Francis I: A True Reformer Pope?

After some preliminary research on Pope Francis, I had a hunch that this guy would be something of a reformer. Perhaps even more important than being the first Pope from Latin America, Francis is also the first Jesuit to ascend to the papacy. Unlike the orthodoxy of the Catholic church as a whole, the Jesuits were founded on the principles of embracing change and… dare I say it… progress. The Daily Beast does a good job of boiling it down.

Under St. Ignatius, the Society of Jesus believed that reform in the Catholic Church began with reform of the individual. The founding members of the Society of Jesus took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience under Ignatius… The Jesuits encourage toleration for other religions, teach other theology in their institutions, and also believe in free education for all.

Given that the Jesuit order was founded at the University of Paris in 1537, it’s no surprise that they put such an emphasis on knowledge, education and the honest exchange of ideas. Take an American university founded by Jesuits in 1855… the University of San Francisco. As the oldest university in a city pivotal to GLBT history, USF has been at odds many times with the Catholic Church. One of the most prominent was the invitation to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to a 2004 Commencement Speaker, when only months earlier he made US history by declaring same-sex marriages were legal in the city of San Francisco. Even at the height of this controversy and immense backlash from within the Catholic church, USF was proud to have Newsom participate. Some university officials even argued at the time that doing anything to hinder the conversation would be “against Jesuit principles”.

So that is the school of thought that Pope Francis ascribes to… one that is in many ways quite contradictory to greater Catholicism. Understanding this point gives context to a surprisingly candid press conference the Pope gave earlier today. Here’s an excerpt from the Washington Post

Pope Francis reached out to gays on Monday, saying he wouldn’t judge priests for their sexual orientation in a remarkably open and wide-ranging news conference as he returned from his first foreign trip…

Francis’ remarks came Monday during a plane journey back to the Vatican from his first foreign trip in Brazil.

He was funny and candid during his first news conference that lasted almost an hour and a half. He didn’t dodge a single question, even thanking the journalist who raised allegations reported by an Italian newsmagazine that one of his trusted monsignors was involved in a scandalous gay tryst.

Francis said he investigated and found nothing to back up the allegations.

Francis was asked about Italian media reports suggesting that a group within the church tried to blackmail fellow church officials with evidence of their homosexual activities. Italian media reported this year that the allegations contributed to Benedict’s decision to resign.

Stressing that Catholic social teaching that calls for homosexuals to be treated with dignity and not marginalized, Francis said it was something else entirely to conspire to use private information for blackmail or to exert pressure.

Francis was responding to reports that a trusted aide was involved in an alleged gay tryst a decade ago. He said he investigated the allegations according to canon law and found nothing to back them up. But he took journalists to task for reporting on the matter, saying the allegations concerned matters of sin, not crimes like sexually abusing children.

And when someone sins and confesses, he said, God not only forgives but forgets.

“We don’t have the right to not forget,” he said.

So is Pope Francis ready to declare all GLBT people as fully equal within the church? Probably not. But if recent events and Jesuit history are any indication, he is at least ready and willing to advance the Catholic conversation with the GLBT community. And that alone is reason for “cautious” optimism. Even if you’re not an especially religious person, or an all-out atheist, don’t forget that the Catholic church is still one of largest institutions in the world. Just as President Obama’s personal “evolution” to support marriage equality caused major movement on the issue within the US, Pope Francis’ opinion carries real weight among the Catholic faithful.

I’m anxious to see what lies ahead.