Today marks the first anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the papacy. His election has been historic for the Church. The first Latin-American (and the first Jesuit) pope, Francis brought with him an expectation of a new era. He has not disappointed.
Hailed by many as a breath of fresh air, Francis promises reforms in the Vatican and a renewed emphasis on care for the poor and vulnerable. He has opened up new dialogues in the Church, while maintaining clarity about Church teaching on settled matters.
His election has proven historic for those outside the Church, too. Francis was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2013. Through his focus on the poor and vulnerable, Francis has emphasized the Gospel message, which insists that to lead is to serve. It’s a message well received by many. A usually unfriendly media has taken kindly to the Argentinian pope. His effect on former Catholics, dubbed “The Francis Effect,” has people returning to the pews and re-engaging their faith.
Of the many gifts Francis has given the Church, one stands out as especially notable: Francis is moving us past a divide that has plagued the American Church for the last half century. Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics have identified themselves as either “liberal” or “conservative” or, alternatively, “progressive” or “traditional.” The “liberal” position is loosely identified with an emphasis on social justice, institutional change on issues like contraception and women’s ordination and deformalizing aspects of the liturgy.
On the “conservative” side, we find a commitment to long-standing Church teaching on sexual issues (abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc.), an effort to emphasize the continuity of Catholic beliefs, more formal liturgical preferences and, at times, a weaker emphasis on social-justice concerns, such as immigration reform.
At times, these "liberal" and "conservative" sides in the Church have coincided with "liberal" and "conservative" political positions, a fact that leads to even more confusion
These labels are both misleading and harmful. They have sown division within the Church and have encouraged each side to plaster over some of the more challenging aspects of being Catholic.
In some instances, they have overwhelmed the spirit of charity and undermined Church unity. A media eager to couch an idiosyncratic institution in familiar terms has often heightened the confusion by sharpening these camps into two separate Catholic identities as far apart as Democrats and Republicans.
By connecting with Catholics on both sides of this divide, Francis has eluded being lumped into one or the other.
There is no doubt that the Holy Father is much concerned with matters of social justice. His apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium provided ample evidence of how deeply informed he is by his experiences with the poor and needy. It is no surprise, therefore, that theologies that emphasize the preferential option for the poor resonate with his Latino Catholicism.
His emphasis on the primacy of charity, his openness to sensible reform and his insistence on a compassionate delivery of the Christian message greatly appeal to those in the Church who have identified with the “liberal” or “progressive” label.
At the same time, Pope Francis has affirmed Church teaching on settled matters like abortion, contraception, marriage and women’s ordination. He has insisted that even as we de-emphasize these issues in order to focus on the message of the Gospel, we should accept that they will not change. In so doing, he has gained the confidence of many who identify as “conservative.”
Francis is not unique in refusing to cater to those who choose to self-identify with one camp or the other. Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II also declined to choose sides.
Still, Catholics in the United States and members of the media often insisted on labeling both as “conservative popes,” whose commitments to traditional Church teaching allied them with only one side of U.S. Catholics.
Pope Francis, likewise, eschews these labels and would undoubtedly object to attributing them to his predecessors. He insists that the Church is unified in Jesus Christ and universally committed to charity. He has united a very public commitment to sharing Christianity’s message through works of mercy, a visible humility, a dedication to serving the poor and an outpouring of love and compassion for the world’s most vulnerable with an equally public commitment to Church teaching as it has been handed down through the ages.
In so doing, Pope Francis has encouraged U.S. Catholics to move past a divide that has threatened the Church here. He has forced the media to seek a more nuanced approach for describing the enigma that is the Catholic Church.
This big step toward a restored sense of our fundamental unity in Christ is the greatest achievement of Francis’ papacy so far.
John Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America.