I am thankful that we have a new Pope and that he appears to be such a holy and humble man. Indeed, we have been blessed with three very Holy Popes during my lifetime.
It is certainly not a Catholic’s place to judge a Pope like one judges an election. I do not feel I am in any position to do so. But ours is also not a faith of obscurantism. We are to be obedient, but we may use our reason and are required to do so.
The Pope wears many hats. In addition to being Bishop of Rome, he is Patriarch of the Latin Church, and the Pope of the entire Catholic Church. A Pope may be a good man, but a weak administrator. There are practical problems that cannot be ignored. Popes and Bishops and Priests have often allowed a surfeit of mercy for their wayward brethren hurt the Church as a whole. The very real need for reform and renewal cannot be understated.
Pope Francis, like the Polish John Paul II and the German Benedict, represents another face of the Church: its growth and vitality in the “developing world.” I am of two minds regarding the Pope’s Latin American origins. On the one hand, I should not like to give up on Europe. It is the cradle of Christian civilization. If it goes under, we lose something good and important forever, as we did with the large scale loss of Catholicism in the Middle East and North Africa consequent to the rise of Islam. Yet to call his elevation to the papacy a rejection of Europe would be a misreading of events. The Americas, including the United States, have in some respects preserved certain aspects of European and Christian civilization better than its place of origin. The colony has thrived, even as the motherland has deteriorated. We are like ancient Carthage to a dying Phoenicia in some respects. Moreover, Argentina, and Pope Francis himself, have a foot firmly planted in the European continent, not least by their character, like the United States, as a nation mostly made up of European immigrants. Finally, Catholicism is a universal Church for the whole world. It has thrived in Europe in the past. But it began, after all, in the Near East of Asia.
I did think Michael Dougherty’s observations on Pope Francis were a bit too dour, as was his account of recent Church history. Yes, Vatican II or at least the years that followed it, have been in many respect a time of convulsion, faddish innovation, and overall weakening of the Faith. On the other hand, John Paul II, Benedict, and now, let us pray, Francis have each contributed to Church renewal in important respects, especially if we consider the relatively dark time from, say, 1964 to 1978. Priests were leaving the Church in droves, as were many religious. The sexual scandals which still cause great pain to believing Catholics were at their height. Traditional Catholics were leaving for the schismatic Society of Pius the X. And the liturgical reforms of Vatican II were extended far beyond what was required or even permitted by the conciliar documents of the ecumenical councils.
In the wake of this era, Pope John Paul II stood up for the very concept of God in the face of the immense allure of Soviet atheist materialism. He also did much to restore orthodoxy and reunification of dissident traditionalists Catholics. His immense personal charisma inspired Catholics worldwide, and made many friends for the Church in other Christian denominations. Before and after his time as Pope, Benedict XVI stood for truth and orthodoxy, even as radicals within and without the Church howled. Perhaps Francis will stand for simple (but radical) Christianity, in the face of the immense temptation of modern technocratic materialism and sexual anarchy, which has so poisoned the once magnificent Jesuit tradition from whence he hails. These three Popes’ collective work is incomplete, but such work is always incomplete. After all, the wheat and the tares grow together until the end.
George Weigel, whom I have met and respect greatly, takes a much more optimistic view, including on the practical ability of this Pope to resist the allure of the world, of fads, and of corruption in the Vatican. I hope he mirrors the Jesuits themselves, who did so much to reverse the tide of Protestantism in much of Europe, whether in Bavaria or Poland or France. It is a great tradition, intellectually fierce and active in the world, though its centralized mode of organization has led to the order’s quick devolution, save for old timers like Francis.
Like St. Francis himself and, indeed, like John Paul II, this man’s apparent purity of spirit will itself be a great source of renewal in the Church. Who can say, “Why does he live in luxury?” when Pope Francis apparently has taken no liberties with his position and power heretofore. And I believe his political and personal skills and steadfastness should be considered in light of the age and time and place that he has spent much of his life. He has sailed through the Scylla and Charbidis of revolutionary Marxism and counter-revolutionary authoritarianism in Argentina, when most of his bretheren chose one or the other erroneous approach. Indeed, he seems in many respects to represent the best of Catholicism, the Catholicism of quiet resistance and reform and personal witness, offering a middle way between the worldliness of sensuality and manic capitalism and the worldliness of moral relativism and Marxism.
His work is cut out for him. The Church must reject the old-fashioned view of scandal that would protect its image before it protects the most vulnerable of its flock. Benedict deserves some credit in this regard, for disciplining Father Maciel among others, even in the face of defenders in the Vatican and a certain misplaced compassion by his predecessor. At the same time, the Church must get a handle on dissidents who would use such scandals as a springboard to reduce Catholicism to an unpersuasive and sentimental reflection of our prevailing culture shaped by leftism, scientism, meanness, and the loss of all restraint. Pope Benedict and John Paul II both deserve much credit for resisting this dead-end path.
Some historical perspective is in order. Perusal of Thomas More or Erasmus or indeed nearly ever writer of the High Middle Ages, shows us that the Church is no stranger to corruption or scandal or worldly emoluments. It has decayed, but survived, and then been renewed before. It can again. Our first Pope, after all, thrice denied Christ before being moved by the Passion and the Resurrection.
It is no small source of hope that Pope Francis finds his inspiration in St. Francis, whose simplicity and rejection of the world did much to foster a revival of the Church and a renewal of faith during his lifetime, which was also characterized, like ours, by great crises of materialism, corruption, and the confrontation with militant Islam.
Ours is a faith of hope. And I am hopeful for Pope Francis.