Over on CatholicVote.org, John White has a piece entitled “Year in Review: Church Teachings the Pope Francis Has Changed.” After some rather pointed (snarky?) comments, he leaves a large white space to communicate that — surprise, surprise! — the Pope has not changed any teachings at all. It’s not particularly original: many folks who are nervous about Pope Francis try to emphasize that he has not changed any doctrines or dogmas of the Church. They also characterize those who are excited about the Francis papacy as people who are somehow “anti-Benedict”. Without naming names, many more “conservative” commentators seem to thrive on mocking this attitude. I mention all of this, NOT as a way to exacerbate such polarization, simply to acknowledge that the polarization exists. Certainly some people HAVE gone too far in their enthusiasms — on both sides. However, it seems to me that most people find themselves rightly in the middle of things: We can love and respect previous popes while also loving and respecting the current pope. So why bring up this particular attitude at all?
I do so because there is a danger with articles like Mr. White’s. With the snide, defensive tone often employed in pieces like this leading to the conclusion that “the Pope hasn’t changed any teachings,” one can easily come away with the sense that nothing significant has been going on over the last year!
But here’s the point. The Church is so much more than her official teachings, as important as they are. To permit an inference that “no change in teaching” means “no change in the church” is dangerously misleading. The Church is a Trinitarian communio: the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Yes, we have a body of teachings, but we are more than the doctrines themselves. To suggest that we are the sum of our teachings is specious; to suggest that our teachings are the most fundamental of our attributes is misleading. I am of course not minimizing the importance of church teaching, but simply acknowledging the far deeper Mystery involved.
And this, I think, is precisely where Pope Francis is making a huge difference in the Church. Each pope contributes to the life of the Church as his talents and gifts permit. We have had warrior popes in the past, deeply spiritual popes, scoundrel popes, charismatic popes and intellectual popes. Some have focused on teaching; others have focused on law, and still others have focused on structural matters. At this point in our history, we happen to be blessed with a pope who has his own unique set of gifts and strengths, and he is changing the Church in ways just as substantive as prior popes, and his focus on the radical servant nature of the Church — as described by Pope Paul VI in his closing homily to the bishops of the Second Vatican Council — is serving to recast the face of the Church in the 21st Century. He IS challenging all of us — the Church — to change.