I cannot find it in my heart to deny that Pope Francis is a very good man. His story is touching and his attitude can be understood very well if you keep in mind that he is Latin-American, rather than American or European. His remarks of the past few days have seemingly amazed the world, and the explanation is simple--but a shame to the American Church, Catholic and otherwise.
The other day, Pope Francis remarked artlessly (and sincerely) that the Church seems to be obsessed (his word) with abortion, gay marriage and birth control. He is correct, and the fact that it seems to puzzle him is, I believe, absolutely because he has not been either in America or Europe during the past generations. In fact, Pope Francis has been doing his job in the Society of Jesus in South America, which is what he should have been doing all these years. But that is not exactly the pattern in America--what we have seen in the American Church is various administrative ministers tampering with politics.
I don't blame anyone who thinks that the so-called Culture Wars are for real. It is naive to do so, but plenty of people really think that. Those who realize that the stories of the evangelist Francis Schaeffer coming up with the idea that is now called the Moral Majority, using their credibility (which is long gone by now) to lend respectability to the highest bidder, knows that the Culture Wars were an invention.
The purpose of the Culture Wars was to paint the person who bought Schaeffer's influence as morally superior. So the evangelical fundamentalists who hung out with Schaeffer back in the day picked out their pet issues and auctioned them off. The successful bidder was the Republican Party, who now operate the Culture Wars for further fundraising. I'm sure they have raised much more money by now than they originally paid for the influence of the Moral Majority, although the entrepreneur preachers are still hard at work using the Culture Wars to raise their own funds.
This tactic was successful in creating rich preachers right up until the Televangelist scandals, during which the American people discovered that the television preachers were actual human beings with feet of clay. One minister whose faith survived his total immersion in that short-lived movement is Rev. Carlton Pearson, who recounts the story in his documentary, "To Hell and Back."
The Catholic Church didn't hesitate for a second in getting political; they chose their pet issues and jumped right into the artificial fray. There are primitive Catholic fanatics killing people in protest of abortion, and there are primitive Protestant fanatics committing hate crimes against the LGBT community. Both groups are doing more to put the Christian Church in America out of business than the most dedicated atheist.
But Pope Francis isn't really familiar with this. He doesn't understand why abortion, birth control and the LGBT community are holding this hypnotic sway over people who call themselves Christians. And guess what, folks--he has the power to speak ex cathedra. If the new Pope decides to call a halt to the primitive Catholic obsession over sexuality, he can do something that will turn the Church on its ear, like end the requirement of priestly celibacy.
Or Francis could create a new era of rapprochement with the Anglican Communion and re-negotiate the relationship between the two denominations of Catholicism. With some of the Orthodox in communion with the Anglicans, and the Romans in communion with some Orthodox, but the Romans not in communion with the Anglicans, Pope Francis just might decide to dynamite that particular log-jam.
We are all well advised to keep track of what Francis says and does. Catholic Americans are going to be rocked by his re-focusing of the Church on real issues, and when he does that, he will create a huge area of common ground that could turn the evangelical movement on its ear. May it be soon--I can't wait.