Friday, March 13, 2015

Two Years

Exactly two years ago today, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and former Jesuit Provincial, was elected Pope - the first Latin American to occupy the throne of Saint Peter, perhaps an overdue acknowledgement that the Church's demographics have definitively shifted from "North" to "South." From his first appearance that evening on the loggia of St. Peter's, Pope Francis has seemed different in ways both easy to describe and difficult to describe. In the process, he has improbably become perhaps the most popular public person on earth, lionized by a media establishment that has little understanding of the Church Francis rules or indeed of religion, and widely popular among non-Catholic Christians. Within the Church, the jury is still out on what the long-term impact of his pontificate will be. Meanwhile, he remains enormously popular among rank and file Catholics, while something of a sign of contradiction among elites who analyze the Church's present and try to make predictions about her future.

Of course, none of that internal squabbling can counteract the enormous growth in prestige Pope Francis has brought to the papal office and the consequence opportunities for global influence that prestige provides. The fact is that the modern Church (thanks largely to the globalized nature of modern society and communications) is inevitably  more and more Pope-centered. Pope Benedict may have tried to dial back some of the popular preoccupation with papal personality that had been so evident during his predecessor's pontificate. Watching him at World Youth Day in 2005, it seemed evident to me that he was attempting to focus attention more on the papal office than on the person who happens to occupy it. But under Pope Francis we have obviously returned to a more John Paul like situation in which the Pope's personality dominates. My guess is that this Pope's personal style and outreach will continue to set the tone for most Catholics and most non-Catholic observers of the Church.

For that reason, an appreciation of this Pope's formative influences and earlier experiences is especially desirable. For that reason, I would highly recommend reading Austen Ivereigh's book, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, which - despite its somewhat provocative title - actually offers a very thorough and balanced appreciation of Francis's Argentine and Jesuit background and how he got from there to here, so to speak.

This is not the place to dig deeply into the controversies and even possible opposition the Pope may be generating in certain quarters. Today's NY Times has an excellent article by Ross Douthat (Who Are Pope Francis's Critics?) identifying some constituencies that may display varying degrees of opposition. He identifies three such groups. The first are the so-called "Traditionalists," whose identity largely revolves around advocacy of pre-conciliar approaches to liturgy - not just a desire (which many may share) for a more faithful, dignified, and devout liturgy but an almost visceral rejection of the very principle of liturgical reform. But, for all the noise that they may make in the blogosphere, such "traditionalists" are, as Douthat correctly notes, relatively few in number - at least the more extreme and shriller among them who increasingly seem to dominate discussions of the subject. Not only are their numbers really rather few, but I suspect that their increasing extremism and shrillness precludes their really having much to offer the larger Church. Their extreme stance and hostile rhetoric is doing more to marginalize them than the actual issues.

The second group Douthat identifies are "economic conservatives" and "libertarians." Largely American, these generally do not overlap much with "traditionalists." Also, as Douthat notes, the debate they are part of is a long-standing one in American Catholicism. "Under John Paul the balance in that debate (arguably; it’s a long argument) tipped a little bit more in democratic capitalism’s favor than had previously been the case; under Benedict the papal perspective arguably tipped back in a more explicitly social democratic direction (to some overt criticism from neoconservatives in the United States); under Francis it has taken on a more developing-world, Latin-American flavor, which has tipped things leftward in certain ways and also put a new complexion on the discussion." Douthat also correctly notes how little overlap there may actually be between this group with its political and economic concerns and other critics - or between this group and much of the actual leadership of the American Catholic Church.

The third group, Douthat terms "doctrinal conservatives," whose concerns focus more on doctrinal issues such as have surfaced in the controversies surrounding last fall's Synod of Bishops. This group, which is also the most international of the three, does not necessarily have any problem with the Pope himself or with his economic or political stances (and may indeed be quite sympathetic to them). In any event, regardless of what happens in the short term, the contrast between Eurocentric concerns and priorities and those of, say, the African Church will be with us for the long haul. In any case, one inevitable consequence of the Pope's orientation to the "peripheries" will be to hasten the growing influence of voices from the Church in the developing world, the "global south," which is demographically growing and religiously vibrant, while the West appears to be in apparent demographic decline and shows much less religious vitality.

All these issues - and others - will certainly remain important, but what will be most significant in most people's perception will be how this Pope has captured the popular desire for the Church to speak authentically about the love and mercy of God in a way that addresses the deepest aspirations and longings of contemporary men and women. 

By its nature, the Church has always been the "field hospital" the Pope likes to describe it as. But the fact that he does so describe it and that he so explicitly challenges all of us to live that image more effectively in our lives and ministries is what is making such a big difference.

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