Dec 25 9:00 AM

Can Pope Francis save the Catholic Church?

America Tonight

It was only in March that Pope Francis was chosen to lead the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, but his brief reign has generated excitement and interest among Christians and non-Christians alike.

Admirers – and critics – have described the new spiritual leader as a revolutionary.

After years of turmoil in the Vatican and dioceses around the world, many are now asking whether Pope Francis can save the Catholic Church.

Like Pope Francis, Father Matthew Carnes is a Jesuit who has spent his life studying social and economic justice, issues closely identified with the new pope.

Carnes, who is a professor of government at Georgetown University, lived in Argentina when Pope Francis – then known as Jorge Maria Bergoglio – was the local archbishop. Even back then, his concerns for the poor were well-known.

“Coming from Argentina he grew up being exposed to high degrees of inequality,” Carnes said. “There were large differences between the rich and poor.”

The pope’s working-class upbringing taught him simple values, according to Carnes.

“He talks about his grandmother who taught him so many of his values about hard work and how work has dignity and that people should be treated with respect,” Carnes said.

As a young man, Pope Francis lived a secular life. Before becoming a priest, he worked as a chemical technician and even as a nightclub bouncer. But as he rose through the ranks of the Church, he continued to visit some of the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

A focus on compassion

Luca Zennaro/EPA

Father Carnes says the pope's background as a regular guy comes through in his message.

“He is grounded and rooted in the stories of people’s lives,” Carnes said “That’s built on his experience right there in the slums of Buenos Aires … I think he is asking us to question what we understand about the world around us, especially about the economic system that is around us.

“Rather than discussing the stock market and its ups and downs, he'd like us to ask about the person who suffering cold today because they don't have a place that is warm.”

Carnes said this pope has even challenged us to rethink the type of news that we consume.

“He said it is scandalous that we worry more about a couple points change in the stock market than we do about someone dying of cold,” Carnes said.

To bring that message home, Pope Francis hasn’t been afraid to make pointed gestures. Days ago, he spent his birthday with three homeless Romans and their dog. His first trip outside the Vatican as Pope was to comfort immigrants who had risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe.

And under Francis, the secretive Vatican bank published its financial statementsfor the first time in more than a century.

The pope’s calls for social and economic justice and his condemnation of what he called “unfettered capitalism” prompted some to accuse him of being a closet Marxist. Earlier this month, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh attacked the Pope.

“Somebody has written this for him or gotten to him,” Limbaugh said. “This is just pure Marxism out of the mouth of the pope. Unfettered capitalism? It just doesn't exist anywhere.”

In response, Pope Francis told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that “Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don't feel offended.”

Carnes said the pope isn’t talking about reorienting the economy or economic theories.

“He's really saying the individuals need to act differently, groups need to act differently, companies need to act differently,” Carnes said. “National governments may chose to act differently and become part of the answer, but he is pushing us to see the first level, the human cost of the structure under which we live.”

Leading a simple life

Aside from his message, Pope Francis’ actions have also captured imaginations worldwide.

From shunning the ornate Vatican apartments to his buying a used car, he has repeatedly signaled his intent to be with his people.

During Easter week, he made headlines when he met with inmates to wash their feet, a traditional gesture of humility. But this time, he included Muslims and even women, which is against the Church’s own rules and something that no other pope has ever done. Then an image of Pope Francis blessing a disfigured man moved many people when it appeared in newspapers and on websites around the globe.

“Somewhere along the way he learned what it means to be warm with people,” Carnes said. “He understood what it means to look into people’s eyes, to listen to take their hand and give them your 100 percent attention … Francis' way in crowds is he gets in the popemobile and his eyes are always on the crowd. He'll go around, stopping the popemobile over and over again. He seems to love the faces.”

Fundamental Differences

Carnes said the most striking Francis done is to embrace people “who are absolutely on the margins.”

But the pope made his biggest news on the issue of gay rights. On a flight back from Brazil on his first papal visit overseas, he was asked about gay clergy and replied, “Who am I to judge?”

That was profoundly important, Carnes said.

“In one of his interviews he says we must always think first of the person, the one that is living their Christian life to the best they can rather than focusing on a particular action or thing that may be sinful,” Carnes said. “Let’s focus in on the individual because this is the place they can be healed and loved.”

Those words were enough for the LGBT publication The Advocate to name Pope Francis their person of the year. However, many readers were outraged, arguing that the pope did not deserve the honor because Catholic teaching on homosexuality as a sin remains unchanged.

On other questions of Catholic teaching – divorce, remarriage, contraception – Francis has started by asking members of the Church their views by sending a survey to every diocese around the world.

Carnes said the survey includes questions on what’s it like to be a divorced or remarried Catholic and what's it like to live by the Church's teachings on birth control. He said this pope has demonstrated a change in the Church’s willingness to listen and engage with its flock.

“I think for a while the Church wasn't sure how to interpret those answers, even now they don't know how to interpret them, but he said we shouldn't be afraid,” Carnes said.

Carnes said Pope Francis’ look outward from the Vatican has been the most revolutionary change in the past nine months.

“When you look outward that way, then you end up saying things like 'Who am I to judge?’ Then you end up saying things like 'I want to engage with divorced and remarried Catholics and see what we can do to make sure they know they belong,'” Carnes said. “That's fundamentally different.”

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