Published October 26, 2021
Every pontificate gets mixed reviews. So, too, the current one. For some, Francis is the great reformer. He’s a visionary pope. A voice of the marginalized. A champion of compassion. He’s returning the Church to the proper path of Vatican II – a course sadly sidetracked by his recent predecessors and their reactionary henchmen. For others, Francis is a mediocre intellect with thin skin, the wrong instincts, and a vindictive spirit. So says a distinguished Catholic scholar at a leading American university. And he’s hardly alone.
None of this is really new. During the Karol Wojtyla years, to take just one of many examples, the National Catholic Reporter – that engine of progressive opinion and ecclesial healing – ran a cartoon of the pope’s throne as a papal toilet. But its editorial team underwent a Road to Damascus conversion, from derision to remarkable piety, with Francis. It now treats real and imagined enemies of the Francis papacy to a generous lump of malice.
My own thoughts about Francis, though they matter only to me, are ambivalent. I was raised in a very (Irish-German) Catholic home with a deep love of the pope – every pope. One of my earliest memories is of my family huddled around a 1950s turntable listening to a recorded message of Pius XII. Like many American Catholics, respect for the Holy Father is hardwired into my DNA.
That includes fidelity to Francis – often alloyed with frustration, but real nonetheless. His simplicity is magnetic. He has a sincere commitment to the poor; a personal devotion to the needs of the homeless, the immigrant and the outcast. His 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) is a delight to read. It’s clear and refreshing; filled with new and energizing confidence.
His first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), released the same year and built on material inherited from Benedict XVI, is likewise a superb teaching document. It’s the most substantive text so far of the Francis pontificate. But all of his documents have elements of rich content. His emphasis on mercy is not new; the Church has always stressed mercy – see John Paul II’s 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy). But for Francis, it’s profound and compelling. He obviously means it. And he has a unique, global, non-Eurocentric grasp of the Church and her issues. That’s something vitally important for the decades ahead.
Such is the good news. There’s also other news. Francis often gives an impression of resentment for the shadow of St. John Paul II, his popularity, his intellect, and the body of his teaching. At times his actions seem designed to diminish Wojtyla through the premature elevation of others.
John Paul I, for example, was surely a good man. But a saint? Let’s hope one day, but he was pope for barely a month. Moving him along rapidly toward sainthood seems odd. And excessive.
Francis also has the regrettable reputation of limited tolerance for disagreement, a nasty temper, ambiguous messaging, and a dislike for things American – the latter justified, in part, by past U.S. behavior toward Latin America, but perceived negatively by many Catholics here in the States.
I’ve seen some of this firsthand. I staffed, off-site in Rome, a delegate to the 2015 and 2018 synods. In both cases, I also provided support to half a dozen or more other Anglophone delegates. The experience was instructive.
All synods are, to some degree, “managed” via their themes and agendas. But the curial manipulation at these two synods seemed to many observers and delegates as clumsy, obvious, and belligerent. The issue of synodality – muddy in concept, and barely understood by many of the delegates – was sprung on the gathered bishops, like Athena from the head of Zeus, in the final days of a 2018 synod focused on youth.
The pope’s closing remarks to the 2015 synod on the family came across to many of those present as petulant and scolding. And his promoters in the years since have, to put it mildly, lacked charity in dealing with anyone seen as “conservative,” and thus inimical to the Francis pontificate’s more progressive approach to the issues of Church and world.
That word – progressive – warrants some scrutiny. It brings to mind the philosopher Augusto Del Noce’s prescient essay, “On Catholic Progressivism” (collected here). Writing in the turmoil of the late 1960s, he noted that, whereas popes like Leo XIII had sought “to bring the modern world into line with the eternal principles,” progressivism and related forms of religious thought pursue the “exact inverse, since they seek to bring Catholicism into line with the modern world.”
He added that, while
. . .a discussion with a Marxist intellectual is possible, it is not so with a Catholic progressive. Not because we despise him, but because he despises his critic, treating him already from the start as somebody who stops at mere formulaic intellectualism. Therefore, one does not discuss with a Catholic progressive, but in front of him, just hoping that our arguments may provide an opportunity to stimulate his critical reflection.
Times have changed since Del Noce. But not necessarily for the better. One of his main concerns with Catholic progressivism was its tendency to downplay and surrender metaphysics, leading to the loss of the supernatural and a religion of purely horizontal ethics. In other words, a flattened out “faith” entirely explainable by social science and foreseen more than a century ago by the father of sociology, Auguste Comte.
Del Noce also noted, oddly, that “If we recall that Comte envisioned an alliance with the Jesuits, and their conversion to positivism, we may well say that, with respect to some of today’s Jesuits, he was truly a good prophet. Only his timing was off.”
Something to consider. Which is another good reason to pray faithfully for the Church in the years ahead. And especially for every pope. Including this one.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.