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The Pontiff of No Return

The most important thing about Pope Francis: He’s blowing up the Catholic Church’s bridge back to medieval pomp, purity, and authority.
Pope Francis among the people at St. Peter's Square. (PHOTO: EDGAR JIMENEZ/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Pope Francis among the people at St. Peter's Square. (PHOTO: EDGAR JIMENEZ/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

“I am a really, really undisciplined person:” This confession, coming from the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in a much-discussed, lengthy, and gripping interview last week, was not especially surprising to those who have followed the young papacy of Francis closely. From the moment of his election, stories have bubbled up about the unscripted papacy—about phone calls out of the blue to ordinary Catholics, about a mass being moved at the last minute to a juvenile detention center, about a member of the Swiss Guard being ordered to have a seat while protecting the new pontiff. In early statements, he rather mockingly disparaged both Catholic traditionalists (“restorationist”) and Catholic radicals (“pantheist”) and made a remark about salvation and atheists that Vatican spokesmen, like characters in a palace comedy, later had to clarify with a “what the Czar meant to say” sort of statement. “It’s just Francis being Francis,” I found myself starting to think, with a mixture of delight and suspense for what his papacy might entail.

From the beginning, the contrast with his predecessor could not have been more stark: Benedict was meticulous in his public statements, austere in demeanor, and took a rococo approach to vestments. Francis is improvisational, intimate, and dons more basic wear. He has famously eschewed the papal apartment for a room in the Vatican guest house. He drives an old Renault.*

It’s true that these early departures were—as many progressives who were reluctant to place their faith in the new pontiff pointed out—mostly matters of style. But with the papacy as with few other offices, style truly is substance. The pope plays a uniquely visible function: representing Christ (and the church) to the world. And it was clear early on that the Christ represented by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires would cut a different figure than the Christ represented by the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger.

If the next pope drives an old Renault, no one will care; and if he brings back all the medieval trappings he’ll look foolish.

It was less obvious where the new pope stood on doctrinal issues. Until this week it was still possible to imagine Francis wrapping conventional theological views in a charmingly chaotic pastoral style. But the 12,000-word interview, conducted over three sessions and approved in its Italian text by the Vatican, closes that possibility definitively. It is a document that may fairly be called unprecedented. In discussing topics that range from doctrine and spirituality to art and music, Francis gives clear and fulsome voice to the long-muted tradition of theologically progressive Catholicism. On homosexuality, the role of women, and the collegial relationship between the pope and other bishops, Francis spoke carefully but encouragingly for the possibility of development. Doubt and the openness of faith are celebrated; the pope, himself a Jesuit, says that a Jesuit “must be a person whose thought is incomplete.” That there are turns ahead in Catholic faith and life, turns ardently hoped and worked for by some and resisted by others, is a possibility Francis leaves pointedly open.

But more striking than anything he has said about hot-button issues was the way in which he depicted the development of teaching and thought within the church. In facing the world, the church can’t let itself retreat into a “small chapel” for “a small group of selected people”—a clear rebuke to the many advocates for a “smaller, purer church.” “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” In an interview full of startling moments, this one stands out for what will likely become a rhetorical trademark of the Francis papacy: he identifies the impulse to separate from and reject the secularized society not with an admirable if misguided holiness, but with mediocrity. This mediocrity seeks only to discipline and correct a “barbarian” world, and to put the church into a posture of defense. But this, Francis insists, is exactly wrong. “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.” There is a difference between the genius of Thomas Aquinas and the “bankrupt” commentators who imitated him. “Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform,” Francis says, citing the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Caravaggio, Chagall, and Dali, “and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.” “In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.”

The interview met with a thunderous cheer from many quarters, believing, unbelieving, differently-believing, and estranged, and took a variety of forms. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross singled out a comment about Wagner’s Parsifal. A friend of mine who hasn’t been to mass in years confessed a desire to go “old-school Irish Catholic and hang a picture of the Pope in my living room.” It is easy to exaggerate the radicalism of his statements; the very next day he condemned abortion as an extension of the “indifference and solitude” to which we condemn the world’s poor. The ideas expressed in the interview are not new or unorthodox. They are thrilling to theological progressives and discouraging to church traditionalists less on their own account than because of the person giving them voice.

Francis inspires admiration or anger because he is supposed to inspire awe. The pope who began his papacy threatening to become a cassocked version of Warren Beatty’s Senator Bulworth has emerged quickly as a more classical, solid figure of reversal. A pope is not expected to wash the feet of female Muslim prisoners, to drive a beater, to live in a guest house, or to compare the church’s doctrine of humanity to the movement from classical sculpture to Dali. The irony of Francis’ young tenure in the chair of Peter is that he has become a hero (or a villain) by subverting the expectations of the very role that makes his utterances significant.

This subversion is unrepeatable. “I feel sorry for whoever has to be pope after Francis,” a theologian friend remarked to me. Having shown that a pope can perfectly well break down the hallowed distance between himself and the people, speak candidly and publicly about his own failings, and fearlessly push his church toward embracing “the freshness and fragrance of the gospel” over a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” Francis will leave his successor accountable either to continue doing so or to revert to a fustian papal model that will appear not so much grand and ancient as nostalgic and, to borrow Francis’ word, mediocre. If the next pope drives an old Renault, no one will care; and if he brings back all the medieval trappings he’ll look foolish.

In that sense, Francis has already made himself a pivotal figure. In answering his predecessor’s departing challenge to lead the church into a complex modern world, Francis has changed his office and his church. What remains to be seen is whether this modestly-styled, thrilling, frustrating papacy will retain enough awe to effect the renovation it promises.

*UPDATE 09/25/2013: This post originally stated that Pope Francis drives a Peugeot. In fact, he drives a Renault.