I really like Pope Francis. Of course, I have never met him and there is no reason to assume I will ever get close to him, much less meet him. In fact, I probably should not even say I like the Pope. Rather I like what the Pope is saying and doing. Somehow I assume the guy I would meet, if I met him, would be the kind of guy who resonates with his message. I am sure he is a steely kind of guy. You don’t become archbishop, cardinal and, then, Pope by being a patsy!
Most Catholics I know like the Pope, too. I know there are circles within this country and abroad that don’t like what he is doing. They perceive him to be a threat to the traditional Catholic Church they think this world needs. I figure when you have over one billion people in your organization, there will be some who don’t like you! My hope is he lives long enough to see much of his spiritual agenda realized.
The recent speech the Pope delivered to a large gathering of Italian clergy meeting in Florence is a case in point. I don’t have the full text in English and cannot read Italian, so I am dependent on reporting sources who provide the gist of it in English. At the big gathering the Pope told those Italian Catholics that the church needs to be open to change. I will admit that when the Pope speaks about the church, I usually want it to be the one bigger Christian church, not simply Roman Catholicism. I agree that the church needs to be open to change.
Indeed, the church faces the same dilemma other organizations do: innovate or die! Change will happen; we probably have little choice about that. We can sometimes choose how to change and how fast we do it. I am clear the Pope is saying, now is the time. A line from that speech to the Italians says it nicely. The Pope said, “We are not living in an era of change, but a change of era.” I loved that because I think it is so true. I am ready for that kind of challenge and change.
I know many folks are not ready for the challenge nor the change. They prefer the status quo. It is easy to say that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and the church is the one place where we kind find solace in the midst of the cultural maelstrom. This perspective is naïve and doomed. While we might choose to stay as we are, we would be choosing to become some 21st version of the Amish. We can opt for being quaint, but I prefer going with the question: how do we need to be open to change?
What does being open to change look like? One place the Pope explicitly gave focus was on doctrine. I thought this was a clever move. Typically we think of doctrine as some article of faith set in stone. Although my own Quaker tradition does not use creeds, such as the Nicene Creed, I know a great deal about creeds. The Nicene Creed lays out for a huge majority of Christians what “right thinking” about God, the trinity, etc. is. The thing about creeds is they are supposed to be the corporate statement of belief. If effect the creed says, “this is what we believe.”
The Pope, as I understand him, is not saying the creeds are wrong. In fact it is hard for me to imagine any Pope in the future saying something like, “the Nicene Creed is wrong.” Rather what I think will happen is to acknowledge that the Nicene Creed is a good articulation of who God is, what the trinity is, why Jesus came to be human and so forth. But it is just one way of putting it. Because the Pope is open to change, he thinks doctrine probably could be articulated in additional ways.
So the Pope tells the Italian gathering, Christian doctrine “is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, queries, but it’s alive, and able to unsettle, animate.” That is amazingly profound to read. Doctrine is not a closed system. Remember, the Pope is calling for us to be open to change. And so doctrine---what the church has always said---has to be vulnerable to change. I can imagine the Pope saying that doctrine can change, but that does not mean God has changed.
Doctrine is not a closed system. Closed systems are incapable of generating questions, of entertaining doubts, of refusing to welcome queries. It helps me to remember that the Pope was a scientist before he became a priest, bishop, archbishop and now Pope. Science is fueled by questions, doubts and inquiries. And so should our quest for the God of Truth.
I value the Pope’s view that real doctrine in the church is alive. It is as alive as the Spirit that moves among us. In fact, as a Christian I am willing to see the movement of the Spirit somehow related to the movement of the Spirit that animated Jesus during his earthly ministry and may somehow still be part of the “resurrected Jesus,” whatever that means in our new kind of doctrine. I like the idea of a doctrine that is somehow alive.
I wonder though, is it the doctrine that is really alive or is it the people doing the new thinking---the new theological work---to make our perspective of God fit what will become our verbal articulation of it? The new doctrine itself won’t unsettle us; it will be the spirited people creating new ways of responding to and verbalizing the work of God in our midst. It is an exciting time; it is a change of era.