What are Pope Francis’ beliefs about masculinity? Dr. Anthony Isacco examines Pope Francis’ writings and actions to find out.
Without a doubt, Pope Francis has been a newsworthy pope. He has been described as “media savvy” because of his plain language approach to discussing controversial topics. His influence is wide-spread and cuts across typical dividing lines. Take, for example, President Obama’s described him as “a moral leader in word and deed.” His leadership, theology, and political ideology have all been the subject of much discussion, analysis, and debate. But what about his sense of manhood, his expression of masculinity, or even his own beliefs about masculinity? What have we learned? Below, I offer a few observations.
He Does Not like Machismo: In his 2014 book “Joy of the Gospel” (p. 61), Pope Francis listed machismo along with alcoholism and domestic violence among several social and cultural “deficiencies” in need of healing. Unfortunately, he did not elaborate on his definition of machismo. My curiosity led me to an article by Dr. Michelle Gonzalez, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. Dr. Gonzalez suggested that when Pope Francis speaks against machismo, he is speaking against patriarchal systems that reduce women to gender stereotypes and limit women’s potential, voice, and authority.
He Values the Promotion of Women: Promotion of women is the “other side of the coin” to railing against machismo. Pope Francis has openly discussed the need for more women to assume leadership and decision-making roles in the Church. He has called for a deeper and better articulated theology for women. Paradoxically, he seems to re-affirm the Catholic Church’s often-criticized position that women cannot be priests because of a profound belief that women can push the Church above the negative consequences of “clericalism” and contribute to a more vibrant, people-centered church. Taken together, by speaking out against machismo and promoting women, it seems to me that Pope Francis is exhibiting an egalitarian masculinity ideology that values equality among sexes and minimizes male patriarchal systems.
He is Passionate about Social Justice: Pope Francis has been downright dogged in his advocacy for the poor. The tone of the Joy of the Gospel dramatically changed on p. 145. That is when Pope Francis shifts into high gear and launches into an epic, near poetic exegesis on his care, concern, and love for the poor. His tour de force writing left me bookmarking almost every one of the next 50 pages. His overall sentiments may be summed up in this one sentence, “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor.” His concern for the poor goes beyond a gender egalitarian masculinity ideology. Pope Francis has called for structural and systemic changes to aid the poor. Thus, not only is his empathy and compassion for the poor a clear rejection of some harmful traditional norms of masculinity (the pursuit of power and dominance) but he is also expressing an altruistic, merciful, and transformational masculinity ideology that aims to benefit the most marginalized in society.
He Recognizes the Need for Good Fathers: Pope Francis has spent the past year offering reflections on the family. He has spoken directly about the need for good and wise fathers. Pope Francis must have been talking with fatherhood scholars (or maybe he at least read some of Michael Lamb’s books) because there is general agreement that fathers must first be present in the family in order to be good and wise. I imagine that Pope Francis sees himself as a spiritual father and he seems to make a point of being present. He has visited several countries, toured multiple prisons, and chose to live in a more modest apartment that allows him to live in community with others. Perhaps most importantly, he has exhibited an emotional presence that communicates a warmth, genuineness, receptivity, and charisma that any father would like to communicate to their child.
Through word and deed, Pope Francis has expressed a masculinity that is marked with egalitarianism, altruism, and presence (physical and emotional), while also rejecting some harmful traditional norms of masculinity. To my knowledge, the pope has not been directly asked about his version of masculinity, but I hope a journalist does soon! I would expect a candid answer.
This article was originally published by the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity.
Anthony Isacco, PhD is an assistant professor in the MSCP Counseling Psychology and PsyD Counseling Psychology graduate programs at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of several professional publications related to the psychology of men and masculinity. If you have not guessed yet, he is a Catholic and likes Pope Francis.