christianity—everything he perceived as being “contrary to reason.” As the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Tenety details, a similar whiting-out phenomenon is now sweeping the Pope Francis fan nation. Matthew Iglesias of Slate, for example, praises Francis for his calls for charity and economic regulations, yet notes “[t]here’s a lot of stuff about Jesus in his thinking that I can’t really sign on to.” Andrew Sullivan’s popular blog, The Dish, contains story after story from readers who admire Francis’ compassion even if they can’t subscribe to his faith (Sullivan himself is Catholic).
Cleansing the “Jesus aspect” from the pope’s philosophy worries Tenety because, as she rightly points out, Jesus and the pope are inextricable. Tenety may be right, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Suddenly, because of Francis, Jesus’ philosophy, and, more importantly, his message of love and inclusivity, is back in style. And because of Francis, the Catholic Church is now back in style, too.
Francis makes headlines on a weekly basis: just this past week he was named Time’s Man of the Year for 2013; he invited four homeless men and a dog to his 77th birthday party; and he was the subject of a feature article in the Washington Post’s Outlook section. The media’s (and the public’s) fascination with Francis helps the Church, for his actions, as well as what he symbolizes, matter.
For one thing, Francis has brought Catholicism back to its deeply progressive roots.* The Catholic Church I’ve grown up in has been stuck in a rut, with a hierarchy obsessed with policing the sexual mores of the world’s citizenry while blindly ignoring its own criminal sexual acts; keeping women away out of Church leadership; and seeking to prevent abortions using any means necessary. To the media and the rest of the world, the positive elements of the Church—always present, but not always visible, in its nuns, priests, and followers who ran hospitals, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, and who served in the slums of Calcutta and elsewhere—disappeared under its stridency and rules.
Francis, to be fair, has not disavowed any of the doctrines so many dislike. But where Benedict lectured and scolded, Francis has cloaked the Church’s teachings in love through his actions and words. Instead of forever talking about how women can’t be priests, Francis emphasized how crucial it is to include women in the leadership of the Church. Instead of harping incessantly (and quite unhelpfully) on the evils of abortion, Francis says we need to help, whether financially or emotionally, mothers considering abortion, and has declared that the Church must stop making abortion its number one issue. And instead of talking about the sinful nature of gays and lesbians, Francis stresses that the Church loves everyone deeply—that all are always welcome.
But perhaps most importantly, Francis embodies Jesus’ admonition to not cast the first stone, but rather, to love everyone, especially the oppressed. His humility will hopefully cause a change in peoples’ attitudes towards the church. After all, as Francis says, the Catholic Church is supposed to be a beacon of service and inclusion: he instructs Catholics—and the world—to reject fascination with material items and to serve our fellow man, following in the mold of St. Francis of Assisi. And, after all, that’s a huge part of what Jesus is all about: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Francis’ philosophy of spreading love and service throughout the world has wonderful implications—implications which are beautifully demonstrated in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, that wonderful story of forgiveness and love.** (Tanner and I are huge fans.) Hugo’s main character, Valjean, once a hardened criminal, finds God and so dedicates his life to the service and love of the poor. Running consistently throughout the book and musical is that very theme: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”*** There are two different formulations here: on the one hand, as with Valjean, it’s possible to find God amidst the wreckage of your life, and only then dedicate yourself to service and love. On the other hand, it may be possible—I believe it is absolutely possible—to find God through service, and through love. Either way, it seems we’re covered if we follow Francis’ command to service.
Best of all, Francis’ inclusive philosophy extends to non-believers, too. For even the devout atheist would do well to follow his broad teachings of humility and compassion. As the George Valiant Harvard study demonstrated last year, the happiest and most content people—regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof—are the ones who lead lives filled with love and service and care little about material possessions. As individuals like Jefferson—and, more recently, Matt Yglesias—know, there is much earthly satisfaction and happiness to be found in following the moral philosophy of Jesus and Francis.
Thus, in conclusion (almost, I promise), I think Tenety’s worries aren’t as dire as she’d have us believe. As Francis himself admitted, we—the Church included—don’t know how people get to Heaven. It’s all a huge mystery. That’s why Francis isn’t wasting much time trying to bring more people into the Church by just talking about the greatness of Jesus in that bombastic, vague, abstract (dare I say evangelical) way. Instead, he’s trying to spread the Church’s message of love and service to the world by living like Jesus and urging all to do the same. And by doing that, inevitably, even if people want to ignore the religious aspect inherent in Francis’ philosophy, more people may find God simply by living like Jesus, and following the universal moral truths he espoused.
*A couple years ago, I went to hear E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post editorialist, speak. A lifelong Catholic and Democrat, Dionne said that people always asked him how he reconciled his Catholicism with his progressive political beliefs. He always responded to those people by saying that he wasn’t a Democrat in spite of his Catholicism, but he was a Democrat because of his Catholicism. Dionne told us that people were always astounded by that statement because the only thing they knew about the Catholic Church was that it hated gays, women, and pro-choicers. Nobody knew about the Church’s fundamental commitment to the poor and to service. Because of Francis, more and more people now see the Church’s progressivism.
**I’ve always felt that Les Miserables was one of the most Catholic books I’ve ever read—in fact, whenever my family would go see Les Mis, we lobbied our parents to let us skip church that weekend because Les Mis had done it all. I mentioned that Les Mis was a Catholic book to a Presbyterian once, and she looked at me as if I was insane. I think, though, that Francis is reclaiming Les Mis for the Catholics—it’s not just that it has bishops, nuns, and France, it’s that the messages of Les Mis are none but our Church’s calls to love and service.
*** Just so you know, Tanner and I included this quote on our wedding invitations.