Pope Francis has addressed the crisis of Western culture by modelling mercy toward migrants, misfits, the young, and the planet itself.
"It has been five years since Jorge Mario Bergoglio ascended to the papacy, and the press is full of positive assessments. The Pope’s observers note that he represents good P.R. for the Catholic Church (selfies with young people); that he has taken on the bureaucracy of the Curia and cleaned up the Vatican Bank; that he undercuts doctrinal rigidity with pastoral accommodation (Communion for divorced people, acceptance of gay people); that he has shifted the Church’s focus to the global South; that he advocates powerfully for migrants and the environment; and that he promotes the exercise of rational faith while affirming traditional devotion. This is an important litany, surely, but it obscures a larger point. A proper evaluation of the Argentine’s pontificate must begin not with the Pope himself but with the response that he has drawn from a vast population, including the legions who couldn’t care less about his creed. Catholicism is his platform, his home, his intellectual framework, and his native language, yet the secular world has found solace in him. He is a threshold figure who points to the urgency of faith, less in God than in the human future.
Here is another litany of our time: democracy besieged; the return of nuclear dread; claustrophobic tribalism; masculinity off the rails; self-destroying structures of power; élites in flight from the social contract; uncheckable militarism; politically charged nostalgia for a past that never existed. Such intractable conditions elicit a desperate hunger for more than merely material solutions. But religion, much less some Pope-led Catholic Reconquista, cannot be the answer. Roman Catholicism has been morally gutted by rapist priests and their protectors, but faiths of many stripes have been undercut by extremists—white-supremacist evangelicals, misogynist Islamists, the militarized Judaism of Israeli settlements, even a genocidal Buddhism in Myanmar. Where, with so many institutions of communal trust in ruins, can spiritual longing find its footing?
By some unexpected combination of character and conviction, Francis arrived on the scene with a relevance that the world grasped at once, perhaps recognizing this post-religious need in itself. Unlike his predecessors, the Argentine does not comes off as a throwback oddity, to be valued, if at all, like a gilded museum piece. Instead, for the past five years, he has taken full advantage of his position as the figurehead of what began as an incubator of Western culture, addressing that culture’s crisis by lifting up what made it precious in the first place. This is the point of mercy, which Francis proclaims, in word and in deed, as the measure that matters—mercy toward migrants, misfits, the young, and the very planet. His brand of mercy is not a warm bath of tender feelings but a hard-edged refusal to think the worst not only of those in trouble, or of his critics, but of himself. “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” he was asked early in his pontificate. He replied, “I am a sinner. That is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” The Pope’s detractors—from the right, where he is derided as a moral relativist, and the left, where he is seen as an instinctive defender of patriarchy—were thus put on notice right at the start.
The language of sin comes naturally to Francis, but he might equally have cited Montaigne’s dictum “I feel oppressed by an error of mind. . . . I try to correct it, but I cannot root it out.” What the world has witnessed since 2013 is nothing less than Francis’s great struggle with the Church’s monumental error of mind. That error boils down to a preference for the traditionalist worldview, which sees existence as complete, ordered, and in harmony with unchanging divine purpose, over what might be called the historical worldview, which assumes change, contingency, and randomness—all the lessons of evolution. Clericalism, enshrined in the defensive, all-male mores of the priesthood (notwithstanding the many selfless priests), defines this error, and Francis, despite having railed against clericalism, showed himself to be stuck in it when, earlier this year, he defended Juan Barros Madrid, a Chilean bishop who has been accused of covering up sex abuse. After hearing the outraged objections of survivors, Francis promptly backed off his position and ordered a new investigation, demonstrating that he knew he’d been wrong. He didn’t say, at the time, “I am a sinner.” But he might have.
The most potent instance of the traditionalist error is the unrelenting relegation of Catholic women to a position of inferiority, embodied in the prohibition of female ordination. The Vatican justifies the ban with absurdly literalist readings of Scripture (there were no women among the twelve apostles), which are wholly out of synch with the Church’s otherwise ample commitment to accommodating the theological contradictions and inconsistencies found in the four Gospels. In the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, this sanctified discrimination can finally be seen for what it is—less an error of mind, perhaps, than a willful error of soul. Though Francis sided, early on, with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an association of American nuns, in its fight against Vatican interference, he has shown no readiness to root out the deeper prejudice.
But if this blatant papal blind spot does not disqualify Francis as an avatar of post-religious possibility it is because he has clearly set in motion positive currents of change that run deeper than anything he might himself intend. He has made spiritual imagination—faith that goes beyond the material and the established; goodness that can be striven for and accomplished—seem consistent with secular preoccupation. It is toward that larger significance that his narrow institutional role points. Change is coming to the Catholic Church, and if it can happen there it can happen anywhere.
That became clear when, early on, the Pope insisted—again, in both word and deed—that experience takes priority over doctrine, mercy over rules, which is a pious way of affirming nothing less than the scientific method, the testability of truth. The Pope may not actually be changing doctrine as such, but emphasizing experience over doctrine changes the way that doctrine is regarded. To cite the most discussed example, divorced people should feel free to receive Communion, whatever complications result for “the tradition.” This principle may ultimately transform the way that many Catholic teachings are applied. The Church’s firm opposition to birth control, for instance, could be softened by an acceptance of condom use to protect health, or by a practical preference for contraception over abortion. Similarly, the Vatican’s absolutist stance on euthanasia could be mitigated by a refusal to promote “extraordinary” efforts to prolong life in the face of pointless suffering. As revolutions in biology and genetics change techniques of human reproduction, so the meaning of reproduction changes, too—and, after Francis, the Church can find ways to adjust to that. The conservatives, in other words, are right to warn that this Pope is altering the anatomy of Catholic life and thought.
The post-Enlightenment adjustments in the faith did not begin with Francis. Take Christian supersessionism, the conviction that the adherents of the Church replaced the Israelites as God’s chosen people, leaving Jews with no religious future.
Supersessionism was for centuries a Scripture-based pillar of the Christian imagination. Yet, after the Holocaust, when Jews were left with no physical future, the Second Vatican Council, under John XXIII, formally abandoned this igniting theology, a far larger change than anything to do with divorce or women’s ordination—experience over doctrine par excellence. Rather than resist the underlying meaning of such change, as his two predecessors did, Francis has advanced it with supreme naturalness, even while showing in his own uneven reactions how hard it is to uproot “an error of mind.” Here is where his importance beyond the Church shows itself. When received structures of life and thought are crumbling, such a demonstration of the possibility of change is precious. In renouncing his designated position of moral superiority, this man has found his moral authority. A self-avowed human being, decidedly fallible, sits easily in the Chair of St. Peter.
Self-avowedly human, yes, but also self-accepting. Francis conveys a sense that his life as it is (not as he wants it to be or as it should be) is enough. That this conviction springs from a hard-earned trust in the essential goodness of existence—or, as he puts it, in the mercy of God—may explain his magnetism. The life of Pope Francis has itself become a kind of secular encyclical. In this white-robed octogenarian can be glimpsed the transcendent possibility toward which all desire stretches, whether that of the abject poor, who recognize him as an ally, or that of success-obsessed élites, who are ironically burdened by the ultimate vacuousness of the luxuries that he eschews.
Without proselytizing, or claiming to be a model, Francis proposes that a depth of life—physical security opening to moral meaningfulness—is proper to every person, which is why every person deserves respect, and why, falling short of that depth, every person deserves mercy. For those outside the Pope’s hemmed-in zone of doctrinal reference, it makes little difference if, to Francis, such depth comes from faith in God. What makes the difference is the promise that transcendence is less about angels in Heaven than about self-surpassing humans on Earth. The religious expression for that self-surpassingness is “hope.” The profane word is “history.”