From Catholic to catholic is not a journey that popes, even the modern ones, are expected to make. But Pope Francis seems to be taking his office towards a change of tone that is repeatedly signalling greater inclusiveness. In his Christmas address from the Vatican, this Argentinean Jesuit went off his scripted path to extend his message for “the city and the world” to include non-believers and atheists. More than the idea of love, what stood at the heart of the pope’s speech was a pragmatic concern for peace, projected in highly specific terms on particular areas of strife — South Sudan, Syria, Nigeria, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. It was this focus on the idea of peace as an art of the possible that made him shift from abstract theology and institutionalized religion to the individual, regardless of religious affiliation. The inclusion of atheists has also led the pope to look beyond the notion of prayer towards the expression of “desire”. Prayer thus gives way to the articulation of whatever one might want for the well-being of humankind, and such articulations need not presuppose a divine addressee. From Catholic to catholic means a widening of the heart.
Yet, it is best not to idealize, or sentimentalize, this shift of tone. In Pope Francis, it is better understood as an astute attempt to make the Vatican, and everything that it stands for, part of a rapidly changing world, where an obsession with homosexuality, abortion and birth control is likely to render the church a redundant institution. Instead of harping on these bętes noires and losing the attention of the people, it is better to send out a more sensibly modern image not entirely untouched by a populism that appeals to the heart. So, before getting too excited about his “Who am I to judge?” in answer to a question about homosexuals, it might be good to remember that on the issue of women priests, for instance, the doors remain firmly closed under this pope. At a time when an exiled whistleblower talking about democracy and the violation of privacy competes with the British queen in being watched and heard by the world on Christmas day, a pope who invites atheists to become part of his commitment to pacifism makes more sense than the dogmatic and the anodyne. Humanity has a better chance with a pope whose favourite film is Fellini’s La Strada than with one who did not seem to have much of a problem with the Opus Dei.