Pope Francis is being celebrated for his ability to change the conversation of the Roman Catholic Church. His communication skills coupled with the stature of the papacy have brought a new tone to discourse within the church and captivated those of us outside that communion.
Francis has, at least for the time being, put Christians and the Christian faith in a better light in the wider culture as well.
How has he done it? I suggest a few ways:
1. Scripture not subject. Francis frames his comments with Scripture and not with the hot topic of the day. This shift from subject to Scripture places him on a firm foundation to critique the culture without starting from a reference point in the culture wars, a point that is sure to polarize. This frees him to bring Scripture to bear on issues, rather than starting with issues and pulling Scripture into the conversation. He leads with values.
2. Theology not ideology. He refers to theological teaching in past encyclicals. Like Scripture, theology is part of his conversational foundation. This allows for consistency in his teaching, and it integrates the moral instruction of the church with Scripture. Equally important, it gives him the ability to speak without using the language of ideology.
3. Personal not provocative. The pope has personalized those matters that have high cultural sensitivity such as human sexuality, and other matters. He has made it clear he believes in the sacredness of human personality. Identifying people by labels is provocative but not his way, nor the way of Scripture.
4 Future not past. He speaks about what might be. He points to a vision of a social order that includes the poor. He has written about encountering those who are on the margins and embracing those who are left out. He has issued a call to Roman Catholic Christians to reach out and serve. This is not new, but Francis is issuing the call in a way that has not been heard recently, and it points to a vision of God’s preferred future.
5. Inspirational not institutional. He frequently refers to the joy of the gospel rather than starting his cultural analysis with existing conditions. He has spoken sharply about the harmful effects of consumer culture and the unfettered free market economy. His critique, however, is based on the theological precept that we are born to be in community with God and with each other, and in this relationship we find joy and inspiration for life. He says consumer society creates its own form of individualism. The free market economy diverts and isolates us from this joyful and inspired life with God. As a result, we become estranged from others, from God and, tragically, from our own true selves. Francis has reminded us that we are more than consumers, especially in God’s eyes.
6. Compassion not condemnation. “Who am I to judge?” he asked when speaking about homosexuality. This is the most divergent path he could take from condemning persons of same-gender relationships. Francis has created an image of humility by speaking compassionately, even as he is the personification of the authority of the church.
7. Communication not exhortation. The pope has used multiple media to encourage the church to evangelize by encountering people in the culture. He is speaking in a communications environment in which we are present and comfortable. He has taken his message to Twitter. His outreach through church media and public media reveals strategic planning. He believes in communicating strategically.
8. Colloquial not complex. His language is more colloquial than academic. He has gotten attention, in part, because people understand him. His personal style has created a sense that he is speaking in the same language that we the people use.
While he has only begun, his communication style is a refreshing change. He is being credited with changing the conversation.
However, it is only a start. Institutions change slowly and resistance from within is great.
Church laws and procedures have not changed, and stories about human sexuality and clergy sexual abuse continue. He cannot control his narrative when these stories capture our attention as well.
Francis, by virtue of his position, is a celebrity. In a celebrity culture there is a pattern. What goes up also comes down. It’s as true for popes as for rock stars, a position Francis attained when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.
We can hope that Francis’ papacy does not follow this trajectory. And we can be thankful that he is leading from his values and communicating thoughtfully with strategic purpose.