As we wait for the media to make Pope Francis into its own image of a “people’s Pope” I thought I would offer a few thoughts. I have no special insight. I am a lapsed Catholic who, when most recently asked if I was “practicing,” replied that I had given up practicing when I felt I reached a sufficient level of perfection and could go no further with it.
Francis of Assisi, to use CNN”S favourite adjective, is an iconic saint. That means everyone knows a little bit about him, even protestants who normally can’t be bothered with names like Boniface and Thomas Aquinas. I haven’t checked the registry today, but my recollection is that there haven’t been popes named Thomas either. Peter is off limits, so too the names of the apostles with the exception of lots of Johns and Pauls and a few Marks. –Odd in the institution that invented the theory of apostolic succession but ended up with names Like Zosimus, Celestine, Pius, and (hee hee) Hilarius. But that is a quibble.
So what about Francis? Francis was a thirteenth century hippie who talked to birds, had delusions of spiritual communion so intense that he bled, and was neither pastoral nor especially generous. He was dirty, sickly, a coward, spiritually selfish, weird, a poor administrator, a beggar who lived off others’ charity and left his own order in a shambles of rival sects that made little impact on the consolidating authority of Rome, then heavily into the regal trappings of an imperial papacy. Those who wish to read good but sanitized versions of these interpretations may wish to have a look at the recent biographies of Dominican priest Augustine Thompson (Francis of Assisi, A New Biography) and, from the French to English, Andre Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint.
It is not that Francis that this Francis wants to evoke. It is the Francis legend: that Francis, the Francis of Catholic piety and garden statues, loved birds, wore a brown robe as he strolled in the evening composing nature poems, and in his spare time loved the poor. The crucial part of the legend which is almost certainly crucially false is the bit where Pope Innocent I, in a vision, dreamed he saw a monk holding in his hands the Basilica of St John Lateran (the pope’s own church), and decided it was God’s will for him to approve the monk’s new order. As a symbol of their obedience to his authority, however, the friars were required to be “tonsured” ( a patch of their hair removed from their pate), signifying they would not preach heresy.
This Francis, a pope, is said to prefer the simple white cassock and to eschew gold, ermine and red slippers. Offered those trappings immediately after his election, he is reported to have said to an attendant, “No, the carnival is over.” But this may just be a rumour being spread by traditionalist Catholics. Who could know?
What I do know is this. The least offensive thing about Benedict XVI is that he fulfilled the central office of the papacy, which is to be a teacher. That is the job description. Loving the poor and being concerned about the plight of the environment are noble things, and everybody should care about those things. But that is not what popes can do best. The councils of the modern secular state are where poverty alleviation and environmental protection take place, not in a baroque office under the ever-blue skies of eternal Rome.
The unavoidable fact is, the Church is only strong in a world where the poor and the hungry are a majority. A church of well-educated men and women who manage their incomes well and plan their families by using contraception and, in a pinch, abortion—that kind of world has no use for popes.
Loving the poor is code for needing the poor, the uneducated, the disillusioned. Those poor no longer live, primarily, in Europe and increasingly not in North America. They live below the equator, in Africa, parts of South America, the southern Atlantic and the Pacific. That is where the church is strongest, because it is also where superstition is the strongest. These Catholics do not need to be taught the doctrine of the Church. They don’t need (or even like) Latin masses. They believe in simplest terms that Jesus is God, that Mary is his Mother, that priests have magical power, and that when they die, if they are saved, they will go heaven and live forever. They pray these things in their own language and they sing about them to the strumming of untuned guitars and marimbas. They want to feel loved, and to feel compassion. No one can fault people for that. I certainly don’t.
I do not even believe that the Church conspires to keep them in this state. The difficulty for Catholicism throughout history has been how to lift many people up intellectually and then keep them in the walls once they are lifted. A former priest teacher of mine (who left his order about five years after my high school graduation to become a social worker) once put it simply: people who need bread don’t need a lecture on transsubstantiation. The ironic outcome of Catholic “education,” including my own, has been to show people the world that scholar-priests, philosophers, and theologians helped bring into existence—a world of serious thought, questions, and solutions—and then to ask them to choose faith instead. A rather grim reversal of Plato’s Allegory.
Benedict’s failed attempt was to call people back to the smart Church and to that world. Francis will be satisfied with the nostrum: Have faith—prefer faith. If you have any insight beyond that, good for you. Odd for a member of a religious order that is not especially known for its faith-based initiatives.
And just for the banal, persona-shaping media, this also has to be said. When it comes to this pope “reforming” the papacy: No. This pope will be even more adamant in opposing birth control, abortion, a new definition of marriage, the relaxation of priestly celibacy, and women’s ordination. The Church has certainly and frequently called for social justice, but when it gets right down to it, they have benefited from poverty and ignorance. The very survival of the church depends on it. A smart church, European-style, is an empty church. Rome is not naïve about this. If simplicity is the PR campaign they need to increase numbers, then simplicity, not complex theological dicta, it will be.
That is the kind of Francis this Francis has to be. If he saves a few birds and trees in the process and preaches peace to the choir, that is fine and good. But there will be no dramatic change here—just a reassertion of the medieval “pro-life” social values and the interfering sexual politics of his predecessors, going back to Paul VI, the pope who issued Humanae Vitae condemning contraception as intrinsically opposed to the will of God.
Paul VI had a tough time smiling. When he did, he only managed to look as if the laxative was working.. This pope has a broad and winning smile. But what he is selling is the same used car.