Francis, Benedict and leading the church

Paul Elie has written a masterful article in The Atlantic on Benedict, Francis, and the direction of the church today.

Elie went to Rome to write about the life of Benedict XVI as an ex-pope. He discovered, however, that he could not write about Benedict without writing about Francis. It goes even deeper than that. Writing about Benedict and contrasting him with Francis necessarily involves one in the life of the church, and in the divisions of thought which inevitably cluster around either Benedict or Francis as two opposing forces.

Elie insists that the differences between Benedict and Francis involve doctrine and not just temperament. But temperament is clearly a factor. Benedict, he points out, is good with ideas but lacks judgment about people. Francis knows people, understands them, calls them, and enjoys being with them. Elie notes that Benedict immediately ended the practice John Paul II had started of eating with others. Benedict essentially ate alone. Francis has returned to the practice of having meals with others.

While outwardly there appears to be considerable continuity and convergence on the part of the two popes, there are clearly many areas of disagreement highlighted in this article. I have strongly supported the notion of unity between Francis and Benedict, yet however true that may be, there are clearly major elements of discord among church leaders that focus on what are at least presumed to be the images of Francis and Benedict.

We are currently witnessing the canonization of two disparate popes in John XXIII and John Paul II, which further highlights the polarization. Much has been said about the genius of Francis in choosing to canonize both John and John Paul together, but it doesn’t appear to have actually united church factions. In reading Elie’s article one comes away with the sense that the church is developing into two divergent camps, and the future is in doubt.

Elie especially draws a contrast with Francis’ freewheeling style of being able to say “who am I to judge.” Benedict, on the other hand, believes that a willingness to suspend judgment is the core of the “dictatorship of relativism.” While Elie acknowledges that there are some areas of convergence between the two pontiffs he also insists that “unless Benedict has lost his mind, he cannot be altogether happy.”

One can consider the present moment as either an exciting or a troubling time for our church. I am concerned that some of those determined to overturn the efforts of Francis may be motivated by fear of change and a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit. The notion that the church can and should never change flies in the face of 2000 years of history. As Saint John XXIII said, the church is “semper reformanda”. Can anyone doubt, for example, that reform has been desperately needed to correct the excesses of too many princes of the church that have recently come to light?

One obvious solution to the polarization is to create a bigger tent. In the area of liturgy this should not be so difficult to accomplish. One need only provide congregations with greater flexibility in determining styles of worship. Such flexibility should include everything from a celebration of the Tridentine Mass to more contemporary forms of worship. A return to the recently discarded English Mass translation should be one available option.

As far as the rest, I just pray that Francis will be around long enough to lead us in the direction he has begun. A focus on serving the poor and living as a poor church is unassailable. Insisting that priests, and bishops fulfill their mission to the people and turn away from lives of comfort and luxury is essential to reform. The appointment of more pastoral bishops will sustain the efforts of Francis. A more collegial style of governance will provide opportunities for input from laity and all levels of church membership. With these kinds of changes in place I am confident that the Spirit will indeed lead the church to where the true head of the church, Jesus Christ, would want us to go.


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here