Pope Francis presents a great puzzlement to many of the faithful, particularly those Catholics who are accustomed to the clarity of Pope Emeritus Benedict and his holy predecessor St. John Paul. As a result, those Catholics who are faithful to the teachings of the Church have a difficult time penetrating the meaning behind the current pope’s rhetoric. This is understandable, given that he has so far produced only two encyclicals – one on Faith (written with the help of Pope Benedict) and the second a complex reflection on the environment.
He is most misunderstood, however, because of the secular media, which, stoked by the Internet, constantly portray him as a man who in some way or other intends to change the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church, particularly in the area of marital life. In the United States, which is eagerly awaiting his visit just a week prior to the already much-debated Synod on the Family, speculation is particularly keen. Many seem to hope that, somehow, Pope Francis is going to give in to radical changes in sexual morality, especially with regard to the divorced and remarried and on homosexuality. Well-formed Catholics think this is impossible – and Francis’s words, at least on homosexuality, seem to confirm that belief. But partly owing to Francis’s own off-the-cuff statements, the impression persists.
Unfortunately, there are bishops and cardinals preparing for the upcoming synod on the family who share or rather encourage the media in its misconceptions. Happily, those working (publicly, at least) for this view are not the U.S. contingent but come primarily from the decaying formerly Catholic countries in middle Europe, particularly Germany and Austria. Ironically – and as a witness to the new universality of the Church – the strongest and most outspoken defenders of Catholic teaching on this matter are African Catholics. The hierarchies of the Catholic dioceses in Sub-Saharan Africa insist that the Church preach and encourage people to follow its treasury of teachings on faith and morals. Given the apparent decay of the West, the Africans constitute perhaps the best example of faithful and fruitful Catholic communities in the world.
Which brings us to Eduardo Echeverria and his just released book Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II. George Weigel, the well-known Catholic thinker – and friend and biographer of St. John Paul – describes the author as one of the liveliest and most insightful thinkers practicing the ancient craft of theology in the United States today. His book sheds new light on the Catholic Church and on Pope Francis himself at this challenging moment in history. Echeverria is a professor of philosophy and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
What Echeverria shows is that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, is as man of the Second Vatican Council and faithful, in the best sense, to its teaching. As The Catholic Thing’s Robert Royal notes in his Foreword to this volume, through a careful reading of Jorge Bergoglio’s writings prior to being elected pope, Echeverria has discovered there two key interpretive elements. First, the pope very much believes that the Church should judge between “yes” and “no,” whatever the media would like to believe about “Who am I to judge?” And second, the future pope leant heavily on the notion of the pueblo fiel, (“faithful people”) in Argentina, by which he meant a genuinely popular Catholicism that was also profoundly faithful to the Catholic tradition. The author includes chapters that detail his dealings with traditionalists and with the liberal and progressive sectors of the Church.
Echeverria also devotes space to the pope’s particular mission of encouraging Protestants and others outside the Catholic faith to engage with Rome. In addition, he describes the great attractiveness of Francis to people throughout the world – which we may hope could eventually draw many back to the Church that Christ founded.
Contrary to public impressions, Francis frequently addresses that part of Christian life that is a spiritual “battle” within the soul of each Christian (for example, battling gossip, prejudice, and self-indulgence). But he’s also demonstrated the importance of showing joy and sharing our faith with family and friends, as well as in the workplace. This book is a challenging read because of the deep theological analysis it undertakes. Yet it’s certainly worth the effort as we prepare for the visit of Pope Francis to Washington DC, Philadelphia, and the United Nations in New York in September.
This visit will be historic in several respects. Given the ongoing collapse of Christianity in United States, Pope Francis’ teachings and the degree to which he is properly understood will play a large role in the fate of America, which has already begun the long, grueling process of electing a new president. These elections will also, of course, have repercussions for the selection of new members of the Supreme Court, which has done so much damage to what at one time was a Christian land, most recently by the Obergefell decision allowing same-sex marriage.
Perhaps this extraordinary gift from God that is Pope Francis will awaken us to the extraordinary treasure of the Church that Christ founded. In any case, this book will help confirm for all who read it that the Church, in one way or another, will prevail until the end of time, as its Founder has assured us.