There's an old saying in the Catholic Church, partly cynical, but mostly true, that the bishops will dance to whatever music is currently playing in the Vatican.
Now Pope Francis is saying and doing things that are testing that axiom -- and the bishops' musical tastes. Some of them are dancing gleefully to the expansive new beat. Some are standing glumly in the corner, feeling no urge to get on the dance floor, but humming the old tunes they like best. I suspect some -- like Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who grumbled publicly about Francis -- are regularly reading his words and spitting out their morning coffee.
Like his predecessor, Benedict XVI, this pope is not going to be an easy pope for all bishops to love -- but for very different reasons.More CoverageCommentary, analysis about Pope FrancisCartoonsCartoons about Pope Francis
From the beginning, Pope Francis has talked repeatedly about the church's need to be less self-referential, less focused on its own internal rules and rigidities, more ready to be out in the world, standing in solidarity with the poor -- in keeping with the constant refrain of concern for the poor that echoes throughout the Bible. Benedict's vision for the church was a smaller, more orthodox, more obedient church. But Francis sees a church expanding its vision and its reach -- "the home of all," as he put it, "not a small chapel."
The most recent words from Pope Francis -- likely to unsettle bishops appointed by Benedict XVI and John Paul II -- have created immense buzz. A friend sent me an email soon after the story moved, with this subject line: "OMG -- he really said this!" Yes, he did.
The first Jesuit pope said a lot in a long interview with Jesuit publications. Take this: "The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules."
And this: "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that."
To some bishops, this is a discordant note. To me, it's joyous music.
Our American bishops have taken important progressive positions on everything from immigration to the dignity of the worker. But no matter how right their positions on these issues, the bishops don't get heard. Why? Because the only issues that they choose to utter at full volume are the ones Francis mentioned.
Also, the pope seems to grasp what the bishops don't: With new stories still popping up about clerical sexual abuse, this is a really bad time for the church to be turning up the volume on issues involving sexuality, where it has lost most of its credibility.
The pope isn't saying, let's change what we teach. He's saying, let's stop harping on this set of hot-button political issues, where we're getting nowhere anyway, and let's talk about the poor, about peace, about the all-encompassing mercy and love of God.
If the bishops listen, and the church begins to speak more loudly on the social justice issues that concern Francis, we may not only gain back some of our lost credibility but also have an increasing impact in the deliberations of this nation and the world.
Clearly, this is a pivot moment for the church. Like St. Francis of Assisi, whose name he took, this pope is trying to repair the church by calling it back to the words of Jesus, who cared a lot more about the poor than about rigid rules and fancy robes. This is a profoundly significant change of tune. Let's see who decides to dance.
Bob Keeler is a former religion reporter and editorial writer for Newsday.