From Ross Douthat, who has written a book on Pope Francis, To Change the Church, that will surely be a benchmark for many:
The conversation has become predictable. A friendly acquaintance — a neighbor, a fellow parent, our real estate agent — asks about my work. I say I’ve been writing a book about the pope, and the acquaintance smiles and nods and says “Isn’t he so wonderful?” or, “That must be an inspiring thing,” or, “I have a friend who would love to read it.” And then eventually I find myself saying, uncomfortably, “Well, they should know that it’s not entirely favorable.”
A pause, puzzled and slightly crestfallen. “But you’re writing about the nicepope?”
The consistency of these exchanges is a testament to the great achievement of Pope Francis’ five years on the papal throne. He leads a church that spent the prior decade embroiled in a grisly sex abuse scandal, occupies an office often regarded as a medieval relic, and operates in a media environment in which traditional religion generally, and Roman Catholicism especially, are often covered with a mix of cluelessness and malice.
And yet in a remarkably short amount of time — from the first days after his election, really — the former Jorge Bergoglio has made his pontificate a vessel for religious hopes that many of his admirers didn’t realize or remember that they had….
What my friends and acquaintances respond to from this pope, rather, is the iconography of his papacy — the vivid images of humility and Christian love he has created, from the foot-washing of prisoners to the embrace of the disfigured to the children toddling up to him in public events. Like his namesake of Assisi, the present pope has a great gift for gestures that offer a public imitatio Christi, an imitation of Christ. And the response from so many otherwise jaded observers is a sign of how much appeal there might yet be in Catholic Christianity, if it found a way to slip the knots that the modern world has tied around its message. …
Above all, [his major moves] are similar in that they both risk a great deal — in one case, the consistency of Catholic doctrine and its fidelity to Jesus; in another, the clarity of Catholic witness for human dignity — for the sake of reconciling the church with earthly powers. And they take this risk at a time when neither Chinese Communism nor Western liberalism seem exactly like confident, resilient models for the human future — the former sliding back toward totalitarianism, the latter anxious and decadent and beset by populist revolts.
Which means that if these two bets go badly the Francis legacy will be judged harshly — in spite of his charisma, his effect on secular observers, and all the other elements of the “Francis effect.” …
The gamble on an Anglican approach to faith and morals is even more high-risk — as Anglicanism’s own schisms well attest. The pope’s “new paradigm” has defused the immediate threat of schism by maintaining a studious ambiguity whenever challenged. But it will ensure that the church’s factions, already polarized and feuding, grow ever more apart. And it implies a rupture (or, if you favor it, a breakthrough) in the church’s understanding of how its teachings can and cannot change — one less dramatic in immediate effect than the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but ultimately more far-reaching in its implications for Catholicism.
Francis’ inner circle is convinced that such a revolution is what the Holy Spirit wants — that the attempts by John Paul II and Benedict to maintain continuity between the church before and after Vatican II ended up choking off renewal.
They are right that the John Paul II paradigm was fraught with flaws and tensions; the ease with which Francis has reopened debates that conservatives considered closed has testified to that. But this pope has not just exposed tensions; he has heightened them, encouraging sweeping ambitions among his allies and pushing disillusioned conservatives toward traditionalism. Like certain imprudent medieval popes, Francis has pressed papal authority to its limits — theological this time, not temporal, but no less dangerous for that.