Today marks the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. It’s one of the great paradoxes of his papacy that this man, hailed from the first for his simplicity and humility, has generated more puzzlement than any pope in modern memory.
Quite apart from the usual media ineptness, which almost always reads religious questions in crude terms of left and right, in some ways that’s no surprise. Simplicity is never as simple as it looks. In fact, simplicity is so rare that it’s hard to follow for most of us, whose heads typically buzz with half-formed theories and distorting pre-conceptions. And that’s when we’re even trying to pay attention. It takes real work to get to clarity or simplicity – about anything.
I was in St. Peter’s Square last year when Francis stepped out on the balcony. His first words as pope, “Buona sera,” marked him out as strongly as John Paul II’s famous “Be not afraid!” in the same situation. When he bowed and asked the crowd to pray for him – often misreported as asking for “the blessing” of the people – his image in the media, rightly or wrongly, was settled: a humble man, trying to reform the Church, eliminate harsh rules, and welcome the whole world.
Subsequent interviews, of course, have raised questions about just how his whole vision fits together. Whatever the answer to those questions – and they cannot simply be wished away, as some would like – it’s not “simple.”
He’s repeatedly said he’s a “man of the Church” and, of course, believes all that the Church teaches. But we’ve also had the unfortunate static introduced by stray remarks such as: “Who am I to judge?” about gays; last week’s “civil unions” comment; mounting pressure in the Vatican itself, it appears, to change teaching about divorced and remarried people being able to receive Communion. His real positions are more nuanced and different than the wishful thanking of many reporters and dissenters, and attract wide attention because of the pope’s palpable spontaneity and infectious charisma. Still, they’re not always easy to parse out.
Just this week, a clever article appeared comparing the pope’s American and practical bent to the pragmatism of William James and Charles Saunders Pierce, contemporary philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre and Slavoj Zizek, and other anti-theoretical theorists. I don’t know if that’s the case – no one can. And it’s more than a little odd to invoke these heavyweights to explain Jorge Bergoglio. But if true, it would mean that the pope resembles President Obama when he claims that he’s “not very ideological” and is only interested in “what works.” There’s a lot of complex theory packed into that seemingly simple goal.
For instance, he’s miles beyond movements like the old Liberation Theology with its limping Marxist praxis. Some American conservatives claimed, absurdly, that Francis is a Marxist merely for saying the global economic system must be re-ordered to help the poor and marginalized.
We should give the pope – and Karl Marx – a little more credit than that. Marxism offered itself as “scientific” socialism that would inevitably replace false economic and political systems. An engineer who built a bridge on a “science” that failed so spectacularly would be in jail.
Francis is nobody’s fool and quite aware of all that. Like all modern popes, he knows that he doesn’t know how to get to where he’d like us to be. That’s a job for others – he’s merely pointing the way. Besides, as we see every day, no one is really in charge of the global economy or the international political order. We muddle around trying to respond to economic crises, smooth out regional conflicts, and give some semblance of international law to the world. But the world is fallen, as are we ourselves. Maybe that’s why Francis’ description of the Church as a kind of “field hospital” during a battle made such an impression.
The world likes him to talk about politics and justice – and who, by the way, is against improvements in either realm? Talking about poverty and inclusion, which John Paul II and Benedict XVI did as well (but received little credit for), helps the journalistic narrative that the pope wants to turn away from neuralgic sexual and life issues.
But Francis has also often denounced the throwaway culture that thinks children in the womb are disposable. And he’s even called Pope Paul VI “prophetic” for holding onto the ancient Christian teaching on contraception, not that long ago the common understanding in all Christian churches. You didn’t hear about that? Maybe you should send a letter to the editor. But don’t get your hopes up.
Still, to be frank, it didn’t help when, early in his papacy, Francis spoke of Catholics not always “insisting” and “obsessing” about abortion and similar questions – perhaps a beginner’s stumble. More recently, he’s said to interviewers that he wishes to be careful because his every word is scrutinized and, he fears, sometimes misunderstood.
So, at least for now, we are left with an enigma. We have a remarkable pope, a man who has an uncanny ability to reach out and electrify the whole world with an uncommon touch. John Paul II did the same, though in a more public, less personal way. We also have a pope with a deep appreciation of our moment, and therefore is not reluctant to put his name to Lumen fidei, the brilliant analysis of the state of things, largely written by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, with whom – pace the troublemakers in the media – he has warm relations.
And yet, after this first year, we remain puzzled about how, exactly, all these different parts of him fit together. The workings of the Holy Spirit are often a mystery. And that, for the time being, may be the best answer, while we follow this singular shepherd, to all our queries.