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Two Cheers for Pope Francis, So Far…

John Zmirak - published on 03/15/13

Francis seems to be holy and learned, but will he continue Benedict's "reform of the reform" of the liturgy?

What to make of the new Pope Francis? When I first heard the name “Bergoglio,” I thought it might be a kind of pasta sauce. On learning its Argentine connection, I guessed it might be a red wine like Malbec. Only joining the rest of the world to Google him did I learn a bit more about Pope Francis. And my reaction to his election is… complicated.

Most of all I am grateful that we have been given a pope of obvious personal holiness and unquestioned doctrinal orthodoxy. Those two things should come first, second, third, fourth, and fifth among what we hope to find in a Vicar of Christ. And they shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Sure, we have had an excellent run of pious and learned men for the past 200 years—but the papacy didn’t always attract such holy souls. The clichéd choice for an obvious bad pope is typically Alexander VI, the Borgia who lavished papal funds on promoting the military exploits of the robber barons in his family—or the Medici Leo X who supposedly said, “God has given us the papacy. Let us enjoy it.” But these popes were far from the worst ones which the Holy Spirit has—through the permissive will of God—allowed the Church to elect over two millennia. That honor really must go to Pope Stephen VI, who dug up the corpse of one of his predecessors, Pope Formosus, to try the dead pope for heresy. As I recounted in The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism:

In the course of the festively named "Cadaver Synod," the rotting form of Pope Formosus was disinterred (minus the three fingers used for papal blessings, lopped off at Stephen’s orders), vested in papal robes, propped up in a chair, and charged before a court of bishops with a long list of crimes. These ranged from perjury and impersonating a priest to an attempt at seizing the papacy by force – but all were merely pretexts for the new pope to vent his rage upon his predecessor, who’d taken the opposite side in the struggle for power in Rome. The reigning pope (surprise!) won a guilty verdict against the dead one, and the court declared that even the priestly ordinations Formosus performed had been invalid. Formosus’s body was thrown in a potters’ field, then dug up again and tossed into the Tiber.

But as Kinky Friedman
said of Christ, "you just can’t keep a good man down": Legend tells that Formusus’s body bobbed back up in the Tiber and began performing miracles.

(None of these has been evaluated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, I hasten to add.) This comeback so impressed the Roman mob that they rose up and deposed Stephen, who was promptly strangled in prison. This sordid, Dark Age prequel to
Godfather III was mitigated only by the absence of actress Sofia Coppola.

So we shouldn’t take the simplicity and holiness of Pope Francis for granted. Those aren’t qualities that Christ promised each pope would have. Nor is personal orthodoxy a slam-dunk. It’s true that the pope cannot solemnly teach error on faith or morals; if he tried, he would surely be rendered speechless or simply dead. (For an animated account of the theological principle “teach heresy, get a heart attack” check out this little movie I made.) But that doesn’t mean a pope can’t, in his private opinions, pick up some funny ideas. Pope John XXII (NOT the 23rd) believed that when we die our souls go to sleep, to await the General Resurrection; it took his cardinals rebuking him in a synod to convince him that this was heresy. A number of popes (i.e., Liberius and Honorius) were lax or even confused in their own responses to theologians’ heresy. Pope Paul VI was much harsher on traditionalists who resisted his tinkerings with the liturgy than on bishops who defied his doctrinal teaching on birth control. And so on.

We aren’t guaranteed wisdom, prudence, or even goodness in every pope, so we have every reason for gratitude that Pope Francis fairly glows with them. He has in the course of his career as a priest and bishop encountered and bravely confronted most of the evils that modernity can cook up: the cruelty of fascist dictators, the delusions of Marxist ideology, and the Brave New World hedonism that currently dominates the West.

As Samuel Gregg has noted, Pope Francis even got the chance to see first-hand how the misguided attempts of big government to impose a fuzzy vision of “social justice” can bankrupt a thriving country—his native Argentina:

Argentina is a once-prosperous nation that experienced a rapid spiral into seemingly perpetual economic dysfunction throughout the 20th century. Over and over again, Argentina has been brought to its knees by the populist politics of Peronism, which dominates Argentina’s Right and Left. “Kirchnerism,” as peddled by Argentina’s present and immediate past president, is simply the latest version of that.

In concrete terms, this pathology translates into big government, high taxes, hostility to business and foreign investment, heavy debt, and a level of corruption that defies imagination. That adds up to a strange mixture of unsophisticated Keynesianism and naked crony capitalism. And it doesn’t benefit the poor. It benefits the powerful and well-connected. In Argentina, you don’t get ahead through being economically entrepreneurial; you get ahead through political power and as many privileges from the state as you can.

This is the disaster that Pope Francis’s limited commentary on economic matters has sought to address since he became Argentina’s leading churchman in 1998.

Like Gregg, I hope that Pope Francis’ personal experience of how government intrusion in the economy generates mostly chaos will inform his proper concern for aiding the poor. In his home archdiocese, then-cardinal Bergoglio was noted for directing the Church’s own money and laymen’s efforts to the plight of the impoverished. He even imitated St. Francis among the lepers, tending and kissing the feet of dying AIDS patients. That’s a lot less fun than issuing press releases demanding more government programs funded by taxes, then flying off in one’s private helicopter—something Cardinal Roger Mahony was famous for doing. But it’s arguably more Christian.

The personal austerity and simplicity of our new pope may be precisely what is needed in a pontiff, at a time when the Church as a human institution has been tainted by squalor and scandal. The sight of a bishop (much less a pope) paying his hotel bill was one I won’t soon forget. There’s an old saw that the day man’s made a bishop, he will never again eat a bad meal or be told the truth. The fact that Cardinal Bergoglio used to cook his own bachelor meals suggests that he is a wholesome exception.

The only anxiety I have about the election of Pope Francis concerns the liturgy, whose restoration to sacredness was high on Pope Benedict XVI’s priority list. I simply do not know how the new pope regards the tentative moves Pope Benedict made toward “reforming the reform,” or whether these crucial moves will now continue. At this point I can already hear some readers’ eyes starting to roll, and some exasperated voices say: “He’s orthodox, and he loves the poor—why do you care what he’s going to do concerning some recondite questions of liturgical practice? Especially at a time when the Church is hemorrhaging members and credibility?”

To this I would answer that the pope is (in a special way, more than any of us) three things at once: He is priest, prophet, and king.

As a prophet, he must remind us of our duty to the less fortunate—something that’s all too easy to forget in a welfare state that claims up to one-third (or even half) of our incomes. (“I gave at the IRS office.”)

As a king, he must govern the Church with wisdom, justice, and prudence; he must hold bishops accountable for how their priests treat the laity.

And as our high priest (pontifex maximus) it is the pope’s unique duty to keep the rites of our faith focused on God—to make sure that amidst all the “celebration” of “community” we do not forget what sacraments are. They are means of grace that are only needed on earth, and won’t take place in heaven. They must firmly direct our gaze upward at Christ—and only after that at our neighbors and ourselves. It is only in Christ’s reflected glory that we can even see that life is sacred, that poor folks are more than gaping mouths to feed, that marriage is more than a contract whose terms are set by the state. If Christ is not king, then all of us are slaves—of our own addictions, of race and class and gender, and finally of the death that will come to claim us all.

I pray that Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of Pope Benedict, and continues to “build up” Christ’s Church—extending to the soup kitchens, but starting at the altar.

John Zmirak is author, most recently, ofThe Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. He blogs at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.

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