His papacy has been a consistent rebuke to American culture-war Christianity in politics.
The Rev. James Martin, one of America’s most prominent Catholic priests, is a best-selling author, film consultant to Hollywood producers and a prolific tweeter with a digital pulpit that reaches more than 250,000 followers. Father Martin is also a hero to many L.G.B.T. Catholics for challenging church leaders to recognize the full humanity of gay people. His advocacy has made him a target of vicious online campaigns from far-right Catholic groups. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia last month warned that Father Martin “does not speak with authority on behalf of the church.”
But this week, Father Martin’s ministry received an endorsement from the most authoritative of church offices. Pope Francis met with the priest, a Jesuit like the pope, during a private, half-hour conversation in the pope’s library, a place often reserved for discussions with heads of state and diplomats. In a tweet, Father Martin said he shared with Francis “the joys and hopes, and the griefs and anxieties, of L.G.B.T. Catholics and L.G.B.T. people worldwide.”
There is little doubt Pope Francis wanted the meeting advertised. Damian Thompson, associate editor of The Spectator, a London-based conservative magazine, tweeted that the pope’s meeting was “intended to taunt the U.S. conservatives that he demonizes.”
Despite that hyperventilating, Pope Francis has made it clear that he is not afraid of the small but increasingly vocal chorus of American critics who consider his pastoral efforts to reach out to L.G.B.T. people and divorced Catholics as near heretical breaks from church tradition. In September, a reporter asked Pope Francis about his right-wing critics in the United States. “It’s an honor that Americans are attacking me,” the pope told Nicholas Senèze, a French journalist who presented the pope with his new book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope,” which chronicles efforts by conservatives in the United States to undermine the pope.The pope’s meeting with Father Martin did more than serve as a signal of support for the priest’s advocacy on behalf of L.G.B.T. people. It was also emblematic of the Francis papacy, which has been a consistent rebuke to a style of culture-war Christianity that since the ascendance of the religious right in the United States during the 1980s has often been the default setting for American Christianity in politics.Since his election six years ago, Pope Francis has modeled a different brand of moral leadership: engaging and persuading, reframing contentious issues away from narrow ideologies and expanding moral imaginations. Last week, a gay theologian and priest who was dismissed from his religious order for expressing disagreement with the church’s teachings on same-sex relationships wrote that Pope Francis called him two years ago, gave him “the power of the keys,” a reference to being restored to ministry, and encouraged him to “walk with deep interior freedom, following the spirit of Jesus.”
The pope’s interior freedom and humility stand in stark contrast to other religious and political leaders on the world stage. When Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, he declared: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.” In keeping with that megalomania, Mr. Trump surrounds himself with compliant evangelical courtiers like Robert Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch pastor, who view the president in messianic terms, a political savior. Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Jeffress this week, citing the pastor’s claim on Fox News that if the president is impeached, it will cause a “Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”
Pope Francis rejects this resurgence of Christian nationalism and warns against idolizing politicians.
As right-wing populists from the United States to Europe depict migrants as menacing threats and build walls, the pope continues to challenge what he calls a “globalization of indifference.” On Sunday, during a special Mass for the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis unveiled an artistic monument to migration in St. Peter’s Square. The work depicts 140 migrants and refugees from various historical periods traveling by boat, a powerful visual counterpoint to the nativist winds blowing across both sides of the Atlantic.
And unlike the loudest anti-abortion voices on the Christian right who are so wed to the Republican Party that they ignore assaults on life inflicted by policies that exacerbate economic inequality, poverty and climate change, the pope insists that the “lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute” are as “equally sacred” as the unborn in the womb.
Culture warriors in the United States have done enough damage to our collective political and moral imagination. More intoxicated with power than faithful to the gospel, these religious leaders demonize L.G.B.T. people, turn their back on migrants fleeing danger and ignore the cries of the poor while claiming to defend Christian values. A humble but persistent pastor in Rome reminds us there is a different path for those of us who still believe in a faith that seeks justice.POPE FRANCIS AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — In an offhand remark on the papal plane en route to Mozambique, Pope Francis on Wednesday acknowledged the sharp opposition he has faced from conservative Catholic detractors in the United States, calling it an “an honor that the Americans attack me.”
His remark came at the start of a six-day trip to Africa, as Francis shook hands in the back of the plane with a French reporter who handed him a copy of his new book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope.”
Francis warmly told the reporter, Nicholas Senèze, who covers the Vatican for the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, that he had been unable to find the book, which explores American financial, political and media backing of the small but noisy conservative opposition seeking to undermine Francis. Apparently referring to his critics, Francis quipped that their disapproval is “an honor.”
He then handed the book to an aide, and jokingly called it “a bomb.”
Francis’ priorities and inclusive approach to the papacy have infuriated some American prelates, donors and their supporters in the constellation of conservative Catholic media. Those critics often complain that Francis is watering down church orthodoxy, retreating in the culture wars and sowing confusion in the church.
Mr. Senèze said in an interview later that his book, which was released in France on Wednesday, explored the criticism of American conservatives who disagree with Francis’ championing of migrants, his absolute opposition to the death penalty and his willingness to offer the sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics.
Supporters of Francis had hoped that, after years of being drawn into the sexual abuse scandal and bickering with his conservative critics, this week’s trip to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritiuswould allow him to focus anew on poverty, climate change and migration.
But it was Francis himself who brought the old ideological rifts along for the ride.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been repeatedly demoted by Francis, has been the de facto leader of the dissent against the pontiff. But other conservative prelates in the American hierarchy have not been shy to criticize Francis on a broad variety of issues.
Last August, the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, demanded the pope’s resignation. He has been hailed as a hero in some American conservative circles.
It has been no secret that Francis, the first Latin American pope, has a complicated view of his former neighbors to the north, and that the American conservatives have long been out of his good graces.
He has been a committed critic of the abuses of American capitalism. Not long after Francis’ election, Vatican ambassadors briefed the pontiff about various situations around the world and suggested that he be especially careful when appointing bishops and cardinals in the United States.
“I know that already,” the pope interrupted, a high-ranking Vatican official told the Times in 2017. “That’s where the opposition is coming from.”
That year, two close associates of Pope Francis, in an article published in a Vatican-vetted magazine, accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an unholy alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to help President Trump.
One of the writers of that article, Antonio Spadaro, a prominent Jesuit who edits the magazine, Civiltà Cattolica, sat with Pope Francis in the front section of the plane on Wednesday.
Almost immediately after the pope finished his meet-and-greet, asked for prayers for victims of hurricane Dorian and returned to his seat, the Vatican spokesman appeared in an apparent effort to clean up his remarks.
“In an informal context the pope wanted to say that he always considers criticism an honor,” said Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman. “Particularly when it comes from authoritative thinkers, in this case from an important nation.”
The pope’s casual conversation with reporters on the plane soon after taking off from Rome on papal trips is a tradition, and usually features the pope receiving gifts and requests for blessings from reporters in the Catholic media, and engaging in harmless and often awkward chitchat.
When I told the pope on Wednesday that I nearly missed the flight because, like him a few days earlier, I had been stuck in an elevator, he chuckled and made an Italian hand gesture to show how scary it was.
But other conversations yielded more pointed remarks.
In another conversation overheard on the plane, Francis spoke with a German reporter, Andreas Englisch, about the pope’s decision to elevate to the rank of cardinal Raymond Burke, a longtime proponent of interreligious dialogue with Muslims.
Francis called the elevation of Bishop Fitzgerald, who had been sidelined under Pope Benedict XVI, “an act of justice.”
Mr. Englisch said that he also told Francis that not all Germans believed the bad things said about him by the German cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the church’s former chief theologian, who was fired by Francis.
When the pope asked Mr. Englisch what Cardinal Müller had been saying about him, Mr. Englisch told him the cardinal had been saying he would try and save Francis’ papacy from bad theology.
Francis replied that Cardinal Müller “has good intentions and he is a good man, but he is like a child,” Mr. Englisch said.