WASHINGTON — We tend to remember leaders in characteristic poses. For Pope Benedict XVI, the college professor, it was delivering a much-misunderstood lecture at the University of Regensburg, which made controversial reference to Islam. For Pope Francis, it is kneeling to wash the feet of a young Muslim woman in a prison on Holy Thursday. With due respect to Benedict's learning, Francis' symbolic act managed to more effectively communicate the essence of the Christian gospel.
The Catholic tradition, from catacombs to cathedrals, is filled with potent symbols. Francis excels at the symbolism of humility. He lives in a two-room apartment, dresses in simple white, and speaks in direct, colloquial language. His assistant is reputed to carry a cellphone, making the pope callable, maybe.
Francis has not yet issued sweeping declarations. But his symbolism has begun seeping into substance. He seeks a simpler church, more closely identified with the poor. And he sounds like an institutional reformer. Here is the Vatican's account of one papal sermon: “When the Church wants to throw its weight around and sets up organizations, and sets up offices and becomes a bit bureaucratic, the Church loses its principal substance and runs the risk of turning itself into an NGO (nongovernmental organization). And the Church is not an NGO. It is a love story.”
In the context of American Catholicism, the left naturally finds this heartening. Francis is not on the verge of ordaining women priests, but a reforming pope legitimizes the idea of reform. And he is also an enthusiastic critic of capitalist excess. Yet much of the American Catholic right has also welcomed the fresh air of Francis' style, while emphasizing his complete faithfulness to traditional church teaching.
The problems of the Catholic Church — from abuse scandals to corruption in the Roman Curia — seem so large that other disputes have been marginalized. If Francis' touch can stop the hemorrhage of ecclesiastical authority, both left and right seem prepared to set aside some old arguments. The result is an outbreak of patience and generosity of spirit.
Many non-Catholics have found the new pope's social teaching contradictory and confusing. Sometimes he sounds like a Latin American lefty, calling for “social justice” and criticizing “selfish profit.” Sometimes he is defiantly unmodern on matters sexual. The American media have struggled to find and apply a simple ideological label — apparently their main journalistic calling.