Pope Francis the Hipster and What He Means for America’s Culture Wars

Pope FrancisYou have to wonder at what point Pope Francis will have pulled the rug out from beneath America’s Catholic and Evangelical clergy.

We have seen the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church shamed by its nuns, who alone seem to remember what Jesus’ message was all about. Many Evangelical Protestants ought to be ashamed too. But they aren’t.


Evangelicals seem to have a hard time remembering Jesus’ message as well, demonizing the poor rather than, as Jesus did, welcoming them, championing the rich, instead of, as Jesus did, condemning them.

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While Evangelicals (certainly not all of them) and the Republican Party, which has itself become a religion, openly campaign against the poor, Pope Francis is standing up for poor – and coming down on an inward-looking clergy.

In Rio a few days ago, he told young Catholics to get rowdy for Jesus:

What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses! […] I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!

Clericalism. Now there is a word liberal Americans can sink their teeth in to. Our own clerics have been busily at work subverting the United States Constitution and trying to strong-arm a legally-elected president.

I have a feeling Pope Francis favors taking a more constructive approach. A more inclusive approach.

When, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis was Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he attacked what he saw as “ecclesiastical narcissism.”

“When the Church does not come out of itself to evangelize,” he said, “it becomes self-referential and then gets sick.”

But simply getting out and evangelizing isn’t going to fix all that’s wrong with Christianity, regardless of denomination, Protestant or Catholic.

Pope Benedict XVI was not a champion of the poor, no more than is the Republican Party. But Pope Francis, as the National Catholic Register noted in April, is cut from a different cloth:

“It’s key that we Catholics, both clergy and laity, go out to meet the people,” he stressed in the 2010 book-length interview El Jesuita.

This is “not only because her mission is to announce the Gospel, but because failing to do so harms us. … A Church that limits herself to administering parish work, that lives enclosed within a community, experiences what someone in prison does: physical and mental atrophy.”

Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, wrote on CNN’s BeliefBlog Saturday about why millennials are leaving the church. Speaking to Evangelical leaders she says that,

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.
I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.

Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”
And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.

I think we are all banging our heads.

The Republican Party epitomizes this attitude. After their 2012 defeat they thought better looking politicians with brighter smiles would solve all their problems. But it’s not the delivery; it’s the message that is the problem.

Pope Francis spoke, when he was Cardinal, of the Church suffering from “spiritual worldliness … living in itself, of itself, for itself.”

Some would say this has been true of the Papacy for centuries. Pope Francis, however well-intentioned, isn’t going to cure it over night. He has already shown, through his remarks on atheism and heaven, and works versus faith, that the hierarchy of the Church is not behind him.

Certainly South America’s Catholics are singing hipper tunes in Church, and yes, he told the Brazlian crowd, “Dear young people Jesus Christ is counting on you, the Church is counting on you, the Pope is counting on you!”

But Pope Francis recognizes that more is needed than the appearance of hip.

As Elizabeth Dias put it in Time Magazine Friday, “Catholicism, Francis knows, is at a historical precipice for change, and he is trying to push it over the edge on behalf of those society marginalizes.”

John Lennon was once condemned for saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. But the true sin is not what Lennon thought, or that people did hold the Beatles in higher regard than Jesus. The true sin is that corporations and mega church preachers see themselves as bigger than Jesus.

Sure, this pope, like John Lennon, is a bit of a rock star. But there is substantive change in his discourse, not merely cosmetic. He does not wish to merely appear to be a champion of the poor and marginalized, but like Jesus, to actually be their champion.

In the religion of Jesus, the last were to become first and wealth and power were not to be worshiped but were evidence of an alliance with the dark powers that ruled the material world, the powers that Heaven itself would up-end.

But the Church long ago fell in love with itself and with wealth, and with the idea that wealth and power were a sign of God’s favor, rather than evidence of guilt. If the Catholic Church and Evangelical Christianity wish to get back in good graces with the people, there will have to be evidence of change, not merely its appearance.

And that is what millennial want, says Rachel Held Evans: “What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”

Yes, the Pope ditched his “popemobile” but that that is not the real story; it is move emblematic of a deeper paradigm shift.

The Pope seems to be preaching just that, saying Sunday,

“Bringing the Gospel is bringing God’s power to pluck up and break down evil and violence, to destroy and overthrow the barriers and selfishness, intolerance and hatred, so as to build a new world.”

A world, the Pope said, that is more just.

You can see how far this message is from the Republican message, and even that of America’s Catholic clergy.

“But here’s the thing,” Evans writes. “Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.”

I think the American people of all stripes proved their own BS meter is functioning when, in 2008, and again in 2012, they rejected the Republican message of exclusion and intolerance. There will always be those who fall prey to the glitz or to the attraction of wealth, but it was not to those that Jesus brought a message of hope.

To the rich and to those who worshiped wealth and power, the message he brought was one of doom.

The focus, Jesus said, should not be on the rich and making them richer and happier. The focus should be on the poor and the marginalized; that if there is such a thing as a Kingdom of Heaven, it is the poor and not the wealthy who would be its citizens.

I think the world has a Pope at last who has read his Bible. It might behoove the world’s wealth- and power-seeking religious bigots to do the same before people discover Jesus didn’t champion rich white folks after all.

Nothing could be more unwelcome to religious conservatives in this country than Jesus’ actual message.

And all the new Pope has done is gone and let the cat out of the bag.

Image from The Guardian

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