Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

'A Time to Separate What Is Necessary from What Is Not': Documentary Highlights Pope Francis’ Social Teachings, Causes Controversy

The Rome Film Festival saw the premier of Evgeny Afineevsky’s greatly anticipated documentary Francesco, centering around the life, election, and papacy of Pope Francis. The Pope, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has made headlines for his progressive stances on matters of politics, culture, ethics, and interfaith dialogue. The primary issues addressed in the documentary include climate change, refugee crises around the world, sexual abuse in the Church, and Pope Francis’s commitment to the poor and marginalized around the world. 

Afineevsky and his team are in the process of finding a streaming service to distribute Francesco, with the goal of making it as widely available as possible. It was shown at the Savannah Film Festival, which was held virtually from October 25 until October 31. It made its debut at the Rome Film Festival October 22.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has routinely criticized the treatment of the natural world and emphasized the connection between climate change and other issues, primarily its connection to refugees. Francesco dives into Laudato Si’, Francis’ encyclical that stressed the importance of caring for humanity’s common home. Additionally, the Pope has criticized what he feels has been an extremely weak response to the global climate crisis by world leaders and has used his social media presence to bring this issue to light, such as with one tweet that stated, "The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth."

Francis directly related the need to address climate change with the need to address the poor most affected by its consequences, explaining in the documentary that, “The cries of the earth and the cries of the poor cannot go on.” During his papacy, he has personally visited with the poor and needy, even famously washing the feet of inmates—a tradition he continued from his time as archbishop and cardinal of Buenos Aires. Additionally, he made efforts to meet with migrants from Syria entering Europe, Latin Americans looking to enter the United States, and spoken in defense of the Rohingya people forced to flee from genocide in Myanmar to Bangladesh. In each of these cases, Francis makes an effort to bring journalists and media directly to those most affected so as to raise awareness of the issues overseas. The Pope also has used these opportunities to spark interfaith dialogue, talking and praying with individuals of a variety of faiths to emphasize his belief in a shared human family.

Pope Francis has also made headlines for his attempts to make the Catholic Church more inclusive. In Francesco, Francis criticizes the “narrow” view the world has on women today, explaining, “I dare to say that to this day, women are in second place… Even the great surprise when a woman is successful indicates that.” As such, Francis has made an effort to place women in many administrative and high-ranking positions in the Vatican, including the head of the Vatican museum and appointing women as counsels to the Roman Rota—the Church’s highest appellate court. Though not featured in Francesco, Pope Francis named Wilton Gregory as America’s first African-American Cardinal on October 25. As Francis and the Church as a whole look for ways to address the legacy of racism in the United States and foster community, Gregory expressed his gratitude and said in a statement, “The Vatican is leading us in a new direction, and I think Pope Francis is showing a new opening for us as a church, that we are one church.”

What truly made headlines with the release of Francesco was Pope Francis’ stance on same-sex couples. In a break from earlier popes, including Benedict XVI who claimed gay men should not become priests, Francis has voiced his support for the legalization of same-sex civil unions as a way to protect families and individuals under the law—the first pope in history to do so. And he certainly did not beat around the bush, but addressed it head on.

When speaking about his interaction with a gay man who asked Francis if he and his husband would be allowed to attend Mass with their children, Francis explained, “Homosexual people have the right to be a family. They are children of God. You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this.” Later on in the documentary, Juan Carlos Cruz, an abuse survivor and a gay man, recalled a powerful dialogue where Francis personally apologized for not believing his allegations originally; as the conversation continued, Francis told Cruz, “God made you gay, God loves you the way you are, and you have to love yourself.” 

While this may not be shocking for Francis, who famously responded, “who am I to judge?” when asked early in his papacy about his stance on gay priests, its reception among those in the Church has certainly been mixed. Progressive Catholics, such as the Jesuit Rev. James Martin, were quick to praise Francis’ endorsement of civil-union laws. More conservative and traditionalist Catholics, such as Providence’s Bishop Thomas Tobin, have asked for “clarification,” with Ed Mechmann, director of public policy for the Archdiocese of New York, even publicly calling the pope’s statement a “serious mistake” in a blog post. Afineevsky has defended Francis’ statement, explaining that Francis was expressing that all individuals should enjoy equal rights regardless of sexual orientation; Afineevsky is himself gay, and has insisted that Francis made these comments on the issue directly to him.

Of course, all of this comes as students call for the creation of an LGBTQ+ resource center on campus; many candidates who ran for the UGBC Student Assembly promised to push for the creation of such a center, and Christian Guma CSOM ’21 and Kevork Atinizian CSOM ’22, UGBC president and vice president respectively, campaigned on a similar promise. Joy Moore, the Vice President for Student Affairs, has gone on record as saying such a center is, “not a university priority,” despite her own personal support for such a project. University spokesman Jack Dunn went on record in 2016 defending the university stance on LGBTQ+ individuals, citing that BC, “is still obligated to uphold tenets of its faith.” The Pope’s statements in Francesco regarding the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, along with his repeated calls to protect the environment, will certainly be welcomed by BC activists who have been calling upon the school to grant more resources to the LGBTQ+ community along with divesting from companies that pollute the environment.

“The Church is a house where everyone is welcomed and no one is rejected,” Francis wrote in a 2016 tweet. Indeed, the Pope’s actions have done much to embrace humility and push for greater acceptance, while holding the Church accountable in hopes that people around the world will follow suit. As a proudly Jesuit institution, BC ought to do more to follow the teachings and example of a fellow (former) Jesuit.

Long Island born and raised. Probably somewhere waiting on line for coffee or working on an essay I put off for far too long.