‘He is what he is’

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I read this report in Rappler. Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle said a journalist once asked him point-blank if Pope Francis is conservative or progressive (or liberal).

Tagle responded: “He is what he is.”

Tagle explained how it is hard to simply put anyone, much more the pope, into either one of the two categories.

“This is my personal view. I just don’t want to classify anyone as conservative, as progressive, because a person goes beyond those labels, especially a person who works in the area of faith and pastoral life,” Tagle said.


“When you have a religion of Catholicism, you receive a lot. A Pope has no liberty to invent his own teaching so there’s an element of receiving from the past,” he said.

“But he is attentive to society, he has a desire to see how the tradition of the faith can be further explored. In the process, I don’t see that as an activity of a liberal or a conservative,” he added.

This question, of course, initially came up when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was just about to assume the papacy. And it is a question that was also asked of his recent predecessors.

It came up again during his visit to the Philippines because Pope Francis repeatedly stressed the sanctity of family and criticized “growing efforts” to redefine the institution of marriage in his speeches to Filipinos, which was understood by some as a reference against same-sex marriage.

But Pope Francis is also well known for taking a non-judgmental tone toward homosexuals, in comments that many took as a sign of his being a “progressive” pope.

Indeed, in the recent Catholic church synod he was trying to persuade Church leaders to support his more merciful attitudes towards gay and divorced people.

(Although he was, in the end, rebuffed going by the documents that came out after.)

Tagle is right. It is hard to be Pope of a church that is much too steeped in tradition and dogma. And it is hard to say, and even wrong to categorize the pope as simply conservative or liberal. Are we all simply black or white, good or bad?

The last pope with a truly liberal reform agenda was probably Pope John XXIII, who in 1959 called for what became the Second Vatican Council or Vatican II.

Vatican II produced 16 documents that somewhat modernized or updated the Catholic church to more or less how we know it today, though there have been criticisms and even moves to curtail and even roll back its reforms.

Even with Vatican II though, the reality is that Pope Francis pretty much leads a staunchly traditional and conservative Catholic church. Is he expected to veer away from tradition?

Personally, I expect no major upheavals in the Catholic Church’s doctrine regarding contraception, the clergy’s celibacy and same-sex marriage.

Much has been reported about Pope Francis’s precedent-setting ascension as the first Jesuit and Latin American to become pope. The Jesuit order after all was home to independent-minded and left-leaning intellectuals that once riled and clashed with the Vatican. And Latin America is the birthplace of liberation theology.

We have seen how this pope is very much different from his predecessors.

Pope Francis ended 2014 with a scathing critique of the church’s highest-ranking officials. He named 15 “ailments” that he said plagued the Vatican’s power-hungry bureaucracy.

Pope Francis used a traditional Christmas greeting to the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Holy See to portray a church hierarchy that had lost its humanity at times, a body consumed by narcissism and excessive activity, where men who are meant to serve God with optimism instead presented a hardened, sterile face to the world.

Recently, he also fired conservative U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke (who has long been vocal about denying communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion) as head of the Holy See’s highest court and gave him the post of Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a largely ceremonial job overseeing charity to seniors.

Pope Francis has often pushed for a more flexible–okay let’s call it progressive–posture of the Vatican on major social issues.

Pope Francis said in a lengthy interview that was published by several Jesuit publications including La Civiltà Cattolica, Thinking Faith, and America that the catechism, or the Roman Catholic Church’s official doctrine book, condemns homosexual acts, but he called on the Church to love gays and lesbians, who “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

In a much quoted sentence from the interview, he said, “Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.”

The Pope’s remarks was interpreted by some gay activists as setting forth a new more gay-friendly agenda for the Catholic Church.

Conservative or liberal, it doesn’t matter.

This is a pope who is willing to listen more than antagonize. And because of this, Pope Francis could truly lead the Catholic Church to be a more accepting, transparent and less tarnished institution.

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4 Comments

  1. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
    This is just among other things that I cannot understand with this pope. Isn’t he the Vicar of Christ tasked to judge? And did he not get the authority that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven? I vow to this authority because it is written but now this. It seems to me that this pope prefers to be politically correct rather than do his job. Yes, some say that even Jesus did not cast the first stone but that was just for people to be aware that they were also sinners and also deserved to be stoned. He nonetheless told the woman to GO AND SIN NO MORE. This pope will not say that. See the BIG difference?

  2. I issed a little, if a non believer like me asked him is there really a god, he would say of course there is, now why wouldnt he say there could be or there might be a case where there isnt really a god, i mean if its that obvious there is a god then surely its that clear for even me to see it. I think its more clear where the pope stands or should be more clear where the pope stands than if there is a god.

    • Dustin, it is clear that there is God and one can clearly see it even you but maybe you just do not want to look or to use Jesus’ line, you have eyes but cannot see, have ears but cannot hear. If the latter is the case, let me open up your eyes:
      “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20). That God also said also that we are created in His own image (Gen. 1:27).
      First of all, the Scriptures teach the Trinity of God and without this, you are right that there is no god. But in every creation that your senses can sense, you can see things in 3 dimension, not one, not two etc., having length, breadth and height. Matter exists in 3 forms namely, liquid, solid and gas. The Scripture also says that things that are seen are made from things that are unseen (Heb. 11:3). Lo and behold, science(of all the field of learning that you would believe instead of a god) discovered that matter are made from molecules of atom and atoms are composed of (you know this one): proton, electron and neutron. Have you heard yet that man has body, soul and spirit? You can ponder on that too. And of course time. It has past, present and future. Purely coincidence?
      If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart, Dustin (Heb. 3:15).

  3. Thats also the filipino way, never answer a question that so easy to answer, make it very complicated. Its so easy to work out if someone is left, centre or right. But as is always the case in the philippines dont let something be very simple make it more complicated.