A Go-It-Alone Pope

by Ken Briggs

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At the time Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis, the Catholic church was in a predicament similar to the one Volkswagen now finds itself in. Child abuse scandal,money schemes, investigations of nuns and internal Curia battles had robbed the church's "brand" of its promotional value. The putative CEO, the solemn Benedict XVI, quit the papacy and much lay in shambles. Volkswagen's reputation was falling into a comparable low estate for a similar exposure of deception and coverup.

The cardinals who elected Bergoglio probably saw him as the best hope of rescuing the church's name because he had the guileless charm, new age coolness and love of simplicity that would win the world's approval and restore vitality in the unwieldy church. As Francis, he has done just that, literally performing a "winning" style that has a fair chance of stanching the exit from the church at least for a time in the Western branch of the faith. To say he has pursued style over substance is too trite but also roughly true. He has propagated a kinder, gentler Catholicism that has depth and an appeal that goes to the heart of human sensibility. Waves of loving sentiment have washed over the rocks of disrepute.

In keeping with that presumed mission, Francis carried his indefatigable message to America on the wings of two traits that have marked his journey as pope. They invidiously indicate a desire to play down the unpopular and out-of-favor "Catholic" nameplate in favor of Christianity as an invigorating counterculture that subtly and winsomely draws people to it rather than scares people into seeking refuge in it.

One trait is his apparent desire to do it alone. For all his affinity for the ranks of Catholics who approach him, he is strikingly a solitary missionary in their midst with a seeming passion to turn around the Catholic name by himself. He shuns the "baggage." The second trait follows. While presiding over marathon masses in the words and cadences of surpassing Catholic ritual, he seldom invoked the word "Catholic" itself as if to circumvent an obstacle in the road as he presented its essence. Like many crowd pleasers, Francis seems enigmatically singular, conspicuous to the point where entourages disappear. You can almost hear him saying, "you don't have to be afraid of me."

It would be naive, I believe, to think of this as inadvertent or spontaneous. This has the markings of evangelistic purpose, sophisticated style, which directs focus on the primal connections between humans and their spiritual natures rather than on Catholicism as the exclusive vehicle of divine salvation. It deflects attention away from the ugly sides of the institution and toward its enduring worship. American Protestant evangelists have shown that same tendency for a long time. In an age where denominational identity has become nearly meaningless, you sell generic Christianity. More than any pope I've seen on these shores, Francis was selling generic Christianity in what I imagine is the hope that it will reach beyond the crimes of the recent past. He appeared as a pope who would feel perfectly comfortable in a church without a pope.

Previous popes have pressed an earlier, traditionalist cause that saw itself as the "one true" institutional source of authentic salvation. Francis is much more the universalist who sees the Spirit moving outside of doctrinal and dogmatic definitions. That's what makes Catholic conservatives so nervous. Though the term "Protestant" has little left of what it once implied, and Francis is genetically Catholic, he is also Protestant in a somewhat ineffable way. Without being a relativist, he does see the same God present inside and outside the Catholic church, rendering its "exceptionalism" vulnerable.

Many onlookers want to know if Francis' convictions about fighting poverty, reversing economic exploitation by the rich, ending the arms race, saving the environment, etc., will gain traction. I trust that dedicated historians, journalists and church watchers will keep vigil on how much American Catholics follow Francis' lead by devoting resources, leadership and priorities toward these ends. Or whether Francis has repeated the mandates from the Sermon on the Mount without expecting the church to risk money and reputation in striving for kinds of justice fiercely opposed by much of the public.

Francis has spoken prophetically on these matters but has suggested nothing to implement them. His character lends credibility and passion to these causes but so far he stops there. In 20 years, will the church in America remain content only echoing the defining ethics of the New Testament, as Francis does beautifully, or will he and the church have moved to the action phase as well.

A sign of Francis' sophistication behind the simplicity is his resistance to absolutism. He prefers flexibility, which drives conservatives mad. He dislikes judgment. As he said eloquently on his trip, he reads the will of the Spirit in the context of the immediate experience with others, praying for the discernment to respond to that Spirit's calling even when it doesn't fit the church's prescribed teachings. Right now, he seems destined to the the Pope of the Mature Conscience who on a personal basis is ready to reject the codes and common opinions. Actions might speak even louder than his words.


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