Look at this guy, this new pope: he’s always smiling and laughing. Our former pope, Pope Benedict, was seen smiling now and then, but it frightened young children.
And Pope Francis seems to like to joke around, too. In a recent interview in the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, with a journalist who is an atheist, Francis joked that he was afraid the journalist would try to convert him.
Benedict doesn’t look like the kind of guy you can kid around with.
To be fair, Benedict is a wonderful writer and has a great theological mind. His book “An Introduction to Christianity” should be required reading for everyone, theists and atheists alike. But even in the realm of theology, Francis seems to have a deeper understanding of the Church’s great teacher, Saint Thomas Aquinas. In the La Repubblica interview, Francis remarks: “The conscience is autonomous, and everyone must obey his conscience. . . . Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them.” As I wrote in these pages over a year ago, this is one of the Church’s best lessons, and we learned it from Aquinas, but how often have we seen the Church acting that way?
Some conservative Catholics will argue that Pope Francis is not trying to change “Catholic doctrine and Catholic moral teaching”—but that’s not entirely true. “Proselytism is solemn nonsense,” he says. The point of our religion isn’t conversion but compassion. We have to stop trying to turn people into Catholics and start trying to understand them—and to heal them. And healing does not begin with whining that your religious freedom is threatened by a law whose sole intent is to ensure that all Americans have adequate health care. Healing people is more important than pushing your doctrinal objections to birth control. People must be free to act in conformity with their own consciences. We may differ diametrically, but as Pope Francis remarks, all roads lead to God, however much those roads diverge from each other—even Atheist Boulevard.
What Pope Francis is getting at is that moralism and traditionalism have no place in a business meant to make glad the hearts of men and women. That’s the real tradition, and Pope Francis is not the first to tell us this. But he reminds us who was.