Ethics & Public Policy Center

Four Myths about Pope Francis

Published in National Review on December 31, 2013


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


When he was elected bishop of Rome this past March 13, more than a few people wondered just who Jorge Mario Bergoglio was — which was precisely the reaction to the election of Karol Wojtyla as bishop of Rome on October 16, 1978. That night, Wojtyla described himself to his new diocese as having come “from a far country”; nine months ago, Bergoglio told the crowds gathered in the Roman dusk that the cardinals had gone “to the end of the earth” to find a new pope. Wojtyla, taking the name John Paul II, went on to become the most consequential pope in centuries; Bergoglio, taking the name of the beloved poverello of Assisi, quickly seized the public imagination, reminding the world in the process that the world needs a pastor’s care, and a pastor’s challenge, whether the world admits it or not.

Yet many still wonder just who Pope Francis is. To which the answer is: He is a man of many parts. He is a radically converted Christian disciple who has known the mercy of God in his own life and who wants others to know that experience. He is an old-fashioned Jesuit, steeped in the Ignatian idea of spiritual combat, committed to an austere way of life, willing to take risks for the sake of the Gospel. He is a reformer who is calling the Catholic Church to recover the missionary zeal of its origins, and who will make structural changes in the Church in service to that evangelical imperative.

He is a man of compassion for the “peripheries,” who will not let the world forget what the world often wants to forget about the abuse of power, the instrumentalization of the poor, the cheapening of human life, the personal and social costs of the cult of the autonomous self. Surprising those who have known him longest, and who thus knew his longstanding reticence, he has become a public personality, with an uncanny ability for the caring gesture that embodies that love which, as Saint Paul taught two millennia ago, is the more perfect way.

Yet myths about him continue to abound. Four come quickly to mind.

Myth 1. Pope Francis is making a radical break with the pontificates of his two predecessors.

On the contrary, Francis is accelerating the evolution of Catholic identity that was at the center of the program of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in their authoritative interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. In his apostolic letter closing the Great Jubilee of 2000, John Paul II called the Church to leave the shallow waters of institutional maintenance and to go out “into the deep” (Luke 5:5) of what the Polish pope had long styled the “New Evangelization.” Benedict XVI summoned the world Synod of Bishops to consider just what that “New Evangelization” might mean, especially for the de-Christianized parts of a once-vibrant Christendom.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio took these counsels to heart and, at a 2007 meeting of all the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, became the intellectual architect of the revolutionary Aparecida Document, which called Latin American Catholicism out of the complacency of cultural “establishment” and into a vigorous proclamation of the Gospel, centered on personal encounters with Jesus Christ. Now, in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), his apostolic exhortation completing the work of Benedict’s Synod on John Paul II’s “New Evangelization,” Pope Francis, in clear continuity with his two predecessors, is calling the Church to what he describes as “permanent mission.” It is all of a piece.

Myth 2. Pope Francis is a liberal. 

“Liberal,” of course, means different things to different people. But a pope who, in a daily Mass homily, cites with appreciation Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 apocalyptic novel, Lord of the World, and uses Benson’s imaginary future to illustrate his own papal warning against “adolescent progressivism,” is no “liberal” in any of the word’s conventional American meanings. (Indeed, Francis’s “adolescent progressivism” is but another name for Benedict XVI’s “dictatorship of relativism.”) Similarly, when the pope told an Italian Jesuit journal that he was “not a right-winger,” he meant that he was not enthralled with Latin American generals dripping with faux decorations; he did not mean that he was deploring Paul Ryan (although he may or may not agree with Ryan on matters of prudential judgment).

Attempts to capture Bergoglio in the typical ecclesiastical or political meanings of “liberal” are bound to fail. He is a churchman; his deep Christian conviction and his judgment are tethered to the settled teaching of the Church (as he reiterated inEvangelii Gaudium on the question of whom the Church can and cannot ordain to the ministerial priesthood). And as a public figure, he is not a “man of political ideology,” as he stated bluntly in that same document, but a pastor.

Myth 3. Pope Francis is anti-business.

If he were, why would he write in Evangelii Gaudium that business is a “noble vocation” when business serves the common good — a description that well fits those American companies and American entrepreneurs who take job creation and philanthropy seriously? Like John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and indeed like all of Catholic social doctrine since Leo XIII in the late 19th century, Francis knows and teaches that economic activity, like every other form of human activity, is subject to what he called, in Evangelii Gaudium, “critical thinking” and “moral discernment.”

From his Argentine experience (which can hardly be described as an experience of well-functioning markets regulated by law and moral culture), Francis knows that cupidity is a personally and socially destructive vice. As a pastor, he is challenging the business world to do all it can to include the poor in what John Paul II described as networks of productivity and exchange. At the same time, he challenges governments not to fall prey to what Evangelii Gaudium deplored as a “welfare mentality” in which the poor are human ciphers, mere problems-to-be-solved; rather, this man of the “peripheries” is calling the world and the Church, as John Paul II did, to see the poor through the lens of empowerment, as people-with-potential-to-be-unleashed.

Myth 4. Pope Francis is soft on the hot-button social issues.

Virtually no attention has been paid to the pope’s multiple defenses of the right to life from conception until natural death in his daily Mass homilies and in a notable address to Italian physicians. Similarly, Evangelii Gaudium underscores the unchanging (and unchangeable) moral teaching of the Catholic Church on abortion, even as the pope called the world Church to complement its right-to-life advocacy with effective and compassionate service to women in crisis pregnancies — thus paying tribute to what the American pro-life movement has done since Roe v. Wade.

In the midst of the battle over the nature of marriage in Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio wrote a convent of cloistered nuns, asking them to pray that “gay marriage” legislation would be defeated, since that project was an effort of the “father of lies” to deceive the children of God. (One of the striking, and typically unremarked, things about Francis’s papal preaching and catechesis is the number of times he has referred to Satan.) Both of these longstanding concerns of Jorge Mario Bergoglio were summed up in Evangelii Gaudium’s description of the traditional family as the “fundamental cell of society,” a classic Catholic social-doctrine theme with which he is in obvious accord.

To be sure, Francis wants the Church’s pro-life advocacy to be firmly located within its healing ministry to a wounded culture. And his pastoral sense tells him that postmodern humanity scoffs at the Church’s necessary “No” to some acts because contemporary culture has forgotten, or has not been taught, the “Yes” to the dignity of the human person that stands behind every “No” the Church must say to death-dealing actions. But that the pope is a man of rock-solid orthodoxy on the “social issues” no one should doubt.

The dangers lurking beneath the remarkable approval ratings Francis has garnered in his brief pontificate have largely to do with the ongoing incapacities of Vatican communications, which permit various interested parties, in the press and among politicians, to “narrativize” the pope to their liking. Evangelii Gaudium was a remarkable document; it may well have marked the decisive turning point from the Counter-Reformation Church to the Evangelical Catholicism of the future.

Yet I’d bet that no newspaper in the world led the story, the day after Evangelii Gaudium was released, with the lede the pope would likely have wanted: “Pope Francis today called the Catholic Church to rediscover its missionary nature, challenging Catholics in all walks of life to think of themselves as missionaries who enter mission territory every day.” And as it becomes more and more clear, through his decisions in appointing bishops and his disciplinary actions, that Pope Francis is not the left-leaning creampuff that some imagine him to be, there will be a danger that the “narrative” on the pontificate will change, such that “the system got him” becomes the dominant storyline — thus further burying the pope’s central message, which is the call to the New Evangelization.

But that need not happen, and won’t, if this man in full is read in full, and if the Holy See manages to create a communications apparatus and strategy for the 21st century.

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