‘Who would have thought the Pope would be this great proponent [of breastfeeding]?”
“A Wicklow girl in the Eternal City” of Rome (as she calls herself), Vatican Radio’s Emer McCarthy last week expressed her pleasure to the Catholic News Service that Pope Francis had just told her and other mothers in the Sistine Chapel that they should breastfeed their babies there.
The Pope’s warm words of encouragement are the sort of thing that has led one Irish-American cardinal, Raymond Leo Burke, to refer pointedly to “a kind of unpredictability about life in Rome these days”.
Burke and some of his colleagues in the Roman Curia are unlikely to regard papal unpredictability as a good thing.
Yet some cardinals and bishops are accustomed to levels of comfort that Pope Francis seems intent on
After just 10 months in office, Francis is also exciting non-Catholics. Last week the New York Times ran a feature on Francis, headed “Francis Shakes Up The Vatican.”
Time magazine made Francis person of the year for 2013, while England’s newspapers debate his political outlook. So is the Pope a Marxist, as some detractors claim?
Of course not. He recently told La Stampa, the Italian daily newspaper that: “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
Yet Jonathan Freedland, a distinguished international journalist and frequent contributor to The Jewish Chronicle has written that, “even atheists should be praying to Pope Francis”. Why? Because “he is now the world’s clearest voice for change”.
And when the Daily Telegraph this month described the Vatican as “the spearhead of radical economic thinking”, you can be sure something remarkable is happening.
But when its headline also proclaims that, “Liberation theology is back as Pope Francis holds capitalism to account” you have to wonder if rumours of change in Rome are not getting ahead of the reality.
Francis was never identified in Argentina with those who espoused the philosophy of activism known as “liberation theology.”
So far, Pope Francis in Rome has done little more than behave in a modest and pleasant manner. He is setting a tone rather than throwing stones.
The Pope is eager to project a caring and pastoral image of his church, asking: “Who am I to judge?” He wishes to remind people that the fundamental message of Christ refers to a moral disposition or a way of living, rather than a precise set of rules.
At the same time, Francis expects cardinals, priests and others within his church to give good example by living the life of the Cross.
His strictures to the hierarchy on avoiding a cushy life are unlikely to endear him to some in the Curia or at the Vatican. They will keep their heads down and hope that he is just going through a phase.
But it is his critique of greed and global ideologies that threaten some outside his church.
His various comments on breastfeeding demonstrate his central concern about economic priorities. Last month, Francis told La Stampa about seeing a young mother holding her crying infant behind a barrier at the Vatican.
He said to her: “Madam, I think the child’s hungry... Please give it something to eat! I wish to say the same to humanity: Give people something to eat! That woman had milk to give to her child; we have enough food in the world to feed everyone.”
Reforms that he has signalled in Rome are long overdue, and not much more than what is required at a minimum to sustain the credibility of Catholicism. He appears to be diluting the influence of the Italian cardinals, and placing men of like-mind to himself in key positions.
He has also taken steps to reform the Vatican Bank, which has caused scandal. Banking reform scarcely makes him a socialist.
Some reactions to his compassionate comments and mild reforms have overestimated their basic significance. He may shift the focus of church attention away from a fixation on issues such as abortion or homosexuality, but he is unlikely to endorse either abortion or same-sex marriage as acceptable options.
And rumours that Francis might appoint a female and/or lay cardinal, perhaps Mary McAleese, appear to be premature if not preposterous.
He told La Stampa recently: “I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the church must be valued not ‘clericalised’. Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.”
When it deemed him its person of the year for 2013, Time wrote that, “what makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all.”
But no man can fulfil the vague hopes of vast numbers of people, hopes that may be delusional. Political leaders rise and fall on such unrealistic expectations.
What a Pope can do is to demonstrate that his church is heir to teachings and traditions that may help anyone trying to live a compassionate and truthful life.