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Catholic Expert Depicts Pope as “Moderate in Extreme”

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Pope Francis embodies a “moderate realism” and his ministry should matter to both Protestants and Catholics, said a respected U.S. journalist and top expert on Vatican affairs.
John L. Allen Jr. made these assertions in his new book, “The Francis Miracle,” released today.

EthicsDaily.com received an advance copy of the book, which explores the rise of Francis and his unique vision for the Catholic Church.

In comments to EthicsDaily.com, Allen noted Protestants should pay attention to Francis, who marks two years as pope next week.

As the New Testament teaches, “whatever affects one part of the body, affects the entire body.”

He added, however, that there are also “practical reasons why Pope Francis matters for Protestants.”

First, Allen pointed to how the pope is viewed by many non-Christians around the world as “the CEO of Christianity Inc.”

“For many Muslims, Hindus, animists, Buddhists, etc., their perceptions of Christianity generally are heavily conditioned by Catholicism and the pope in particular,” Allen explained to EthicsDaily.com. “That may not be fair or accurate in terms of Christian ecclesiology, but it’s the reality nevertheless. As a result, all Christians have a stake in what the pope says and does.”

Second, Allen argued, “there’s a growing recognition today that across the board, Christians of all stripes have a great deal in common,” including “the same secular pressures and an increasingly difficult legal and political climate.”

He added that ISIS and Boko Haram “aren’t making distinctions among Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans or Orthodox.”

Allen painted the picture of a pope who is transforming the Catholic Church – and thus perhaps the image of Christianity – in important ways.

He depicted Francis as “a man on a mission” who “wants to be a change agent, a historic reformer who reorients the Catholic Church decisively across multiple fronts.”

Yet, Allen added, “Francis aims to steer Catholicism back to the political and ecclesiastical center.”

Allen argued that the pope, as an archbishop in Buenos Aires, known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, “developed a unique pastoral style and a vision for the Church.”

Although Allen described how Francis grew in charisma after being elected pope, he grounded Francis’ papal focus in past priorities.

Allen identified a four-part vision during Francis’ leadership in Buenos Aires:

â—     A “personal closeness and service to the poor, while avoiding partisan overtones”

â—     “A strong focus on popular faith and devotion” to capture “the religious concerns and needs of ordinary believers”

â—     “A missionary vision for the Church” that “gets out into the street and meets people where they live”

â—     A rejection of “clerical privilege, thereby breaking with the Latin American convention of seeing bishops as part of the ruling elite and expecting them to be deeply enmeshed in political affairs.”

In the book, Allen explored how Francis has been attacked for being both a “liberal” and a “conservative” Catholic and how he has faced criticism from both ideological sides within the Catholic Church.

Allen does not view Francis as fitting comfortably in either camp.

Allen noted Francis is “obviously committed to classic Christian orthodoxy” but that “those beliefs are always expressed in a balanced fashion and with a special emphasis on the poor and those at the margins of society.”

Thus, Allen argued, “Pope Francis is proving to be moderate in the extreme” and “a moderate realist.”

“By pushing Catholicism toward more generous modes of pastoral application, Pope Francis can change the Church significantly without altering a single comma in the catechism,” Allen explained.

“That leaves the Catholic middle as this pope’s natural constituency: people who are generally content with Church teaching and tradition but tend to be generous in how it’s applied,” Allen added.

He continued, “Adherents of the middle don’t have a chip on their shoulder about the bishops or the pope, but they’re also not inclined to shout ‘hosanna!’ every time someone in leadership speaks; they’re capable of being critical without being axiomatically hostile. They’re hungry for reform but not so much for revolution.”

Allen also views the Catholic middle as those who “regard Catholicism as a force for good in the world” and who reject “a selective version of Church teaching tailored to advance a specific political or theological agenda.”

He believes Francis’ approach will change the church.

“By bringing this spirit of moderate realism to the papacy, Francis has given centrists in the Church a new lease on life,” Allen wrote.

“While evangelical Catholicism was the watchword of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI eras, moderate realism seems to be the new direction under Francis,” Allen added. “It may not make for sweeping revolutions in doctrine, but at the level of application and tone, it has the potential to shape a very different kind of Catholic Church.”

In comments to EthicsDaily.com, Allen stressed that labels like liberal and conservative do not always translate well into different contexts.

He added, though, that “among Christians in the West moderates may be a majority at the grass roots, but they generally haven’t mobilized to take control of denominational structures in the same way as both conservatives and liberals.”

“Perhaps seeing a moderate ascend to leadership in the world’s largest Christian denomination will embolden the moderates in other Christian traditions, thinking that if nothing else they’ll have a friend in Rome,” Allen added.

Allen said that Francis “has a long record of [ecumenical] outreach dating back to his years in Buenos Aires and extending into his papacy.”

“He’s focused on an ecumenism of the here-and-now,” Allen explained to EthicsDaily.com, “meaning what Christians can do together right now in defense of shared values and concern – the poor, social justice, the environment, the unborn and so on – that will gradually bring them into closer friendship. Needless to say, that’s a project that ought to be of intense interest to Protestants.”

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @BrianKaylor.