By Brandon Bub
Pope Francis has been named “Man of the Year” by both Time Magazine and the LGBT-interest magazine The Advocate. President Obama has called him a “messenger of peace and justice,” whereas Rush Limbaugh has decried him as a Marxist. His name has been ubiquitous in news publications the world over since his investiture as pope in March.
And all of this hubbub about a man who, realistically speaking, has not and ostensibly does not plan on radically altering the structure or function of the Catholic Church.
I’m reminded of a quotation by the late great Vaclav Havel, the playwright and politician who helped usher in the end of communist rule of Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Republic). His acceptance speech for the German Booksellers Association Peace Prize in 1989 remains as insightful today as it was nearly 25 years ago:
“In the beginning was the Word; so it states on the first page of one of the most important books known to us. What is meant in that book is that the Word of God is the source of all creation. But surely the same could be said, figuratively speaking, of every human action? And indeed, words can be said to be the very source of our being, and in fact the very substance of the cosmic life-form we call Man. Spirit, the human soul, our self-awareness, our ability to generalize and think in concepts, to perceive the world as the world (and not just as our locality), and lastly, our capacity for knowing that we will die—and living in spite of that knowledge: surely all these are mediated or actually created by words?”
We don’t need to search far beyond Francis’s example to see these points at work. Consider, for instance, the contrast between the Advocate’s reaction to Pope Francis and that of the wider LGBT community to Phil Robertson’s less than enlightened (to put it mildly) views on homosexuality. Both of these men preach the same Scripture, down to the same Biblical verses. Is the media unfairly giving Francis a pass here? Or perhaps is the pontiff smart enough to know that his choice of words matters, and that there is a way to have a conversation about homosexuality and Christianity without being bigoted or heretical?
Look also at the kinds of feathers the pope has ruffled in recent months for taking the global populace to task for its idolatrous relationship with money. What ought to astound us bystanders is how unremarkable any of the pope’s exhortations are. Francis’s comments about putting the poor first have been integral to Catholic Social Teaching since Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, first published in 1891.
Now we can go back and forth arguing about whether the pope is a capitalist or a socialist, but I think such arguments miss the point. It has been rare for Francis to advocate for any specific policy position; rather, he is concerned with bringing a more honest version of the Gospel into our political discourse. He is the “pastor-in-chief,” so we should hardly be surprised.
Perhaps Francis has been made into a media darling this year and has offered little substance over style. However, I think we can hardly divorce the style from the substance. Words and ideas, even if they are not novel in Francis’s case, always have and always will be able to change the world.
So yes, for now Francis might offer us little more than words. But if Havel remains correct (and I suspect he still does), those words might prove more powerful than we ever gave them credit for.