June 19th, 2013
03:28 PM ET
Editor's note: John Gehring is Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life
By John Gehring, Special to CNN
Can Pope Francis save the Catholic Church?
The question is part hyperbole, of course, but perhaps a fitting way to ponder what some are now calling the “Francis effect.”
At a time when nearly 1 in 10 Americans are former Catholics, Pope Francis is using a humble style to set a new direction for the church that could reinvigorate the multitude, many of whom are weary of culture-war Christianity.
While a rising number of young Americans no longer identify with a particular religion, many seekers still hunger for moral clarity and prophetic voices that challenge the shallow materialism and spiritual alienation of our fractured culture.
During his first 100 days, Pope Francis has emphasized the Gospel’s radical and still relevant messages of peace, compassion and justice for the poor. He also just might break through to reach the religiously disaffected where others have failed.
Catholicism is not an institutional bureaucracy, but “a love story,” Pope Francis said recently.
He criticizes a “self-referential” church that becomes spiritually “sick” when it hunkers down and fails to look outside its gilded cathedrals.
He has little patience for pastors who act like religious border guards by making it harder for lapsed Catholics to return to the faith and receive the sacraments.
Francis decries the "cult of money" and the "dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly human goal."
He even gently chided Jesus' first disciples for being a “bit intolerant, closed in the idea of possessing the truth.”
You can almost hear the ice cracking around a generation of disillusioned Christians who have a hard time finding Jesus frozen under ostentatious ecclesial trappings and hypocritical moralizing.
Just three months on the job, Francis’ servant leadership and focus on a “church of the poor” are drawing rave reviews, and it’s not just Catholics swooning.
“Seldom has a religious leader been embraced so warmly across the Christian world, including by many evangelicals,” Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School wrote last week in a Christianity Today op-ed entitled “Our Francis, Too.”
Jewish leaders also praise the new pope, who emphasized interfaith dialogue when he was still a bus-riding cardinal in Buenos Aires. On his first day as pope, Francis wrote to the chief rabbi of Rome expressing his hope for a “spirit of renewed collaboration.”
Atheists are even getting in on the act. Henrik Hertzberg, a writer for The New Yorker magazine who is critical of institutional religion, applauded the pope for his “kindness, tolerance, humanity, and common sense.”
Surely, this papal honeymoon will end, but these are early signs that something new is stirring in the air.
Pope Francis seems determined to live up to his namesake. Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century saint who gave away his hefty inheritance and sparked a profound movement of spiritual reform, famously said “preach the Gospel always, and if necessary use words.”
Pope Francis, who refused to move into the lavish papal apartments inside the Apostolic Palace, understands that symbols convey substance.
As the first Jesuit pope, Francis has taken a vow of poverty. He ditched the silk, fur-trimmed cape favored by Pope Benedict XVI for a simple white cassock. Golden throne? Francis prefers a wooden chair. The red carpet laid out in the Vatican’s Hall of the Throne has been rolled up.
"The world tells us to seek success, power and money; God tells us to seek humility, service and love,” Francis has tweeted.
All of these aesthetic changes signify deeper meaning, especially in a church where rituals and images seek to convey transcendent truths.
The pope’s toned-down style and pastoral touch are also a more fitting brand for a church built on the teachings of an itinerant preacher who in the Gospel says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”
If the Catholic Church hopes to inspire lapsed Catholics and others to embrace the faith with renewed vigor, it will require a radical return to the essence of Christianity. Gospel means “good news.” A smiling, good-humored pope stands in stark contrast to those dour-faced religious leaders who act as gloomy scolds and spy threats around every corner.
Pope Francis surely can’t turnaround the barque of Peter alone, but against stiff winds he is steering in the right direction.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Gehring.
June 18th, 2013
01:58 PM ET
Delray Beach, Fla (CNN) It was hard to miss, a nearly 20-foot piece of graffiti that simply read: "jihad."
Thousands of drivers saw the large message last weekend while traveling northbound on I-95 in Delray Beach, Florida.
For two passers-by, the graffiti led to a heated verbal altercation about the word's meaning and the threat of terrorism in the United States.
After the altercation Florida Department of Transportation arrived to paint over the word. It was gone by Saturday night.
June 14th, 2013
04:05 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, Co-Editor CNN Belief Blog
Baltimore, Maryland (CNN) - As the new Superman movie takes flight this weekend, filmmakers are hoping the Man of Steel lands not only in theaters, but also in pulpits.
Warner Bros. Studios is aggressively marketing "Man of Steel" to Christian pastors, inviting them to early screenings, creating Father’s Day discussion guides and producing special film trailers that focus on the faith-friendly angles of the movie.
The movie studio even asked a theologian to provide sermon notes for pastors who want to preach about Superman on Sunday. Titled “Jesus: The Original Superhero,” the notes run nine pages.
“How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?” the sermon notes ask.
June 13th, 2013
02:15 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) –Pope Francis has challenged his flock of 1 billion Catholics not to be “starched Christians” who chat about theology over tea.
He’s been taking his own advice.
Since his election in March, Francis has delivered sharp and unscripted remarks on everything from homosexuality to atheism to his unlikely election to the seat of St. Peter.
Anyone who bet the 76-year-old Jesuit from Argentina would become Supreme Pontiff likely won a lot of dough, Francis joked on Sunday.
We’re wagering this pope’s got a few more surprises up the sleeves of his white cassock.
Meanwhile, here are six eye-openers Francis has uttered thus far.
June 12th, 2013
02:32 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) – The Southern Baptist Convention, the country's second largest church, said Boy Scout executives who pushed to allow openly gay Scouts without properly consulting members should be ousted from office.
In a resolution approved Wednesday at their annual meeting, Southern Baptist leaders stopped short of urging churches to cut ties with local troops in protest of the Scouting change, but didn't encourage them to stay, either.
Either way, the historic decision to allow gay Scouts could "complicate basic understandings of male friendships, needlessly politicize human sexuality, and heighten sexual tensions within the Boy Scouts,” the Baptist resolution says.
The Boy Scouts of America initially planned to lift its longtime ban on openly gay youth without canvassing members, Southern Baptists charged in a resolution that passed overwhelmingly.
The executives behind that plan should be removed, the Baptists said.
June 11th, 2013
01:35 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) – Pope Francis said a “gay lobby” exists inside the Vatican, a surprising disclosure from a pope who has already delivered his share of stunners, and a resurrection of church conflicts that had bedeviled his predecessor's papacy.
“In the Curia,” Francis said, referring to Catholicism’s central bureaucracy, “there are holy people. But there is also a stream of corruption.”
“The 'gay lobby' is mentioned, and it is true, it is there,” Francis continued. “We need to see what we can do.”
Hints that the Holy See contained a network of gay clergy surfaced last year in reports about a series of embarrassing leaks to Italian journalists.
The "Vatileaks" scandal factored in Pope Emeritus Benedict XIV's shocking decision to resign earlier this year, according to some church experts, as it impressed upon the 86-year-old pontiff that the modern papacy requires a vigorous and watchful presence.
June 6th, 2013
10:37 AM ET
By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
(CNN) - Leading up to Saturday’s ceremony, Roy Costner IV prayed on what he was going to do. Liberty High School’s 2013 valedictorian would soon find himself in front of a microphone. He’d have a pulpit from which he could address his small community tucked away in South Carolina’s mountainous corner.
Only his father and pastor knew what was weighing on his heart and mind. Could he, should he, insert a prayer in his pre-approved graduation speech? He’d been told by the school principal that talk of religion wasn’t allowed, and so far he’d followed the rules.
But as the day approached, the 18-year-old couldn’t deny what he felt he needed to do. FULL POST
June 5th, 2013
03:44 PM ET
Editor's note: Melody Moezzi is a writer, activist, attorney and award-winning author. Her book, "Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life," will be published in August.
By Melody Moezzi, Special to CNN
(CNN) – I wasn’t surprised by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's recent statement about a “problem within Islam.”
It's not as though I've never heard anything like it before. I hear it all the time.
Still, his words – in response to a recent attack in London that left a British soldier dead – made me wonder: How might the public have reacted in a different context, had Blair replaced the word “Islam” with “Christianity” or “Judaism”?
I’m guessing not well.
But Muslims are used to having their faith openly denigrated by public officials.
June 4th, 2013
03:08 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
(CNN) – Who can people call when religious doubts arise, but they're afraid to talk to their faith leaders or families?
A group that helps people "recover" from religion says it's ready to pick up the phone.
Recovering from Religion, which has about 40 support groups in the U.S. and Britain, plans to launch a hotline that will offer doubters an anonymous place to ask difficult questions and find communities of like-minded nonbelievers.
The group plans to staff the help line 24 hours a day and is modeling it after services like suicide prevention hotlines.
Sarah Morehead, executive director of Recovering from Religion, told CNN that the mission is to help people, not convert them to atheism.
“A lot of the times they just need someone to talk to," Morehead said.
June 3rd, 2013
02:12 PM ET
(CNN)– For more than two decades, the Rev. R. Guy Erwin couldn't officially be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. On Friday, he was elected a bishop.
Erwin's election signals a shift not only for the ELCA – the nation's seventh largest church – but also for American Christianity. Only one other mainline Protestant denomination, the Episcopal Church, has elected openly gay and lesbian bishops.
“In these days such milestones seem to be coming at an ever-faster rate," Erwin told CNN, "and eventually what seems revolutionary now will seem normal and predictable."
With more than 4 million members in 10,000 congregations, the ELCA is the largest of several Lutheran denominations in the United States. The ELCA's decision to allow gay clergy has strained ties between those denominations, some of whom have partnered for relief work.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.