VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis has made some of the most important policy speeches of his pontificate in recent days, catching up for lost time following months of attention to bureaucratic reform and the turbulent meeting of bishops on family issues that just ended.
Often speaking in his native Spanish, Francis has focused on issues close to his heart, pontificating at length about the plight of the poor and unemployed, the environment and even evolution, seemingly emboldened to speak his mind on topics that must make even some of his closest collaborators squirm.
He hasn't changed church doctrine. But he has pushed the envelope on some issues, raised eyebrows with his blunt speaking style on others, and made clear where his progressive social priorities lie. Here are some highlights from a busy week at the Vatican, with issues that Francis might raise again when he makes a major policy speech to the European Parliament next month.
SILENT DEATH PENALTY
In his most explosive speech to a group of penal lawyers, Francis went well beyond the Vatican's previous opposition to capital punishment by denouncing life prison terms as a "hidden death penalty." Francis' outreach to prisoners is well-known: He famously washed the feet of juvenile delinquents — Muslims and women among them — at a Rome detention center during his first Holy Thursday as pope. In his speech last week, Francis denounced prison systems as "out of control" for depriving people of their dignity, citing recourse to the death penalty, detaining people without charge or conviction and holding inmates in isolation, which he called a form of "physical and psychological torture." Putting him squarely at odds with the United States, where he is going next year, Francis also denounced extraordinary renditions, which the CIA used after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to take terror suspects to third countries for interrogation.
Francis raised some eyebrows with his remarks on creation and evolution, saying the Big Bang theory doesn't contradict the Christian belief in creation. While his words were very Franciscan in their bluntness — "When we read the story of Creation in Genesis we risk imagining that God was a magician" — Francis was merely restating what the Catholic Church has long taught: that there is no contradiction between creation and evolution. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI spent his entire pontificate elaborating on the compatibility of faith and scientific reason, insisting that the cosmos isn't a system of random chaos but rather an organized system where the hand of the Creator is obvious. St. John Paul II and Pope Pius XII voiced similar conclusions before him. Francis put the church's thinking in his own words: "Evolution in nature doesn't contradict the notion of creation because evolution presupposes the creation of beings who evolve," he said.
Francis also grabbed headlines when he acknowledged that his concern for the poor, the unemployed and the environment would lead some to label him a communist. "They don't understand that love for the poor is at the center of the Gospel," he said. The remarks were delivered to a meeting of representatives of popular movements at the Vatican. In the audience were farmers, miners, fishermen and Argentine "cartoneros," who sift through garbage looking for recyclable goods. Also on hand to hear one of the longest, most heartfelt speeches of Francis' pontificate was Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president known for his socialist rhetoric. In an off-the-cuff speech in Spanish, Francis denounced the injustices of the poor that the world wants to forget, the "scandal" of hunger and the lost generation of young people who are unemployed.
Francis has demonstrated an unusually vivid concern about the devil, more than his predecessors, in a reflection both of his Jesuit spirituality and his Latin American roots. This week he sent a message to the International Association of Exorcists, praising the work of exorcists for "showing the church's love and welcome toward those who suffer from the devil's work." Earlier this year, the Vatican granted the association legal recognition in a sign of Francis' belief that the world needs more exorcists for the increasing number of people seeking to be liberated from their demons. Two months after he was elected, Francis caused a huge stir when he laid his hands on the head of a Mexican man said to be possessed by four different demons. The man's reaction — he heaved, deeply shook, and then slumped in his wheelchair — led Italy's most well-known exorcist to insist that Francis had helped liberate him from the devil. The Vatican insisted no such exorcism took place.
WHITHER THE THEOLOGIANS?
Francis has frequently spoken with near-disdain about theologians, seemingly complaining that they often hold the church back from being the merciful place of welcome and union that he wants it to be. And so it was when he greeted a group of Pentecostal Anglicans in private who were visiting him. Once again Francis invoked the devil, saying Satan was behind the divisions among Christians. But he urged Catholics and Pentecostals to "walk together," doing works of charity together and praying for each other. "We each have in our churches excellent theologians. That's another way to talk together also. But we shouldn't wait for them to reach agreement!" he said. As if to emphasize his point, he added, "That's what I think."
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