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.
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.