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Saturday, December 10, 2016

WASHINGTON — Religion makes a lot of mistakes.

Faith traditions can be so harsh that they drive away everyone but the self-righteous scolds. Or they can so indulge in therapeutic comfort and manufactured joy that they come to seem like a charlatan’s game.

They can be so otherworldly that they offer no guidance to those living in this one on matters of justice, freedom and how we should live together. Or they are so captive to the here-and-now that it becomes hard to distinguish between a congregation and a party headquarters.

And for many in the wealthy nations and among the young, religion has no relevance to their lives whatsoever. It’s seen by some as a charming throwback and by others as one more insidious force focused on power, money and self-preservation.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope a year ago, only a few expected that he would confront all of these challenges simultaneously.

Yes, his choice of the name Francis was a promising sign that he would emulate a saint devoted to the poor and to simplicity. Yes, he was already on record with searing criticisms of the injustices of global capitalism. From the beginning, he stressed his more humble role as the “Bishop of Rome,” suggesting an anti-imperial papacy.

And then it continued. He disdained the trappings of piety and might, including the ornate regalia that appeal to so many prelates. The Roman joke was that as priests got with his program, one could find many lacy surplices on sale at steep discounts on eBay. On his first Holy Thursday, Francis washed the feet not of the usual group of priests but of a dozen young people being held at a juvenile detention center, including two women and two Muslims.

He has not altered Church doctrine, but his shift in emphasis has been breathtaking. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he has said. “This is not possible.” He thus declared that the Church’s main mission would no longer be as a lead combatant in the culture wars. It would stand primarily with and for the neediest.