Eight Ways Pope Francis is Changing the Conversation

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.

Pope Francis. Photo from presidencia.gov.ar via Wikimedia Commons
Pope Francis is reframing the conversation through strategic communicationsPhoto from presidencia.gov.ar via Wikimedia Commons.

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.


10 Responses to “Eight Ways Pope Francis is Changing the Conversation”

  1. carolyn.belshe February 3, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    Larry, thank you for bringing to us a tremendously healthy and heartfelt foci of Pope Francis’ leadership.

  2. laura flippen February 4, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    Thank you for making clear what I experience daily with Pope Francis comments and actions. I have renewed hope that we can be the body of Christ. Francis is leading the way and setting an example for the universal church. I will remember the ways he is doing that from your comments. May we all look, listen, and learn.

  3. C. Don Ladd February 4, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    This is ONE amazing article! Well written and incredibly true! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could follow in many of His footsteps! Larry Hollon, one of my desk drawers is full of publications you have written! May you continue to inspire OUR CHURCH!!!!

  4. LONNIE D BROOKS February 4, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    Well, true, this pope has changed the conversation, somewhat. But the things that have historically served to divide United Methodists from Catholics still serve in the same way. He has not yet ordained a woman, he hasn’t approved a marriage for a previously unmarried priest, he hasn’t acknowledged that there is no scriptural foundation for the apotheosis of Mary, he has not renounced papal infallibility, and the laity still has no voice in the governance of the church. Sure, we need to accentuate the positive, but that doesn’t, in and of itself, eliminate the negative.

    • margie February 12, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

      The church does not have the authority to change what Christ set forth. A woman can not be In Persona Christi….the church has never changed a moral or dogma in 2000 years, and she never will, she is Divinely protected from teaching error, and does not change with the winds of opinion polls…..thank God for the Rock.

  5. Carol Wilson February 4, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    This is the best Pope in my memory. Apart from Pope John, most of the others, in my view, did not embody the message of Christ. Pope Francis seems to have the message right. What a blessing for the Roman Catholic church and for the world.

  6. otter February 5, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

    I agree with Lonnie. No place for women in the hierarchy, no recognition that birth control is needed in an overpopulated world and no recognition of a woman’s right to make her own choices about her reproductive health. When someone refuses to acknowledge the basic rights of half the worlds population (women and girls) there is much need for improvement.

    He may be doing more about the abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, but there is still much that needs to be done, including the Vatican taking responsibility for the abuses rather than shoving it off on the Bishops and pretending that Rome has nothing to do with the past and current policies of toleration and shuffling abusers to a new location only to let them abuse again. The Vatican is one of the richest ‘counties’ or institutions in the world, yet they let local churches go bankrupt rather than offer restitution to those who have been abused.
    He does take a strong stance for the poor, but the refusal to allow birth control guarentees that many will never be able to break out of the cycle of poverty. With so many mouths to feed and care for families can’t afford education or even basic health care for the children they have.
    He is changing the conversation without changing the traditions and procedures that have caused most of the problems.

  7. Fran February 12, 2014 at 4:28 pm #

    Starting with Biblical Scripture then theology, and then finding ways to address the question– and at the same time not creating a lot of controversy– is refreshing. St. Francis represents the closest we have had to promoting one church under the trinity for the good of all. Larry,another well written report.

  8. Jamie Ridge February 13, 2014 at 7:08 am #

    A very insightful article about this remarkable Pope. I’m praying that his leadership will remain on the same progressive path, with new surprises to come.

  9. Marcos February 19, 2016 at 5:29 am #

    If in fact Pope Francis means to be as liberal in his santemett as some here interpret, then he has just succeeded in landing a huge insult on his still-living predecessor on his birthday, at a Mass in his honor.I would hope that Pope Francis is not so utterly classless.I would also hope that the Pope is not so obtuse as to think that desiring to turn back the clock and to domesticate the Holy Spirit is a traditionalist and only a traditionalist phenomenon.While some might, most traditionalists don’t want to turn back the clock but instead, want to take the best of what we have and combine it with what we have gained in the meantime. This is particularly true in the liturgical sphere, where those who remember the brief, mumbled, and otherwise poorly-celebrated Masses of the pre-Conciliar era would not trade them for the carefully and beautifully celebrated EF Masses of the present. Many of us who consider ourselves traditionalists believe the fruits of the liberated EF and the RotR (and the associated growth in Catholic identity and vocations) as a work of the Holy Spirit.Indeed, some of the biggest proponents of turning back the clock that I hear are self-styled progressivists it’s just that they want to turn back to circa 1970 (and not 1950 or some other perceived golden era’ as they tend to project onto traditionalists en masse) and confuse every idea that comes to their minds as being inspired by the Holy Spirit . Yet they lack the discernment to determine whether or not it is the Holy Spirit, and the docility to bend when the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, offers a corrective.We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.- C.S. LewisMay Pope Francis be the best and truest progressive in the sense Lewis suggests.

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