Francis redraws the Church’s map. It’s about time.
Gesture is the language of the Roman hierarchy, and the “grammar” of the Pope’s first few days has been rich with significance. From the moment he appeared on the central balcony at St. Peter’s, Pope Francis I sounded a new tone of simplicity. He has not worn elaborate vestments. He did not address the College of Cardinals in Latin. He eschewed the papal limousine and motorcade. He rode the elevator with the Cardinals rather than going alone. These moves are consistent with his lifestyle prior to his election. In Buenos Aires, he lived in a small apartment, cooked his own food, and rode mass transit to work.
More significantly, Pope Francis has thus far chosen to emphasize his role as the Bishop of Rome over that of the absolute monarch of the Church Universal, stressing episcopal collegiality more than his two predecessors. Collegiality between the bishops and their pope – the chief shepherd of the shepherds – was one of the most hotly debated issues at Vatican II. An old guard, unwilling to cede any ground on papal authority, fought against it in the decades after Vatican I. The document that came out of this conflict, Lumen Gentium, attempted to thread the needle between these two positions, stating on the one hand that “just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together,” and on the other that “the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact.” The post-conciliar Church has lurched to and fro in no small part because of the almost schizophrenic model of ecclesial authority outlined in Lumen Gentium. Consistently, the popes since Vatican II have erred on the side of Petrine supremacy, as is witnessed by the sorry handling of the birth control issue by Paul VI and the devolution of bishops into nothing more than branch managers implementing the directives from corporate headquarters in Rome. It is worth considering that, although his seminary studies commenced before the Council began, Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after Vatican II and indeed is the first post-conciliar pope not to have played a major role in the Council. We ought to be prepared to have a pope who will model a vision of the Council that was formed “from below,” rather than from firsthand experience of the Council’s inner workings. To that prospect, I can only fervently quote from Jerome’s succinct translation of Psalm 72: Fiat. Fiat.
The Pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, centered his life on the living and preaching of the Gospel—and for Il Poverello (“the little poor one”), one preached by one’s life. The new pope has set himself to follow in St. Francis’s footsteps. But what is the Gospel that the Pope is trying to live? Traditional media and the blogosphere have insisted on pigeonholing Catholic dogma and theology into secular political and social categories. “Progressive,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and “reactionary” are often used to caricature Church teachings or the prelates who proclaim them. Less than an hour after the Pope’s election, liberal media outlets were criticizing his stance on same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception, while their conservative counterparts have praised these same positions. Few have sufficiently attended to Francis’s critique of unfettered capitalism and the gap between the rich and the poor. Public intellectuals have already inserted the new Pope into the Western world’s dominant cultural narrative that reduces everything to the postwar political and cultural ideologies of Left and Right.
This comes as no surprise. Every Pope since John XXIII has been a “sign of contradiction” for the modern world. The obvious and correct answer to this is because Catholic teaching embraces both traditional left-wing positions on social justice while also holding to right-wing positions on sexuality and gender. However, as is the case across the political and religious spectrum, the dominance of the digital world means that the conversation now has many more partners, which invariably leads to a shrill polemic that takes no prisoners and leaves behind a scorched earth. Pope Benedict XVI, ever the Tübingen professor, was clearly out of his element in this environment (as he expressed in a candid public letter after the Bishop Williamson disaster) and never found a more accessible alternative to his carefully crafted homilies and allocutions, full of philological digressions and careful distinctions. Pope Francis is cut from a different cloth, appealing to souls rather than minds. He compels not by a display of his own erudition (which is by all indications considerable) but by the force of his own personal humility.
And so we enter into a new pontificate that is already manifestly different from the two preceding it. John Paul II was both a celebrity and a mystic, open to the Third World but in dialogue mainly with the West. Benedict XVI was an academic, almost exclusively focused on the West and the problems of secularism. Both pontiffs gave great attention to the influence of culture, which they understood mainly as political ideologies. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such an approach, but to return again to the teachings of Vatican II, the Council’s decree on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, made clear that the role of the Church was “to scrutinize the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel” as a means to “making the joys, hopes, griefs and anxieties…especially of those who are poor or in any way afflicted,” the main concern of Christians. From the point of view of papal teaching, this primary mission of the Church has been neglected. Popes have for the most part spoken to the Western world, and the Western world has increasingly ignored or dismissed them. Francis appears to be directing his gaze toward the laity, which, in his own Latin American context and in the emerging world, means the poor. Western intellectuals have long lived with a cultural Mercator map in our minds, where we are always at the center. We now have a Pope who, in his own words, comes “from the ends of the earth,” and who, by all indications, will no longer allow the Church to keep the West at the center of its map. It’s about time.