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Why Pope Francis has been so influential

On Wednesday, TIME mag­a­zine named Pope Francis as its “Person of the Year,” describing him as “The People’s Pope” who is “poised to trans­form a place that mea­sures change by the cen­tury.” Francis became pope in March, suc­ceeding Pope Bene­dict XVI, the first leader of the Catholic Church to step down in 600 years. Nancy Gibbs, TIME’s man­aging editor, wrote that Francis was selected “for pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for com­mit­ting the world’s largest church to con­fronting its deepest needs and for bal­ancing judg­ment with mercy.” Here, Eliz­a­beth Bucar, asso­ciate pro­fessor of phi­los­ophy and reli­gious studies at North­eastern, dis­cusses why Francis has been so influ­en­tial and pre­dicts his greatest chal­lenge ahead.

Nancy Gibbs, TIME’s managing editor, said Wednesday that Pope Francis has “changed the tone, perception, and focus of one of the world’s largest institutions in an extraordinary way.” In your opinion, what are the most significant changes he’s made, and why has he been so influential?

Pope Francis’ influence has been different from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in two major ways: his personality and his words. The last pope who was TIME’s “Person of the Year” was Pope John Paul II in 1984. While these popes differ in terms of their theology and ethics, both were charismatic, warm people. Francis is very affable. There’s an ability to connect with others that some people have in spades. This pope definitely has that. And like John Paul II, Pope Francis understands the importance of connecting with the global church, which we can see in his extensive travel schedule. He’s even connecting with people via Twitter, much like Pope John Paul II used radio announcements to make general addresses.

There’s also the issue of how he discusses theology and religion. He doesn’t bark about rules and orders or insist on why the church knows what’s best, right, and true. He speaks with a lot of humility. It’s not that he rejects the infallibility of the papacy; he’s just not leading with that. He admits he’s still trying to figure things out, including issues germane to sexual ethics. This is immensely attractive to lay Catholics and theologians because it means Pope Francis is implying that ethical, moral, theological knowledge in the church is not just held from the Vatican or cardinals or the Holy See; it’s found in the lived experiences of the people within the church itself.

How has the pope’s leadership and influence been felt outside the Catholic Church?

First of all, it’s important to note the Catholic Church has an enormous global impact, even when it’s not in the news. The Holy See has a special non-member status in the United Nations, which no other religious organization like it can claim. So it has influence on global politics in this way. But the pope’s message has also resonated with many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, focusing less on the “no-no’s” and more on human life in general. In recent years, I’d say many have come to ignore the church’s rhetoric because they’ve felt it’s been out of touch with the modern world. Now, with Pope Francis, people’s ears are opening up again.

What are some of the biggest challenges Pope Francis and the Catholic Church will face going forward?

Some of the same challenges the church faced in of the 20th century will continue, including poverty, war, women’s leadership roles in the church, and sexual ethics. But I think one new challenge—or at least a challenge the church has not yet fully dealt with—involves issues around technology, specifically technology that modifies humans. I am thinking here about pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, and medical procedures we didn’t have in the last 50 to 100 years. The church will have a stake in these technologies, in part, because it has a stake in defining what a human person is, both on a theological and ethical level. For the church, the moral status of a human being created in the image of God means something important. So as we begin to tinker more and more with human bodies and brains, new religious questions will be raised. I don’t think the church knows how it will deal with these issues, such as which human characteristics should and should not be altered and which forms and methods of alteration are acceptable.

The church has weighed in on bioethics before, but there’s been an explosion of new technology in recent years and the church has yet to be clear about its theological and ethical judgments of these emerging forms of human modification.

–  By Greg St. Martin

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