At a Catholic Church retreat in late 2012, a speaker said something that struck many listeners as unusual. Truth, he said, is like a precious stone. If you hold it in your hand, it draws others to you. If you hurl it at someone, it causes injury. The speaker was Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who several months later changed his name to Pope Francis.
As the world is now learning, this man has many unusual things to say. He says that stories are better than explanations, since stories invite “discernment” whereas explanations limit us to “discussion.” He says that attitudes are more important than structures: “The first reform must be the attitude.” He says that realities are better than philosophy and that living with and for the poor is better than doctrine.
He says that certainty is a sin: “If one has the answers to all the questions, that’s the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.” And: “If the Christian wants everything clear and safe, he will find nothing.” He says that the greatest virtue is mercy. He says that Satan views gentleness as weakness.
Who is this guy? He was born in 1936. He grew up, he says, “poor, with dignity.” His mother never wasted anything: “Maybe my brother’s and my extreme frugality comes from this.” All his life he has disliked fanciness, eschewed pomp whenever possible, and sought simplicity. As a cardinal, he placed his own phone calls and took the bus to work. He saved the rubber bands from newspaper deliveries and, each month, personally returned them to the delivery men. His now-famous jeremiads as pope against today’s culture of excessive consumption and environmental degradation are rooted in a thrift ethic that he acquired early in life and never abandoned.
In 1980, as the rector of a Jesuit seminary located in a poor Buenos Aires parish, he showed up one day with cows, goats and sheep, ready to start a farm on church property to help to provide food and jobs for the community. He also organized a children’s kitchen and several job training centers. In this work as a community organizer, his aim was simultaneously material and spiritual — he wanted the church to transform the community and the community to transform the church. As a teacher of future priests, he constantly urged his students to “get into the barrio and walk in it” and told them that only by sharing their lives with the poor could they discover “the true possibilities of justice” as opposed to “an abstract justice which fails to give life.”
One of the qualities I most admire in Pope Francis is that he seems intent on ignoring the Culture War Handbook which so dominates U.S. politics today. In Argentina, when the country was experiencing great conflict and brutality, he sided with neither the Marxism of the left nor the restorationist authoritarianism of the right, but instead advocated a “culture of encounter” that sought not agreement but friendship, not uniformity but the peaceful reconciling of diversity.
He strongly distrusts ideology, which he views as magnifying certain truths while ignoring or rejecting others. U.S. commentators who endlessly debate whether the pope is “liberal” or “conservative” largely miss the point: This guy puts Christian hope above ideology. He seems to have no intention of collaborating with those in the U.S. or anywhere who are seeking, as he once put it, to “reduce culture to a battle field.”
Toward that end, he speaks passionately against the bad habit of dichotomous thinking, particularly “friend/enemy” thinking. Speaking to Catholics, but with words relevant to all people of faith, he warns against the sin of “spiritual worldliness,” which he says can reveal itself in those who "ultimately trust only their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying."
Francis loves to contemplate a Bavarian painting from the 1700s, “Mary, Untier of Knots,” in which Mary, the mother of Jesus, “unties the knots” in a troubled marriage. The painting is an object of local devotion. The pope says: “This is how it is with Mary. If you want to know who she is, ask the theologians. If you want to know how to love her, ask the people.” Leading one of the world’s largest bureaucracies, this guy asks the poor how to love and spends hours contemplating a painting, trying to get to the essence of things.
David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.