Bergoglio insists that the Church cannot transcend culture. He is unafraid to illustrate how the Church has changed in response to shifting cultural trends, pointing to, for instance, its recent acceptance of divorcees as full members. He takes this point further by suggesting that more changes might be necessary. In an astonishing concession, he opines that the Church’s sensitivity to the course of human events might someday lead it to discard the celibacy requirement for the clergy. This suggestion is difficult to square with the Catholic catechism, which declares that those who follow the “consecrated life” bear the “obligation of practicing chastity in celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, poverty and obedience.” To Bergoglio, however, this obligation is not necessarily eternally binding. Moreover, “cultural reasons” might one day render it unwise.
To be sure, Bergoglio does not embrace modern society wholeheartedly. He condemns its excessive attention to material concerns as “narcissistic, consumerist, and hedonistic.” Moreover, he argues that the theological precepts formulated by the Church Fathers in the third and fourth centuries—Catholicism’s “inheritance”—are “nonnegotiable.” However, he indicates that Church’s deeply-held precepts were “deepen[ed]” and “refine[d]” over time in response to social pressures. In his view, even our understanding of God is culturally specific, as every society takes the divine image and “translates it in accordance with the culture, and elaborates, purifies and gives it a system.” He therefore expresses satisfaction that many of his seminarians are college educated, as the “cosmopolitan perspective” they developed in the academy will attune them to cultural change.
Bergoglio’s concern with culture makes him wary of disrupting it. To that end, he hesitates to wield his religious authority in contemporary political debates. He proudly declares that he rarely spoke out on political matters during his tenure as a bishop in Buenos Aires, and that when he did, his objections were procedural, not philosophical. For instance, he denounced the government’s decision not to appeal judicially authorized gay marriage based solely on his determination that the judge had overreached and that the government was preventing appeals. Believing that appeals to religion in the public sphere are inherently intrusive, he refused to invoke scriptural authority.
Bergoglio therefore reserves special criticism for religious leaders who rejoice in imposing their views on the public. He lambasts the phenomenon of “clericalism,” when priests make religious demands of their followers in regards to political or social questions. Bergoglio rejects these priests because he believes religion exists to serve the people and thus cannot issue edicts that the people do not seek out. In fact, Bergoglio believes that the separation of civil and ecclesiastical authority reflects divine intent. Since God grants humanity “freedom to sin,” Bergoglio reasons, the Church must “defend the autonomy of human events,” even if doing so encourages widespread violation of Catholic doctrine. Religious leaders, in Bergoglio’s view, must not mistake their obligation to encourage their parishioners with a mandate for coercion. They must accept the limits of their position.