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Francis: the pope in the middle?

 |  NCR Today

The double canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II is an interesting statement on the position Pope Francis finds himself in with respect to church politics.

Pope Francis seems to me the man (or the pope) in the middle. He has to straddle the more conservative and dogmatic wing of the church represented by Pope Paul VI and by Pope Benedict XVI, who was also present at the canonization, and the liberal and liberationist wing of the church. Of course, John XXIII has become a symbol of church reform and liberalization because of his commencement of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which spawned liberation theology out of Latin America, while Paul VI has come to symbolize the movement against Vatican II within the church.

I believe Francis' inclinations are toward the liberal/liberationist side, based on some of his record and some of his statements since becoming pope, most notably about the church prioritizing its work with the poor. At the same time, however, he has to also deal with the conservatives, including, unfortunately, most of the American bishops, who are more concerned about "political correctness" with respect to issues such as abortion, birth control and priestly celibacy.

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The problem, I believe, is that Francis can't have it both ways. He can't at one level be a liberationist and at another be a conservative. The church is at a crossroads. Francis, with his more liberal and liberationist proclamations, has given the church a much-needed shot in the arm, but this may only be temporary. Liberationists, certainly in the developed world, not only prioritize the poor and oppressed but also the issues of abortion, birth control and allowing priests to marry. Francis cannot just afford to be a Third World liberationist; he has to also be a liberationist for the developed world if he is to have credibility.

This is a daunting task, and it is not clear that he can do this, assuming he wants to do it. Yet in order for the church to be viable and to recruit Catholics back into the church, Francis and the church need to speak with one voice; the church cannot speak out of both sides of its mouth. Francis by background and instinct is a liberationist, and in the short time he has for his papacy, given his advanced age, he should follow his feelings and beliefs and steer the church in that direction. Men in the middle, like him and our own President Barack Obama, usually wind up the losers because they are too cautious and want to appease every side. To truly make history, both have to stand for something and carry it out despite what opposition it evokes (although for Obama, it may be too late). I hope that Francis will side with St. John XXIII.

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