The Church’s New Abraham

No longer an ark in a flood, the Church under Francis is on a journey.

In the wake of Pope Benedict’s resignation, some Catholic commentators paired a critique of his papacy with a hope that his successor would be different. Even well-informed, usually balanced commentators like Paul Elie and Peter Steinfels characterized Benedict’s papacy as “all bad news all the time since he took office” (Elie) and proposed that “Pope Novus” (Steinfels) needed to institute sweeping institutional reforms and rethink the Church’s approach to sexuality. They admitted (in passing) his intellectual chops but focused on his inability to control scandals, his gaffes, and his general failure to do much to “turn around” the Church.

These critics propose strong moves to meet the challenges ahead. Their stridency is no doubt due to the sense, given by commentators on the conservative side, that the papacies of Benedict and John Paul II were remarkably advantageous to the Church. An “it’s morning again in the Church” piece by George Weigel and Michael Novak promotes a “Catholicism 2.0.” Their proud ecclesio-patriotism leaves no room to recognize the wide gap between the majority of the Catholic population and their preferred examples of vitality. At its worst, this polarization generates notions of “parallel churches,” characterizing the partisans of the other side as insincere, inauthentic, or even malicious and scheming.

My own evaluation—which is comparable to Michael Sean Winters and some of my colleagues at, and which seems prevalent among cardinals—recognizes that Benedict’s papacy had strengths and weaknesses like any other. In a world where everyone simply wants to know whether the market is up or down, or if a person “won” or “lost” the current news-cycle, a nuanced analysis is easily lost.

A more discriminating view expresses deep enthusiasm for Benedict’s theological legacy as pope, and in particular how his work shows absolutely no signs of lurching back into a defensive neo-Scholastic mindset or a downplaying of the Church’s strong social teachings. If anything, Benedict advanced the conversation significantly, and both liberals and conservatives have some catching up to do.

His encyclical on love offered a subtle investigation of eros and agape, needed to correct misinterpretations of John Paul’s sexual theology. His overlooked encyclical on hope boldly endorsed a social view of eternal life and expressed worries that Catholics often think about “Heaven” in narrow and individualistic ways. His encyclical on economics insisted that love and solidarity was not something merely outside the market (in “civil society”), but needed to be present within actual economic activity.

John Paul II’s encyclicals loved the dramatic phrase and image: “the culture of death.” But Benedict offered new theological syntheses. The idea of “breaking the market-state binary” or his remarkable images of “eternal life” in Spe Salvi (nos. 10-15) aren’t ready catch-phrases but are needed advances in Christian thinking.


A fair assessment, however, requires an honest recognition of the challenges Benedict could not overcome. His work to reform the Roman bureaucracy had some success: He took steps toward more transparency, as he already had done in taking over control of the sexual abuse scandal as head of the CDF. He brought proper disgrace on the monstrous Maciel and the Legionnaires, for example. Yet he evidently could not complete the job, and he made some moves (e.g. the Williamson affair and, more generally, the obsessive outreach to SSPX) that reflected either poor management or poor judgment (or both).

In Joseph Ratzinger, the Church got exactly what he is: a college professor with a deep love for a certain style of liturgy. College professors may have good ideas for reform, but in my experience they tend not to have the strongest skill sets for management and implementation. No doubt Benedict’s affinity for SSPX has partly to do with his sympathy for their liturgical style, and partly with his long-standing feeling that the “suppression” of the Tridentine rite under Pope Paul VI was perhaps the biggest mistake of Vatican II’s implementation. The suppression of a past rite for an entirely revised one was a highly visible example supporting a “hermeneutics of rupture” in reading the Council as a whole.

A nuanced view of Benedict cuts through the typical polarities that are chronically afflicted by a certain Americo-centric provinciality. There is a tendency on both sides to view the “John Paul revolution” as a religious analogue to the “Reagan revolution”—seen either as steps backwards, that block progress of earlier decades, or as steps forward, that roll back excesses.

Sometimes, on the conservative side, rolling back Roe v. Wade, social programs, and liturgical change seem like they are all the same project. But this is a real misreading given the social teachings of the last two papacies. In the American Church, there is a very destructive polarization at work on both points. One side wants more Vatican II; the other side pictures a Church in chaos through the late 1960’s and 1970’s. One side wants more democracy and power-sharing; the other side is peculiarly preoccupied with maintaining an almost-superhuman mystique of priestly authority and acting with suspicion toward anyone who does not toe the line.

This polarization is destructive. Catholics need to get beyond such partisan framing. What the Church needs is a deeper understanding and appropriation of the fullness of the Council, and an increase in trust and Christian charity among all the members of the Church in their different roles. Viewing the Church through a wider and longer lens suggests a different frame, a frame that might help us understand the striking choice of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.


The arrival of a Latin American pope fully signals a new era. It seems like ancient history when, in 1978, people were dumbfounded that a non-Italian was elected pope. Now the papacy is officially no longer the possession of European Christendom. Thankfully, this movement toward a global church is one that unites both sides of the American debate. Everyone can celebrate the development of a Roman Pontiff who embodies the universality of the Church.

Cardinal Bergoglio had been closely involved with the lay ecclesial movement Comunione e Liberazione. While the group is not without controversy, it is one of the many signs of Vatican II’s primary teaching for the laity: the universal call to holiness. Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, is not preoccupied with the question of who sits in the cardinal seats (as we are) but with how all Catholics should exhibit active faith in the world, so that the People of God as a whole serves as a sacrament of Christ to the world. This active faith is not merely pious practice (the pre-Vatican-II Church had plenty of this) but a holistic commitment to living out one’s Catholic identity in worldly work.

It is often asked how the Church is “relevant” in the world—which means: “How can clerics communicate and run organizations that draw people in?” This is a good question. But what makes the Church “relevant” in the world is, above all, people living out their identity fully in their lives. “Single-issue Catholicism,” whatever the issue, will not promote “relevance.” Rather, the priorities exemplified by lay organizations as different as Opus Dei and Focolare need to be fostered more strongly within parishes themselves. At nearly every parish I’ve ever been in, people with different views on contraception, homosexuality, and other contentious social issues manage to practice communion with one another.

From the parish side, the two overwhelmingly basic needs are better liturgy—especially preaching—and better community. Parishes where people experience real belonging, and where they experience the liturgy as vibrant, involving, and (yes) relevant—these spur the laity’s involvement, and they can deepen commitment to lay holiness. In some places, one might say parishes have only made it to first or second base: they have the warmth, but they have not developed a full identity. Yet, first base is a lot better than striking out, and you’re not crossing home without making it there.

The call to genuine lay holiness requires balancing an identity “for the world” with an identity that also challenges the world. Francis is already signaling the importance of Church that is in, but not of, the world. He recently said, “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church. It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that’s sick because it’s self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former.” In many ways, this sums up the aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”) so famously associated with Vatican II. It is not a matter of merely assimilating to the world or “catching up” but of overcoming the tendency towards self-preservation and safety that characterized the “fortress Church” prior to the Council.


In his first homily to the cardinals, Francis spoke simply of the importance of journeying: “In these three readings, I see a common element: that of movement. In the first reading, it is the movement of a journey … Journeying: our life is a journey, and when we stop moving, things go wrong. Always journeying, in the presence of the Lord, in the light of the Lord, seeking to live with the blamelessness that God asked of Abraham in his promise.”

The image of Abraham journeying contrasts the classic image of the Church as an Ark amidst the “flood” of the world. The Ark image was very familiar in the preconciliar Church. Even in its biblical context, God wiping out most of creation is a very problematic image. Within the narrative, God realises this and promised that he wouldn’t do it again. The Church is called not into the Ark but out of security—as Abraham was and as the disciples were—to follow the way. Yet, as Francis also makes clear in that first homily, the way is false if it is not the Way of the Cross, a sign of contradiction and even judgment. This is a way that faithfully suffers with and in the world as a witness to a greater promise.


What the Church needs is leadership that visibly lives as a model. The truth of Christianity does not rest on the holiness of clerics, but the lack of holiness of clerics breeds both mistrust and charges of hypocrisy.

And, on this point, Pope Francis appears to be no less than Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Reports of Bergoglio’s profile prior to the election corroborate what was seen in his first papal appearance: a deep simplicity and humility. Here is a man who refused to live in the episcopal mansion, who took the bus to work, who washed the feet of AIDS patients on Holy Thursday. Here is a man whose first public acts (after choosing a name) were to ask everyone to join in our most familiar prayers together and to bow before the Roman people and ask for their blessing. This may in time prove to be the most lasting message that the Cardinals heard and sent.

There was a fair amount of buzz that, after Benedict, someone “more charismatic” was needed. Sometimes this appeared in coded language, referring to “wider reach” or “new evangelization,” and became associated with Cardinals like Scola, Ravasi, and even Dolan, who are strong and energetic public figures, comfortable with crowds and news cameras. I thought it was code for “more like John Paul II.” Instead, a different kind of charisma has been given, a charisma of authentic humility and poverty. The man comes across as neither professor nor prophet, but as authentically poor. He does not seem to have any guile in his forthright recognition that the Church does not evangelize “by force” but must live with and as the poor. In the first days of his papacy, Francis personally stopped by to pick up his bags and pay his hotel bill. The power of genuine humility and poverty may turn out to be the best kind of “evangelization” of all. That would be an extraordinary gift and sign of the true calling of the Council—to have the Church as a whole, right to its very summit, better reflect in its spirituality the humility of Christ.

Perhaps we might consider Francis as the first truly post-Vatican-II pope. The generative era of Vatican II can be considered “complete” with the election of the first pope of the post-conciliar Church, the first pope not present at the Council. Of course, the task of the Council is not “complete” in the sense that it involves the ongoing faith development of Catholics truly “in but not of” the modern world. But all the necessary work has been done. As Michael Sean Winters correctly writes, the last two popes have given us plenty of reading material to digest, and now we need something else from a pope. Brian Flanagan noted in MRB that the last two popes represented different “styles,” and that Benedict’s final gesture, his resignation, was clearly a signal that the papacy is not a monarchy but a ministry. Flanagan is entirely right, and Benedict’s departure is unequivocally of a piece with the attempt of Vatican II to disentangle European Catholicism from ancien-régime politics. Now, forward to the New World, and forward to a ministry that self-consciously strips itself of pomp of royalty.


It is possible that this choice—the last conclave’s runner-up, a pope who appears to have nothing like “ambition” and thus could be an effective internal reformer—is another choice for continuity, a “for now” choice that has the benefit of breaking the papacy out of Europe (while being subtly Italian). After all, recent conclaves may not have fully expected what they ended up getting.

However, I think it’s important to tell this story and to explain Francis within this story because it is one that bursts polarizing narratives. Already the reporting on Pope Francis is getting tangled up in the old narratives. The morning after his appearance, an NPR reporter (who should know better) said that Francis’s speaking of a mutual journey of people and bishop was an “echo of Vatican II” and suggested that its principles could be “revived.” Does this imply that John Paul and Benedict “suppressed” Vatican II?

George Weigel on NBC immediately called the new pope “a John Paul II guy,” simply taking the other side of the narrative. What exactly did he mean? Like “reviving Vatican II,” it is unhelpful, polarizing code. Perhaps in today’s media age the only way to become an expert is to trade in an antagonistic, politically-inspired narrative; but such a maneuver immediately and significantly distorts the picture.

That’s what some of the assessments of Benedict XVI’s papacy were: truncated distortions. Given the inevitable continuity of a papacy where the right-hand man of a popular figure labored in his shadow, perhaps some of this was unavoidable.

But now is the time to expose these distorted stories and to stop telling them. We need to progress beyond our entrenched positions. A Jesuit who chooses the papal name Francis is telling us a story. Indeed, he has already elaborated that story: “And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!”

In his first press conference he showed what the Church walking in the world looks like: “I told you I was cordially imparting my blessing. Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each, but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!”

This is not polarization. It’s a newfound humility that dissolves the hardness of the heart.