Parsing Papal Popularity, Part I: Good, Bad and In-Between Reasons for Loving Francis

Parsing Papal Popularity, Part I: Good, Bad and In-Between Reasons for Loving Francis September 29, 2013

As Pope Francis’ pontificate passed the six-month mark, it was observed with a level of enthusiasm that shows a large-scale honeymoon still going strong.  His ongoing popularity contains tremendous opportunities for the Church in both its internal life and its proclamation of the gospel.  These opportunities, however, are not quick fixes but require a good deal of collective introspection and circumspection.  As with many things, there is a flip side, which I point out not for the sake of being negative about a good thing, but in order to (hopefully) avoid the kind of backlashes that can end up feeding internal divisions and external misconceptions.  I am not only referring to the way Pope Francis’ reputation is sometimes played against that of Pope Emeritus Benedict, although that’s part of it.  But even aside from that, I’ve been gradually noticing a tangle of factors, healthy and unhealthy and in-between, that it might be helpful to sort out.  And to be honest – and to perhaps avoid taking myself too seriously – this kind of sorting and parsing is my idea of fun.

Much of the praise of Pope Francis, so far as I’ve noticed, tends to fall into three overarching and sometimes overlapping categories.

1. His witness to the simple life.

This, in my opinion, is the best reason to like Pope Francis.  His word-and-deed witness contra the pervasive “throwaway culture”, evident in the priorities he demonstrated as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and has more famously continued into his pontificate, embodies this Sunday’s lectionary readings and the broader biblical themes they contain.  By eschewing luxurious living quarters and celebrating Maundy Thursday at a juvenile detention center, to name two famous examples, he teaches us something about what it means to be content with enough, to honor those on the margins of society as the first in God’s Kingdom.  That’s living the gospel, quite apart from the often distracting debates over the Holy Father’s liturgical wardrobe.  It’s up to all of us to carry his inspiring example beyond ecclesial PR into a lived response to what Cardinal Dolan recently called “a challenge, and in a good way, like Jesus is a challenge.”

2. His extraversion.

This is neither good nor bad in itself, but it surely factors into his popular appeal.  According to his own explanation, it’s also one of the reasons he chose to live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae rather than the papal apartments, referring to his own personality to explain why living with a steady stream of interactions is important to his mental health.  It may also explain why, on the plane from Rio to Rome after World Youth Day, John Allen was “awed by the energy of the 76-year-old pontiff, who had just finished a grueling seven-day trip to Brazil yet seemed capable of going on almost indefinitely.”  For someone like me, “grueling” would likely have been a fitting descriptor for a trip like his, not to mention the in-flight press conference.  But if he gets energized by being around people, he was probably riding a massive energy buzz.

Pope Francis shares this trait with World Youth Day initiator John Paul II, although this hardly seems to prevent the latter from being lumped in with Benedict as the anti-Francis in some circles.  To compound the irony, critics of a “cult of personality” around John Paul II’s long pontificate are showing none of the same reservations about the popularity of Francis’ personality.

I confess there is a personal dimension in this for me.  I certainly don’t fault Pope Francis (or anyone else for that matter) for being an extravert, and I myself can’t help being charmed at times by his outgoing manner.  But when someone like Benedict XVI is faulted for not being an extravert, when extraversion becomes equated with being incarnational and introversion with being removed, well, I can take it rather personally.  Maybe too personally, I admit.  Still, every pope, just like every layperson, has valuable traits with which to serve the Church, and so the comparisons along those lines are not always fair.  I love Pope Francis, not because he kisses more babies than his predecessor did, but because of the substance of his witness and leadership, including outside of the spotlight.

3. Creeping infallibility.

Popular misconceptions equating the pope’s every utterance with an earth-shattering doctrinal pronouncement have led to a recurring pattern of sensationalism and backlash: the pope says something unexpected, it’s heralded as a historic event, other church leaders try to put it in perspective, this in turn gets heard as some form of ecclesial backpedaling, and all of the above statements are torn to pieces in a massive soundbitten spin-doctoring frenzy among competing ideologies.

At the root of this pattern is a naïvely maximalist understanding of papal infallibility.  It’s an easy mistake, for a public that is by and large unfamiliar with the intricacies of Catholic doctrine, to assume a far more overreaching notion of papal infallibility than was pronounced at Vatican I.  When the secular press reads more into an off-the-cuff papal statement than is really there, and even when some commentators act betrayed on discovering that the Church is not, after all, turning on a dime, it’s often more a matter of ignorance than disingenuousness.  And yet we’ve been seeing, in any case, how good PR based on false premises has a way of coming back to bite us.

Of course, none of this should become an excuse to dismiss anything we hear from the Holy Father that may make us squirm a bit.  Just because the pope is not speaking ex cathedra does not mean that he isn’t giving significant guidance, which after all is his job.  As both a spiritual father to millions of Catholics and the most visible public face of Catholicism to the world at large, the pope (whoever he is) bears a message worth paying attention to, whatever the level of authority he is speaking from at a given time.

And whatever our own leanings may be, we should all be wary of the temptation to overplay the authority of the pope when he says something we like and downplay it when he says something we don’t.


Later: considering more specific challenges and opportunities, including responses to the blockbuster papal interview.

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  • That’s a good point about creeping infallibility. This is evident on both sides, “conservative” or “liberal.”

  • bill bannon

    I love…love the man while disliking his pacifism obsession. There I said it. He accuses others in the Church of having obsessions; he should be humble about his. When dozens of Christians were bombed to death in Pakistan recently, he immediately called for peaceful behaviour from all…including the Christians. I don’t want them to fight pre emptively. I want them to leave places where such bombings are likely or carry guns because easy targets are provocative to some extremists…not all. ISIS in Syria in today’s NY Times …a sector of sharia sunni extremism whose flags fly over some Syrian towns …makes living in northern Syria suicidal for Christians. They brag that God has sent them to slaughter Alawites. They murdered three truck drivers who could not answers Sunni questions. Christians should leave such areas and Francis could collect 2 billion dollars easily with his extroversion …from 1.2 billion Catholics to make that possible. $2 each sent to Rome to move Catholics at minimum away from extremists and into the Catholic continent below us.
    If you are going to tell them to avoid violence, at least help them move.

    • Julia Smucker

      While I don’t share your premise, I like that you are proposing a nonviolent humanitarian solution.

      There’s still the question of preserving the heritage of these ancient communities, but this is already getting tangential.

    • I don’t usually agree with you, Mr. Bannon, but I’m with you in opposing misguided “Christian” pacifism. Most of America’s recent wars would, however, fall short of meeting the requirements of “just war theology.” An attack on Assad’s regime in Syria, if it fails to cease using chemical weapons on civilians–or on the jihadist rebels, if they continue to butcher the Christian faithful–would not fall so much short, in my opinion.

      • Julia Smucker

        Your comment is illustrative of the reality that there are no “good guys” in this situation. Perhaps on this, at least, we can agree.

  • “infallability” will depend upon the “self-selected” and “prophetic” sanctity of the user, as Bernard Shaw implies in the preface to his great play St. Joan:

    (Why don’t you just admit, Julia, that this new pope is not your “cup of tea” to the same extent that Pope Ratzinger was.)

    • Julia Smucker

      Because he is. Is there a rule that says we must despise Benedict to love Francis?

      • No such rule, but you must at least admit that he’s a far greater pastor. Benedict is not to be “despised” as a theologian, by any means (although I personally find his theology to be drearily pessimistic, in a typically Augustinian, rather than Thomist, style), but he definitely was the wrong person at the wrong time, to be primate of the universal church. And I take his resignation to be an honest admission of it, and give him credit for knowing when it was time to leave. However, I also am enough of a “papist” to believe that papal resignations are not a good thing.

        • Julia Smucker

          Yes, I agree that Francis is the better pastor, and that his pastoral gifts are filling a deep need in the Church. I just go on the defensive when people start knocking the introverted intellectual as such. We all have gifts to contribute, and some may attract more recognition and may even be better suited to leadership positions such as the papacy, but that doesn’t mean other skill sets are any less needed.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I had a soft spot for Pope Benedict: predictions that “der PanzerKardinal” would be a disciplinary hardass were misplaced, and his two (really three) encyclicals on the theological virtues were powerful and could not be described as “conservative.” Nevertheless, his vision for the Church was essentially backward looking, perhaps even restorationist: though he started the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” to open dialogue with the wider world, it was not clear that he could really understand what modernity was saying.

    The single biggest change is not that Papa Francesco speaks in a language that the modern world can understand. Rather, I think that when he listens, he can hear what the modern world is saying well enough to understand what it is yearning for. The danger is that, as was the case with previous Popes, is that the world listen but not hear what Francesco has to say except in the most superficial sense. They will grab the sound bites that excite them (or rather, excite the media) but miss the deeper appeals to “turn away from sin and believe the good news!”

    • Julia Smucker

      I tend to avoid “forward/backward” language as I find it too one-dimensional. It certainly doesn’t get at my ambivalence about Pope Benedict’s ecclesiology. I see the danger of it veering toward Donatism, but parts of it also resonate with certain Anabaptist sensitivities – which admittedly have their own tendencies toward Donatism, but I believe a “diaspora” ecclesiology in general is very much redeemable. In one of his interviews with Peter Seewald, Benedict said something to the effect that it’s OK for the Church to be getting smaller and less powerful. I agree with Francis’ “big tent” ecclesiology, but I also saw Benedict moving toward a kenotic ecclesiology at that point, and I believe the Church can and should be both.

      Also, I completely agree with you, David, on the danger of the pope (this or any) being heard superficially. I’ve been seeing a lot of that, and I keep puzzling over what can be done to make the “deeper appeals” heard. I guess that’s partly what I’m trying to do here.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I agree that forward/backward language can be limiting, but I think it is revealing, nonetheless. In fact, both were moving forward but in different directions: one thing I have picked up from cultural studies is that revanchist/restorationist movements never really aim to go back to the past as it was. Rather, they are constructing a future vision that conforms to what they see as the “true” past. This is what Benedict was doing, in my opinion.

        I agree that he may have seen the church as kenotic, but for many of his supporters this translated into a “fortress” Church which is less self-emptying than clinging firmly to some illusory rock (that they think is Christ but is not).

        • Julia Smucker

          I see your point, and to a large extent I share your critique of an ecclesial “fortress” mentality. But I’ve also seen many people throw out certain grains of truth embedded there, such as the Church’s prophetic critique of what you might call “worldliness”, in their haste to critique that separatist extreme. Perhaps ironically, it is the Mennonite in me that is particularly sensitive to this. To use H. Richard Niebuhr’s terms, I think we often get stuck in a “Christ against culture” vs. “Christ of culture” dichotomy, forgetting that there are other alternatives that these can be tempered with.

          What I inherited from my Anabaptist ancestry is strains of “Christ against culture” (deeply ingrained in the Mennonite ethos no matter how assimilated we become), combined with a later-developed but equally strong overtone of “Christ transforming culture”, which I’ve gravitated toward more and more. I have come to believe (speaking as a Catholic) that for the Church to maintain its prophetic witness to the world, it must be neither completely detached nor completely assimilated. We need to be engaged yet distinct, somehow.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          A common theme in Franciscan thought is that Franciscans are called to be “in but not of the world.” This reflects St. Francis’ strongly incarnational belief in the goodness of creation. It is worth remembering how much Francis and his early followers embraced the culture they lived in. Francis himself is one of the earliest writers in vernacular Italian, and the friars, instead of living in rural areas, tended to congregate in or very near the reviving urban centers of the 13th century. Francis was quite critical of some (many?) aspects of the dominant culture: see, for instance, the section on “those who do not do penance” in his first letter to the faithful. But at the same time he did not want to wall himself off from that culture: he wanted to gather it in to the bosom of Christ.

          On the other hand a separatist strand did appear early on in Franciscan thought: I think a critical reading of the earliest known rule (about 1223, but not written by Francis) shows this. And among some of my fellow Seculars I sense a separatist disdain for parts of modern culture—ironic since they (like me!) are deeply embedded in the very culture they critique.

          I think I would summarize my thinking as saying that Papa Francisco is definitely very Franciscan in his world-view, whereas Pope Benedict was not.

          Seeing this points of contact between our thought, I wonder if Anabaptists were simply failed Franciscans or if Francis might be called a progenitor of the Anabaptist movement! (Please, other readers: don’t take this too seriously!!! 🙂 )

        • Julia Smucker

          I realize this last conjecture was meant to be heard with a touch of irony, but given St. Francis’ perpetual popularity among Mennonites, I don’t think you’re too far from the truth. The Anabaptists have strong parallels with the monastics as well, but perhaps that’s another kettle of fish.

  • Ronald King

    Julia, I believe that Pope Francis is an introvert who is comfortable with being an introvert. When we know who we are then we tend to be more open and expressive Thus Pope Francis appears to be an extrovert but is actually an expressive introvert he is internally focused first on love of God and neighbor and then outwardly shares this

    • Julia Smucker

      I don’t know. This seems an unlikely hypothesis to me given his self-confessed need to constantly be around people and how energized he appears to get by crowds and interactions. But I did also read someplace recently that people who knew him in Argentina said he has become noticeably more open and unreserved since being elected to the papacy, so in that respect you may have a point. Without knowing him personally, I suppose we can only speculate.

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