John Allen on the one word to describe Francis’ papacy

He pretty much nails it:

The one-word interpretive key to Francis’ news conference and arguably to his entire papacy to date: “mercy.”

As I’ve written before, each recent pope has had a catchphrase that represents his core emphasis. For John Paul II, it was “Be not afraid!”, a call to revive the church’s missionary swagger after a period of introspection and self-doubt. For Benedict, it was “reason and faith,” the argument that religion shorn of self-critical reflection becomes extremism while human reason without the orientation of ultimate truths becomes skepticism and nihilism.

For Francis, his signature idea is mercy. Over and over again, he emphasizes God’s endless capacity to forgive, insisting what the world needs to hear from the church above all today is a message of compassion.

I think that’s why he’s so popular and so hated. Forget the pelvic issues. Mercy is the most scandalous teaching in the Church’s entire corpus of moral doctrine. It is always seen by rigorists and ideologues as weakness. Like the Cross was.

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  • Andy

    Your final four sentences sums up the vitriol I have read in other blogs about the pope. He is a “reformer, a socialist, a liberal” – egad he evil -“he a bumbling fool, and lets his mouth get ahead of his brain, his comments need explanation, not like the previous two popes” – egad he is not bright or well spoken – yet he has done nothing but speak to mercy and non-judgmentalism. It is hard not to judge, and I think he is pointing to what we need as Catholics and as humans. I pray every day not to judge, yet I know I fall short and then I have to rely on the mercy of God to help me.
    I am sure that this makes so many uncomfortable – we all have the over-arching desire to be right and to know. It makes me uncomfortable at least, as I wrestle with forgiving those who have wronged me or my family, whether in deeds or words.
    Thank you to the pope for challenging us to find our way back to the Gospels which did present a merciful and loving God – one capable of forgiving and forgetting.

  • I haven’t noticed that he’s “so hated.” Where have you seen that? If anything he seems to be getting more of a pass than any Catholic leader I have seen in my lifetime. Just asking, not criticizing.

    • chezami

      You apparently are unfamiliar with the Tradosphere.

      • No I don’t circle those blogs. But I have heard. I took Mark’s comment to be referring to the general public. I see that was an assumption on my part. Thanks. Though “hated” might be too strong a word, no? Is he actually hated? How can a Catholic actually hate the Pope. Disappointed I can see, but not hated.

        • KM


          I’ve stumbled on some of those blogs, many of which can be quite venomous. They’re full of anger and produce feelings of ill will inside (at least for me) so I stay away. For Catholics who have cautiously returned to the church, it would almost make one leave again if one didn’t know better.

          • Thanks. I’ll stay away myself. I get enough of that in political debate. I don’t need venum from Catholics on Catholic issues.

    • Dan C

      I think in the world of political conservatives, they keep reframing his messages into “he’s not criticizing Benedict.”

      I claim it is the First Things group that keeps bringing up Benedict as the person Francis is supposedly criticizing, because they are trying to provide cover for those, like Burke and his supporters, that the Pope is clearly criticizing.

      I think Francis is a huge disappointment to not just the Traditionalists, but to many conservatives, and I think one only has to peruse the Archbolds, or The American Catholic, to see some examples of the disappointment.

      Benedict was a huge disappointment to conservatives, from his first and third encyclical to his politics. The only time conservatives were unequivocally pleased was with his Regensberg Address, because he was tough on Islam. And that may not have been such a good thing, and he clearly sought to “walk that back” over the next year.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        they are trying to provide cover for those, like Burke and his supporters, that the Pope is clearly criticizing.

        Um, really? Please elucidate how Francis is “clearly criticizing” Cardinal Burke.

      • Dan C, your voice is one that is desperately needed both here and in the rest of the “Conservative” wing of American Catholicism. I always listen appreciatively to what you have to say.

        That said, holy mackerel, man, you’re starting to sound almost as bitter as Mark does right before he writes one of his mea culpas and, for a while at least, swears off flaying morons with his razor of a tongue. I don’t often complain about tone – I’ve been reading this blog pretty faithfully for ten years, after all – but, dude, tone. People who desperately need to hear you are going to start dismissing you out of hand. Benedict wasn’t a disappointment to any conservatives I know, and I know some pretty conservative conservatives.

        • Dan C

          I think you missed George Weigel, Jody Bottum, and Michael Novak over the Benedict papacy. From the visit to Hans Kung to his first encyclical, to his failure to sort out the curia, to his interview with Seewald, to his third encyclical, there was nothing but a series of groans.

          Read what the First Things commentators decided to quote from Benedict, and then look at the full corpus of Benedict’s work. You will find his piety proclaimed most loudly from an assortment of usual suspects, including Elizabeth Scalia and Amy Welborn, but a true paucity of discussion of the meat of his comments on global economic matters, and the bulk of his encyclicals. Sure, the Wednesday Angelus got heavy play, but, again, some of that was cherry-picked.

          Benedict produced so so much clear concise teachable work from Social Justice to prayer to varied important pieties to liturgy, one has a lot to focus on, but clearly half of the serious work of Benedict was focused on matters very very radioactive to conservatives.

          I maintain that the Weigel/First Things/Acton party of Catholicism had serious difficulty with the Benedict papacy.

          • chezami

            No argument from me. That is, ironically, the real lesson to be learned from Pat Archbold’s post. Nonetheless, the broad public perception is that Francis is a “change” from Benedict (which mostly shows how shallow the public’s grasp of both Francis and Benedict is). And that change in perception is a problem not only for the masseurs of the Right, but for the Pelvic Left.

          • HornOrSilk

            I think they also had serious difficulty with Pope JPII (just look at how they dealt with the Iraq War, torture, JPII’s pursuit of inter-religious dialogue, and his economics where they only took half of what he said at face value).

            Obviously, there are many on the “left” who do the same thing with Popes. Most people tend to emphasize what they like.

            And, as should be obvious, the media helps all the spin. The conflict with Benedict wasn’t so clear because the media treated him as an arch-conservative. So it was easier to “hide” in some areas. Now, the “left” has it easier to hide in the areas ignored by the press through the press’ spin.

            • Dan C

              I maintain that the current Pope is, as directly as one does in the papacy, critiquing the Burke faction of the Curia. Not Benedict. Because he clearly is being an “alternative” to something.

              I think that when the press sets up this as a Francis vs. Benedict, the press needs to be told- “not really.” The postings by Archbold and others do not really point out that the real conflict probably is something else. And I do not think that Archbold and the rest do a service for Benedict by defending him. The way to defend him is to say: really-Francis is managing some officials with a different agenda “in real time.” Not last year’s pope.

  • Pavel Chichikov

    Here’s the spiritual contract you agree to every time you say the Lord’s Prayer:

    Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

  • Stu

    I think the challenge with “mercy” is how people take it. Unfortunately, the mindset you tend to see where Mr. Allen writes is that mercy tends to equate with abolishing all standards. Thus anyone who actually believes in the Ten Commandments or any rule is labeled as a “pharisee” or “legalist” etc.

    Seems to me that mercy is not doing away with standards but rather understanding that sometime people fail to make those standards but out of love helping them to get there the next time.

  • KM

    Excellent article. Thanks for this. Here’s my favorite part:

    “The revolution under Francis is not one of content, but of tone. He believes it’s time for the church to lift up its merciful face to the world, in part because of its own self-inflicted wounds and in part because of the harsh and unforgiving temper of the times. This is a pope who will look for every chance to express compassion, steering clear of finger-wagging unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

  • KM

    family and I grew up Catholic, then left the church due to our anger and sense of betrayal caused by the pedophile-priest scandals that directly affected some members of my family. I am the only one who has returned to the church so far.

    Here are some encouraging words from Pope Francis that are quoted in the linked article. He acknowledges the wounds that need healing:

    “…because of many problems of the church —
    such as the example of some priests who aren’t good, also the problems
    of corruption in the church — and also the problem of clericalism, for
    example, has left many wounds, many wounds. The church is a mother: It
    must reach out to heal the wounds, yes? With mercy.”

  • LatinAmerican1234

    two things that NO ONE has mentioned, but were unbelievable:
    – A Pentecostal church in the favela is located in front of the place the Pope spoke to the people. This church lead a vigil the whole night before the visit making a lot of noise and pestering the neighbours as a form of protest and resistance against the Pope’s presence in the community. When the Pope arrived, he saw the church and said “let’s go there to salute them”. He went to the church, praised the pastors, prayed a Our Father together with them saying that we all who follow Christ are His children. The church then opened its building offering water, the bathrooms and shelter for those who were attending the Pope meeting.
    – In Campina Grande, in the day of the final Mass, a pentecosal couple entered a Catholic church asking to baptise their children and themselves into the Catholic faith. The astonished priest asked “why?”. The answer from the couple were two words: “Pope Francis”.
    As a Brazilian, I say that I expect more to come….

  • HornOrSilk

    If people want to see the hateful remarks against the Pope, they could visit fisheaters, pewsitters, or sites like this one: where you find the author of the site saying things like, “It pains me to say it, but the immaturity of this man’s faith takes one’s breath away” and “The man is a menace to the salvation of souls and we are in deep doodoo.”

    • chezami

      Yup. He is deeply hated by the Urine and Vinegar wing of Traddery. Deeply. Hated.