Three things to keep in mind before answering that question
Ever since George Bush introduced the distinction into an interview, the media has been asking of presidents: “Is he a uniter or a divider?” It is interesting to ask it of Pope Francis. Is he a uniter or a divider?
Some think he has come to save the Catholic Church by his openness and love; some think he has come to undermine it by playing fast and loose with its rules. Alternatively, some think he is hopelessly stuck on doctrine; others think he is anxious to break free of Church teaching.
Ultimately, I think Francis is a “uniter” — but in a particular way. Let me explain:
The pope is a “dream catcher”; we project our dreams of unity or division on him.
A Pope’s reputation is not built strictly on what he says and does; his white cassock acts like a screen on which we project our own expectations and wishes.
Pope John XXIII is a good example. He is cited as an inspiration by dissenters, but he was the Pope who said “As the faithful are subject to their priests, so are priests to their bishops … So, too, every bishop is subject to the Roman pontiff.” When John XXIII said “I want to throw open the windows of the Church,” he meant, “I want the Church to change more people.” Wishful thinkers thought he meant, “I want more people to change the Church.”
Or take Pope Benedict XVI. He is painted as a hardline traditionalist because he favored traditional garb and liturgy. But he was the Pope whose first encyclical mentioned the “eros” of God and whose last encyclical was a scathing economic critique of the West. He was the Pope who reached out to clergy sexual abuse survivors in heartfelt meetings that moved them to tears, and whose gentle manner won over Cologne’s synagogue. He was the Pope who resigned his office — one of the biggest breaks with tradition a Pope has ever made.
Pope Francis is also being judged based on his dress and style, and the wishes of some that he will relent on all those old-fashioned doctrines the Church clings to. But if you look at his actual words, you find a very different man.
On the problem of receiving communion for those remarried without an annulment, he said “There is no problem. When they are in a second union, they can’t.” On the reason to preach the Gospel, he says: “Don’t be naïve. We must learn from the Gospel how to fight against Satan.”
So why do so many have such a different understanding of him?
The Pope is divisive and uniting because he is above all a pastor.
From the very beginning, Pope Francis’s message has been clear. His audience is neither the Right nor the Left: It’s the lapsed—as well it should be. Jesus warned us that a good pastor will spend his time going after the lost sheep, not with those of us who have never strayed.
As Cardinal Raymond Burke, put it: “The Holy Father, it seems to me, wishes to pare back every conceivable obstacle people may have invented to prevent themselves from responding to Jesus Christ’s universal call to holiness.”
This is why many critics are uneasy about some of Francis’s moves on marriage. Before the aforementioned quote about communion, Francis spoke at length about reaching out to those who need a path back into the Church. And he is busy building those paths: Not by changing doctrine, but by helping more people meet doctrine’s demands.
There is another way he is a uniter:
Pope Francis is that guy who challenges our assumptions and stretches our understanding.
I’ve seen it happen several times. A “conservative” Catholic and a “liberal” Catholic wind up together at an event where they have to be polite to each other and converse.
Soon, each finds themselves surprised.
The tradition-minded Catholic, much to the other’s shock, is not angry and obsessed, or hurling anathemas. He is actually a caring, thoughtful person.The “progressive” Catholic, much to the other’s surprise, is not a thoughtless squish who cares only for the latest intellectual fashion, and nothing for truth. If they are human and open-minded, they will learn something about each other, and about themselves — and will improve in their love and care for souls.
For both sides, Pope Francis is that challenging guy at the party. He puts a loving face on doctrine for those who wish they could change it, and a faithful face on human sensitivity for those who stress doctrine.
One side might never listen to a guy who passionately denounces social economic ills — they are used to dismissing such a person as a Marxist in a thin disguise, someone who wants to cozy up to the world instead of taking the strong medicine faith gives us. The other side might be used to tuning out a guy who warns about the devil, promotes strong Marian piety. and quotes the Catechism; they hear that guy and see someone who is a pietistic at best, and fanatical at worst.
But when both those guys are the same guy, and he is dressed in a white cassock and skull cap to boot, then the challenge Pope Francis represents might make us all grow closer in spite of ourselves.