Posted by: ericgrimsrud | September 27, 2015

Why Pope Francis stands out

Pope Francis firmly believes that the problem of global warming should be vigorously addressed as soon as possible.  His view appears to come from a healthy dose of common sense (he knows what the scientific experts think), but also from his understanding of Christian Doctrine.  Yet, many Christians in the USA do not accept Pope Francis’ view on this issue.  I agree with Pope Francis on climate change, of course, but in my case, that is primarily because I am a scientist who has studied this issue for many years. So why does Pope Francis stand out so far ahead of most other Christians on this and other issues? Having been exposed to the doctrines of Christianity in my own life, I think I understand why Pope Francis’s view on climate change is so much clearer and stronger than those of most Christians. In a nutshell, I believe this because Pope Francis considers the example provided by Jesus of Nazareth to be the cornerstone of the Christian faith rather than other aspects of the faith that others might consider to be of equal or even more importance.

Upon my own exposure to Christian Doctrine starting from childhood, I learned a great deal about the teachings of a carpenter from the small village of Nazareth who Christians came to believe was the Son of God. The most important message Jesus of Nazareth delivered was how we should live our lives. That message comes through repeatedly in the first four gospels of the New Testament. It is also summarized in his “Sermon on the Mount” and has been condensed further into what is known as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  These simple statements struck me as being perfectly suited to and even essential for those living in a democratic form of government where power and responsibility are placed with the people.  I happen to consider this portion of the Christian faith to be the most important and it seems to also be for Pope Francis.

The complete Christian Doctrine also includes other parts, of course, that might be just as important or even more important to many Christians. These parts deal with what happened after the crucifixion of Jesus. The Apostle Paul repeatedly tells us in his many contributions to the New Testament that the physical Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended into Heaven where he sits at the right hand of God. Paul also goes on to explain that all who believe in that resurrection and also that Jesus is the Son of God will be “saved” – that is, allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven upon their physical death.  

Like many others, I have often wondered about and even questioned aspects of these additional portions of official Christian Doctrine. The obvious reason is that some of it is clearly illogical and superstitious relative to the contents of the first part concerning the teachings of Jesus.  Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul insists throughout his many contributions to the New Testament that “salvation is based on faith and not on ‘works of the law’”, so there you have it. Paul’s view became official Christian Doctrine.

By definition, Pope Francis represents the faith of Catholic Christianity with respect to all of its aspects and I am sure he does that. But compared to previous Popes, he seems to place much greater emphasis on the lessons provided by the Nazarene carpenter. To Pope Francis, that appears to be the central theme of Christianity. The Pope’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi who was a Catholic friar of the 12th century also felt that way. So where Pope Francis has departed from his predecessors and from many who presently claim to be Christians is that he has moved from talking the good talk to actually walking that walk as laid out by Jesus of Nazareth. The simplicity of his lifestyle, his emphasis on helping the poor and preserving human-friendly conditions on our planet are all radical departures from past papal practices.

By returning to the kind of issues that the Jesus of Nazareth focused on, Pope Francis has, I understand, become a disappointment to many Catholics and Christians.  Some of these disappointed souls might have preferred to see a papal attitude more like many of his predecessors – where the main objective was to root out various forms of heresy. Other disappointed Catholics lob softer criticisms, such as that of the Catholic Jeb Bush when he recently said: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope.  I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.”

The problem with Jeb’s view is that politics has always been and always will be about who we are as people. Our views on central political questions such as the economy, the environment, abortion and civil rights depend on our basic beliefs concerning our duties to others and about how we live our lives.  These are fundamentally moral issues and Bush’s remarks make it sound as though he thinks the outcome of political battles is not affected by those basic values.

Pope Francis might be called a radical, but if he is one, that is only because he speaks in the language of the common person and is calling Christians to embrace the simple and clear mandates of their faith as expressed by Jesus of Nazareth.  In doing so, Pope Francis appears to be awakening a portion of the world that has become dead to Christianity. If he’s breaking new ground, it’s because he’s reminding people of what it means to be a follower of and not just a believer in Jesus Christ. Pope Francis is reminding us that followers of Jesus Christ should focus more on the welfare of all of the Earth’s inhabitants and on the gift God has given us, that is, the Earth itself, and less, perhaps, on their own self interests. In short, Pope Francis has reminded Christians that it is just as important to “behave” as it is to “be saved”.  With all due respect to the Apostle Paul, I also happen to believe that the former leads to the latter.

So thank you, Pope Francis, for coming to visit us!  My previous declaration in a post last June entitled “Halleluiah, our leader has arrived!” was clearly not misplaced .

Tune of the Week, thanks to I Heart Climate Scientists:

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