The Pope Who is Unsettling the Church in Order to Set it Aright

March 27, 2015

Washington Post, March 27, 2015

We are two years into a new papal era. It began with Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s first steps onto the St. Peter’s balcony as Pope Francis in March 2013. His simple dress, plea for the prayers of the faithful and evocation of Saint Francis of Assisi signaled a new approach to the papacy — one of humble service to the church and the world. Since then, Francis has combined a new papal style with substance. He has passionately articulated the Gospel message of repentance and renewal, reached out to the poor and marginalized, opened an overdue discussion of contested moral issues and launched a reform of the hidebound Vatican Curia. He is unsettling the church — in order to set it aright.
Garry Wills's new book is a valuable compass for this new terrain. Somewhat misleadingly titled "The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis," it makes the past its center. Wills takes us through five far-reaching changes that highlight the capacity for renewal within the church. Two are of more historical interest: shifts in the use of Latin over time and changes in the approach to church-state relations from late antiquity through the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Three others have greater contemporary relevance: the rise and fall of Catholic anti-Semitism, the evolution of natural-law ethics around issues of sexuality and gender roles and the decline of the confessional over recent decades. An epilogue, "The Future — a Church of Surprises," encapsulates Wills's historically grounded hope for change under Francis.

"The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis" by Garry Wills (Viking/Viking)As Wills notes, Francis has not yet changed official teaching on certain fraught issues of particular interest to Americans and Europeans, including homosexuality, divorce, contraception, priestly celibacy and women's ordination. He has abandoned the harsh, condemnatory tone associated with his predecessors, most famously with his "Who am I to judge?" remark about homosexuality. But changes in doctrine have not followed.

Wills would welcome them and considers them possible. Like other Catholic progressives, he sees the church as the people of God, continually evolving in interaction with wider changes in politics, society and culture. One of his heroes is Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council and opened the Church to the modern world. The council's landmark documents abandoned enmity toward Judaism and other religions and made human dignity, religious freedom and social justice cornerstones of Catholic doctrine and practice. Through these changes, in Wills's reading, the foundation of the Catholic Church — scripture and tradition, guided by the spirit — has remained intact. Wills concludes that more of what Cardinal John Henry Newman called the "development of doctrine" is possible and desirable. After the conservative pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis has placed the church back on the path of change. But as Wills sees it, ultimately the sensus fidei, the evolving understanding of the faith by the people of God, will push it forward.

Wills's understanding of the church is anathema to traditionalists. Where he sees the church first as the people of God, they emphasize hierarchy and the teaching authority (magisterium) exercised by the pope together with the bishops. They prize continuity as the core of the church's identity and the key to its success over the centuries. Traditionalists acknowledge that changes in Catholic practice do take place, such as the rejection of slavery and the embrace of democracy. But Newman's "development of doctrine," as they understand it, involves the adaptation of timeless ideals to new circumstances, not radical new departures. From this point of view, the church cannot change its age-old teachings on family and sexuality without ceasing to be the church. Hence conservative anxiety about where Francis's pontificate might lead.

How does Francis himself fit into the debate? His emphasis on the church as the people of God echoes the progressive position. And his efforts to reform the Roman Curia are loosening decades of traditionalist dominance in Rome. It does not follow, however, that Francis's perception of the sensus fidei and its direction maps onto Wills's. As a native of Argentina and the first pope from the global South, Francis comes out of a more traditional milieu on issues of gender, sexuality and the family. The sprawling transnational organization that he now leads is unlikely to move as fast or as far as progressive Catholics in Europe and the United States would like. Take the example of the ban on women's ordination, which the pope has reiterated. "Though he said a woman priesthood is settled," Wills writes, "that probably just means he will let others bring it about." Which others? Presumably not the bishops and their flocks in Latin America and Africa, the church's emerging demographic center of gravity.

Francis — uncharacteristically, for a pope — appears open to different outcomes. His patient insistence on intra-church dialogue on contested moral issues is one of the most striking things about his papacy to date. At the Synod on the Family, a worldwide gathering of bishops that first met in Rome last October, Francis insisted on a respectful discussion of the status of homosexuals and of divorced and remarried Catholics. And he has enjoined wider consultations around the world, at the local and national levels, before the synod meets again to continue its deliberations this fall. At the last session in October, Francis put the opposing camps on notice. "Traditionalists," he told the synod, should abandon inflexibility and be open to "the God of surprises." And progressives should forswear a "deceptive mercy" that "treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots" of complex moral and social problems.

Francis's call for open debate within the church is a pastoral and pragmatic effort to encourage compromise. But it also represents an unprecedented use of papal authority, rooted in the theological conviction that truth and justice will prevail if the faithful put their trust in God and open themselves and their views to one another in a spirit of humility. Francis's invitation for Catholics of distinctly different views to engage across divides within the church recalls Jesus's command to love one's enemies — as countercultural today as two millennia ago.

Francis is determined not to let such debates within the church deflect from a wider agenda focused on justice and concern for the world's poor that could be his greatest legacy. "A constant emphasis of  his talks as pope," Wills points out, has been on going out to those on "the periphery, the margins, the frontiers, to take God's love to them." Since taking office, Francis has emerged as the world's most influential and incisive critic of the moral failings of globalization. He calls persistent inequality "the root of social evil," and decries a materialist "throwaway culture" and the "globalization of indifference" — the illusion that global markets and politics operate outside our control, and therefore the poor and the marginalized are not our responsibility. For Francis, overcoming indifference involves more than political and social solidarity; it demands personal conversion. "No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own lifestyle demands more attention to other areas," he has warned.

In just two years, the pope's insistent call to conscience and invitation to service have unsettled our self-obsessed culture. He is shaking up the church and the world.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Washington Post.
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