Pope Francis: A Step in the Right Direction?

Pundits, journalists, and even most generally well-informed Catholics are scrambling to find information that might tip them off to the significance of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, for the future of the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the basic facts are immediately obvious. Born in 1936, Francis is a theologian whose understanding of the Christian faith and its moral implications is quite similar to that of Benedict XVI. As one of my liberal Catholic friends noted, many Catholics will find this pope to be too conservative.

But while Bergoglio has a clear appreciation for orthodox Christian teachings on marriage and the sanctity of life, his choice of the name Francis, invoking the great patron of the poor Francis of Assisi, highlights his embrace of the church’s fundamental obligation to serve Christ by ministering to the needy. He is the first Jesuit pope, and of course, he is an American, in the broad “New World” sense of the term. Though he hails from Argentina, it is important to note that Bergoglio studied in Germany and his parents were immigrants from Italy. His ties to Europe are deep. Ross Douthat helpfully explains the significance of the choice of a pope from Argentina.

Latin America is in many ways the place where the different experiences of global Catholicism converge. The region shares a New World experience with North America, a long record of church-state entanglements with Western Europe, a history of colonial exploitation and stark extremes of wealth and poverty with sub-Saharan Africa. The Latin church faces the same challenges from secularism and sexual liberation as the church in the developed world, and the same explosive growth of Pentecostalist and prosperity-oriented Christian alternatives as the church elsewhere in the global South. A pontiff from the region is thus a natural choice, in ways that an African or Asian pope might not have been, to move the church’s focus away from Europe and North America (and especially Europe) in some ways without cutting the Vatican off from the trends, issues and crises facing the church in a secularizing West.

Newly elected Pope Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being elected by the conclave of cardinals, at the Vatican, March 13, 2013. White smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel chimney and the bells of St. Peter's Basilica rang out on Wednesday, signaling that Roman Catholic cardinals had elected a pope to succeed Benedict XVI. Photo: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, comments on the choice of a Jesuit, finding a significance in the fact that might be counter-intuitive to those aware of the history of the order during the turbulent centuries following the Reformation:

I  worked with Jesuits  for twenty years. They break the rules. So far Pope Francis is true to form. He took an unprecedented name, which is the name of the most severe critic of the papacy before Martin Luther. He bowed to receive the crowd’s blessing.

At Via Meadia Walter Russell Mead reminds us of a story told by G.K. Chesterton:

G.K. Chesterton tells the story of the time that St. Francis of Assisi visited Rome and the pope of the day proudly showed him all the wondrous treasures of the Vatican. Referring to a story in the Biblical Book of Acts in which St. Peter spoke with a beggar in Jerusalem and told him he had no money, the pope pointed to the treasures around him and said, “Peter can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”

St. Francis’ response: “Neither can he say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”

[Francis is] a symbol of the opposition between Christian values and the tinselly values of the secular world. Materialism and the quest for prestige and power are the chief ends of life for many of our contemporaries. The contemporary world admires the virtues of St. Francis, but it cannot live up to them. That gap is where Christians must speak if they are to gain a hearing in these difficult times.

Mead, who is not Catholic, also notes that like Benedict XVI, who was a young man in Nazi Germany, Francis has had to work through what it means to be a Christian bishop in a non-democratic context.

Cuba’s bishops must somehow work with the Castros; the bishops of Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and many other countries have had to make choices that people from stable and democratic places know little about. In Pope Francis’s case, he lived under the horrible Argentine military government of the 1970s when disappearances and torture were business as usual. Those of us who haven’t had to navigate those treacherous waters should be careful how we judge those whose experience has taken them through trials we cannot comprehend.

On First Thoughts Matthew Schmitz notes that the new pope’s concern for the poor does not make him a liberation theologian:

This is a humble man, a prince of the church born into a working-class family who’s noted for riding public transportation and cooking his own meals…. But the new pope is also a veteran of old battles. When many of his brother Jesuits sought to move away from parishes and embrace liberation theology, he insisted on traditional forms of work, and his order’s beloved Ignatian spirituality.

Perhaps most significantly, at National Review George Weigel celebrates the fact that the new pope is committed to the “New Evangelization,” a salutary movement within the church on which I have written before. Weigel writes,

The election of Pope Francis completes the Church’s turn from the Counter-Reformation Catholicism that brought the Gospel to America — and eventually produced Catholicism’s first American pope — to the Evangelical Catholicism that must replant the Gospel in those parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored, while planting it afresh in new fields of mission around the globe.

Weigel quotes from a document that as a cardinal Bergoglio had a significant part in drafting:

The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission. . . . It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats. . . . What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel . . . out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries. . . .

A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. . . . We must all start again from Christ, recognizing [with Pope Benedict XVI] that “being Christian is . . . the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

These events should remind Protestants just how important the papacy is for the witness of Christianity in the world. If Rome is to recover a consistent witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, movements like the “New Evangelization” will play an important part in that recovery. But these events also remind Protestants just how different Catholic piety is from their own. Having addressed the crowd in Rome and having called the faithful to prayer after being chosen as the new pope, Francis closed with these words,

“Brothers and sisters, I will be leaving. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and we will see one another soon. Tomorrow I want to go and pray to the Madonna that she may protect Rome. Good night and rest well.”

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on March 14, 2013, in Roman Catholic Church and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Pope Francis: A Step in the Right Direction?.

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