Meet The New Pope, Mostly The Same As The Old Popes

Theologian George Weigel tells NPR's Scott Simon that Pope Francis is actually very similar to his papal predecessors.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

So, we just heard a number of people believe Pope Francis is changing to change the tone at the Vatican. There are others who don't agree. George Weigel is a theologian at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He wrote a biography of Pope John Paul II called "Witness to Hope." And he believes that Pope Francis is remarkably similar to his predecessors, Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict.

GEORGE WEIGEL: When I met then-Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires about 10 months before his election as pope, I was struck by continuities of intention in all three of these men. They each want the Catholic Church to recover its original missionary impulse, or what I call in a new book evangelical Catholicism. That begins with John Paul II; it continues with Benedict. It's taking a different form and a different style with Pope Francis, but each one of these men wants the church to enter the third millennium with a new burst of, if you will, Pentecostal energy.

SIMON: Well, you know the press and analyze it very well and gosh knows we interview you not infrequently. So, what's happened here? Are we just accustomed to casting things in liberal-conservative lights?

WEIGEL: I do think there's a bit of projection going on here. The recent Rolling Stone cover story seem to me to be a vast literary Rorschach blot in which the author projected onto Pope Francis everything that he wanted to see in the Catholic Church, some of which may be arguably true in terms of changes of style and method of proclaiming the truth of the gospel. But the idea that Pope Francis is somehow 180 degrees different from his two papal predecessors is really quite silly. The Catholic Church doesn't work that way.

SIMON: Well, I think the past two or three popes have said they love people who might be gay but the church doesn't accept their orientation. So, when Francis says - and I'll quote - "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord" - by the way, he says gay and not homosexual, which is also significant to me - "and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge? Now, isn't that significantly different from anything John Paul or Benedict says?

WEIGEL: No. Actually, it's what every good pastor would say to a person experiencing same-sex attraction who's trying to lead a life of chastity and integrity, which is the case that was posed to the pope. He wasn't asked to make a generic comment on the human condition. He was asked about a specific circumstance. In fact, he was asked about suppose there is a priest in the Vatican who says I'm gay; I'm trying to lead a life of integrity and chastity, and the pope said in that circumstance who am I to judge? So, the notion that Pope Francis was expressing some radical change in the church's view of gay people is just not true.

SIMON: Do you look at Pope Francis' record so far and see someone who was sensitive to the public opinion polls that come up in country after country?

WEIGEL: I don't think in the sense that we would understand that in American political terms, Scott. I think the pope is deeply aware of the fact that the people of the church don't often understand why the church says the things it does, teaches the things it must. And he wants to help that understanding. He wants people to understand that they are welcome in the Catholic Church to pursue their questions but that the church's settled understanding of certain matters is a settled understanding. And the church believes that those understandings lead to human happiness.

SIMON: I'm going to try to fill in a blank here. I think one of the reasons, maybe even the prime reason, why people who call themselves church liberals, reformers, people who called themselves church conservatives, both share an admiration and affection for this pope is a sense that he is holy, that this is man who lives by his holy convictions and wants the church to do that.

WEIGEL: I think that's true. I also think that's true of his two predecessors. Virtually, the entire world gathered around the deathbed of John Paul II in April 2005 because they sense we are at the Passover, as he called it, of a holy man. No one who met Joseph Ratzinger personally could help but understand him as somebody who lived out of the convictions that God's mercy had made itself manifest in his life and he ought to make that available to others. That's what people sense in Pope Francis, I think, and perhaps an easier way, shall we say. This pope is reminding the world that it needs a pastor, whether it knows it or not, and that's a good thing.

SIMON: George Weigel, author, theologian, currently distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Thanks so much for being with us.

WEIGEL: Thank you.

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