Pope Francis: Delight of the World

December 2013

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Jorge Mario Bergoglio is fast becoming one of the most popular persons on the planet, a global celebrity of the greatest appeal. In the eyes of a diverse many he can do no wrong. Hans Küng, Leonardo Boff, Roger Cardinal Mahoney, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, and Jane Fonda have all spoken glowingly of him. The National Catholic Reporter, the flagship publication of liberal Catholicism in the U.S., regularly features “Francis: the Comic Strip” and maintains a blog called “The Francis Chronicles,” designed, it appears, to coo over the Pope’s every movement and hang on to his every word. According to the Daily Beast, “People all around the world seem to be falling in love with Pope Francis and there’s really no question why. He’s challenging traditional orthodoxies and drawing new crowds. From taking selfies to dedicating sand sculptures, the Pope’s fan base could rival Biebs’.” The Huffington Post, no friend of the Church, has hailed the “punking of the papacy” by Francis while denouncing Benedict XVI as a particularly sad example of the outmoded papal model Francis is leaving behind. Well, they all might be on to something: What Pope Francis’s is saying won’t rock the boat of contemporary culture.

Guesswork is no longer necessary to discern the vision of Pope Francis. In recent months, the Holy Father has defined his priorities and reiterated his vision for the Church of the near future. He’s made it clear that he’s not merely distancing himself from his predecessors; in many cases, he has indicated that he’s actively pursuing a reversal of stance with respect to Benedict XVI and John Paul II (see the previous New Oxford Note, “Pope Francis & the Primacy of Conscience”). This might best be exemplified by his comment to journalist Eugenio Scalfari that he has the “humility and ambition” to complete the unfinished work of Vatican II. The Pope’s implication is that his predecessors did not. (N.B. To stand up and declare that one has “humility” is the opposite of being humble.)

The agenda of Pope Francis could be aptly expressed as reforming the “reform of the reform.” Lest anyone forget, the “reform of the reform” set forth by John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought to curb the innovations that were falsely undertaken in the name of the Council. Consider all the experimentation in pastoral style, in the liturgy, and in Catholic catechesis and formation; the emphasis on ecumenism, dialogue, and the seamless garment; the destruction of traditional churches and the attack on popular piety and practices — all supposedly mandated by Vatican II. The Pope’s suggestion that we haven’t yet endured enough of this sort of experimentation, that we have not yet grown into the mature, modern-minded Catholics supposedly envisioned by the Council, is for some a bitter pill to swallow.

Where, one might ask, has Bergoglio been during these post-conciliar decades? Could it be that he’s been trapped in a Jesuit bubble, co-mingling with like-minded ideologues who put subjective post-conciliar extremism ahead of the good of the Church? In the words of Italian theologian Pietro De Marco, “Pope Francis shows himself to be the typical religious of the Society of Jesus in its recent phase, converted by the Council in the years of formation, especially by what I call the ‘external Council,’ the Vatican II of militant expectations” (La Repubblica, Oct. 7).

It is perhaps this “Vatican II of militant expectations” that guides the Holy Father’s belief that, after half a century, the Council is yet to be “realized.” In fact, given the subjective nature of this kind of interpretation, the unfinished work will only be “completed” or “realized” when Pope Francis says so, and by his measure that’s not going to be anytime soon. Given that it is a vague process with a vague terminus, he could always say we need to do a little more. Clearly, Pope Francis has a vision, but that vision aggressively discards the wisdom of hindsight earned only after decades of ecclesial introspection. Bergoglio is still stuck in the Church of the 1970s, when clerics and other Church leaders could propose almost any innovation and justify it by an appeal to the “spirit of Vatican II,” what De Marco calls this “external Council,” the “Vatican II of militant expectations.” Might Bergoglio still be grappling with and rejecting the Church of his youth, reacting in opposition to the Church of Pope Pius XII? Significantly, this past June, Francis mocked a spiritual bouquet of 3,525 rosaries offered on his behalf as being an expression of the “Pelagian current” that he believes is dominant among “restorationist groups.” This “thing of counting…,” he said, makes “one feel as if one goes back 60 years! Before the Council. One feels in 1940…. And these groups return to practices and to disciplines that I lived through.” How ungracious! Can you imagine Benedict XVI making such a statement? How about John Paul II or Paul VI? Even Bergoglio’s papal hero, Pope John XXIII, had too much class to say anything so demeaning to the faithful. Where’s the “humility”?

Part of Francis’s agenda in his program to complete the unfinished work of the Council is to focus even more on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. The Holy Father has already established himself as a pontiff with kind and merciful words for those of other faiths (or of no faith) and harsh words for certain Catholic Mass-goers, many of whom he characterizes as either strident Pharisees or in spiritual diapers, who need “doctrinal or disciplinary ‘safety.’” This is nothing new, and his criticism extends even to Pope Benedict. In 2006, for example, Bergoglio publicly denounced Ratzinger’s lecture at the University of Regensburg. In the course of the address, which called for freedom of conscience in religious matters, Pope Benedict quoted from an obscure medieval text that claimed that Mohammed was “evil and inhuman.” (N.B. Pope Benedict did not himself declare that Mohammed was “evil and inhuman,” nor did he use the quotation to suggest this.) Bergoglio, in a knee-jerk reaction to negative media publicity and rioting by Muslim fanatics, told Newsweek Argentina that Benedict’s comments did not reflect his own opinions: “These statements will serve to destroy in 20 seconds the careful construction of a relationship with Islam that Pope John Paul II built over the last twenty years.”

Pope Francis is bent on dialoguing with the non-Catholic world and calling it a kind of ecumenism inspired by the Council. The Holy Father has made it known that he loves and respects atheists. He wants to “meet” them where they are. No, he does not seek to convert them because, as he says, “proselytism is solemn nonsense.” The Pope wants to make friends with them, wants to encourage them on their own path. “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us,” he declared in a March 22 homily, “with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!… ‘But I don’t believe, Father. I am an atheist!’ But do good: We will meet one another there.” Coupled with his penchant for poor theological explication and rhetorical ambiguity, statements like this, which have distinct Pelagian overtones, risk sending the wrong message. For example, a commentator in a video put out by Huffington Post observed, “[Pope Francis] says even atheists will be saved by doing good and sticks by it, even after the Vatican gives him hell.” And how about this comment to CNN (May 23) from Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association: “I gather from this statement that his view of the world’s religious and philosophical diversity is expanding. While humanists have been saying for years that one can be good without a god, hearing this from the leader of the Catholic Church is quite heartening.” Does the Pope want the world to believe that the Church blesses atheism as long as it is tempered by some kind of vaguely intuited do-gooder morality? This isn’t a rhetorical question. The answer, Bergoglio’s answer, is dangerously unclear.

In Pope Francis’s desire to reform the Church, to open her windows to the world and listen to the atheists and Muslims, to the moral relativists and popular culture, he shares the vision of Jesuit cardinal Carlo Martini, to whom Bergoglio has often been compared, even before he was elected Pope. Archbishop of Milan from 1979 to 2002, Martini was regarded as the most outspoken critic of the Wojtyla and Ratzinger papacies, and long the leading papabili put forth by the most liberal wing of the Church. In an interview that appeared several weeks after his death in August 2012, Martini said the Catholic Church is “200 years behind the times” and fails to meet the needs of the people. It was Martini who first proposed the idea of a “synodal Church” (popularly known as the “horizontal Church”) in which the pope no longer functions as monarch or supreme pontiff but as a figurehead who facilitates Church governance by a select group of bishops. If this style of Church governance sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s called the Anglican Communion. Cardinal Martini envisioned the pope becoming a Catholic version of the archbishop of Canterbury.

It is important to note that Martini’s vision of a horizontal Church was not inspired by some altruistic desire to reform the papacy so that it isn’t subsumed by a Vatican court of “pope handlers,” as expressed by Francis. Martini’s vision, his plea, his dream for reform, was predicated on his personal belief that the Church run by a monarchical pope is “200 years behind” on issues like the family, the young, and the role of women. Neither Jesuit believes that the Catholic Church can be effective as a countercultural institution. But, one wonders, without the Church to authoritatively and wisely interpret contemporary issues in terms of their moral implications, who besides a strong pope will articulate these concerns? The archbishop of Canterbury? Pat Robertson? Muhammad al-Jawad? Hans Küng?

According to Marco Garzonio, the leading Martini scholar and promoter, Pope Francis sees himself as the torchbearer for the reformist views of Cardinal Martini. On the first anniversary of Martini’s death, Pope Francis expressed his gratitude and esteem for the late Jesuit cardinal, calling Martini a “prophetic” figure, a “man of discernment and peace,” and even “a father for the whole Church.” He also recalled how even Jesuits in Argentina would use his texts during their spiritual retreats. Garzonio notes that Francis has approvingly cited Martini in at least two other cases. “This is already a good endorsement, for the cardinal who passed away a little more than a year ago, to find himself in a gallery that goes from Francis of Assisi to St. Augustine” (Corriere della Serra, Oct. 15).

Not only has Pope Francis cited Martini, he seems to be invoking him at times. When the Holy Father reportedly told Scalfari, “I believe in God. Not in a Catholic God, there does not exist a Catholic God, there exists God” [Ed. Note: awful punctuation is in the original], he was echoing Cardinal Martini’s words from his 2007 book-length interview Nighttime Conversations in Jerusalem: “You cannot make God Catholic. God is beyond the limits and definitions that we establish.” Here we see that Martini was educated in the same school of ambiguous theological rhetoric as Bergoglio. Any honest truth-seeker might ask: What does he mean? Is he suggesting that, since God is not Catholic, it matters little if we are? Of course the true meaning of the “Catholic God” comments needs deeper explication. Both Bergoglio and Martini arguably make an important point about the nature of God, even if it will be lost on, say, 98 percent of their audience. Their intentions however still remain unclear. Is Pope Francis not savvy enough to know that media outlets like Huffington Post are going to interpret a statement like this as promoting a creed of “universal salvation”? Or is it the case that he just doesn’t care?

Just as Cardinal Martini was popular in public opinion outside the Church and with those who are typically hostile to the Church, so too is Pope Francis. Martini’s popularity has never waned; the so-called media honeymoon began in 1979 and is still ongoing even a year after his death. The progressive Cardinal Martini, so intent of “dialoguing” with modern civilization, was beloved by secular media, by liberal celebrities, and especially by those who never had any intention of siding with the Church on any controversial social issue, much less converting to the faith. It’s become apparent that Francis too will enjoy this same kind of media honeymoon-without-end. Vaticanologist Sandro Magister of L’Espresso put it this way: “There is nothing in this program of the pontificate that could turn out to be unacceptable to the dominant public opinion.”

In the judgment of atheist newsman Scalfari, both Bergoglio and Martini emphasize “a God who does not judge, but forgives. There is no damnation, there is no hell.” What could be more appealing?


“[It is an] illusory notion that the man of our own age can only be reached with the message of Christ in a completely new way.” — Dietrich von Hildebrand

New Oxford Notes: December 2013

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Pope Francis and the late Cardinal Montini have and had an understanding of the Catholic religion on the intelligence level of a wise guy first year theology student. Contrary to Francis' shallowness, the real problem in the world is sin; the real problem in the Church is the refusal to excommunicate clowns like Montini.
Why not excommunicate a Cardinal whose belief system had so much in common with ignorant, anti-Catholic bigots? A belief system that aided and abetted the crushing of skulls of the pre-born.
Posted by: bveritas
December 10, 2013 12:48 AM EST
Isn't it great? God isn't Catholic. He is a "universal" God who doesn't judge. And all the time I was thinking He was Jewish.

Pope Francis is popular because he isn't doing his job. That's all there is to it. He should have a good run.
Posted by: MGRagan
December 20, 2013 04:25 PM EST
Well, I was sad when Benedict XVI retired--a first in 600 years. Do you suppose one might pray for there to be a 2nd papal retirement--the first time two retire within a year? Posted by: Lucia826
December 18, 2013 03:06 PM EST
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