Opinion: media widely accepts Pope but have they missed the point?

24 March 2014

One year on from the election of the first Latin American Bishop of Rome and the first Jesuit pope, the Church finds itself once again in a remarkably counter-cultural position, one not predicted by the pundits leading up to the Conclave on 12 March 2013.

Yet, mainstream news and commentary appears to have taken to Pope Francis in a way it did not do with either Benedict XVI or John Paul II, especially in his later years. Affection for Francis has come from sources such as Elton John, Rolling Stone magazine and a vast array of non-Catholic celebrities and writers. Is this not the culture embracing the new pope?

While positive attention to His Holiness is not to be blithely dismissed, and is in itself a healthy sign of Francis's ability to communicate gestures of solidarity and good will on the basis of the Church's share in a common humanity, it is a telling sign of the West's fickleness, in that Francis' humility is only superficially embraced. Such a shallow understanding of the real provocation in the teaching of Francis misses the altogether more interesting and challenging reality: that this pope is proclaiming a Gospel at odds with the entrenched self-enclosed materialism of the Western economy, and has married his humility with the abiding intellect of his predecessor.

Francis is not at odds with Benedict, and indeed might be working more closely with him than most commentators recognise. This is not to say that they do not carry different styles of communication, and varying emphases in their teaching, or indeed that their strategies for governance do not differ. But it does indicate that the message of Francis is proving too unnerving to be looked at substantially by many who cultivate the 24-hour news cycle in all its crass commercialism.

By choosing Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the Church has chosen a course that marries two character traits which are at odds with the pervading culture of the West: intellect and humility. By this, I do not simply mean that in his person, Papa Bergoglio - now Pope Francis - embodies these in their totality (although by all accounts he seems to come remarkably close), but rather that his papacy sits in radical continuity with the two previous papacies, and together they embody how the Church wishes to understand intellect and humility.

This is only fitting given that Pope Francis took his name from one of the great radicals of holiness in the Western Catholic tradition. St. Francis, patron saint of Italy, was a man who gave himself over to the Church and to the poor for the sake of God. Francis was a wealthy man of standing in the community, but upon witnessing a vision of God, he flung off the rich garments in which he was clothed and embraced "Lady Poverty." Francis was a true Catholic radical, in that he embraced a life of austerity for the sake of the Gospel out of obedience to Christ, while remaining in full and lively communion with his beloved Church. This, sadly, would embroil him and his nascent religious order in years of negotiation and politics before formal recognition by the papacy would launch the Franciscan community as an officially recognised order. But Francis was patient, and proved himself an able leader.

He remains one of the most popular of Catholic saints. Indeed, St. Francis has become for many Catholics what Che Guevara has become to middle class suburban socialists - a face to wear on a t-shirt and a name to emblazon loudly. But on close and careful inspection, both are radicals who model a way of living that would seem impossible to contemporary young moderns. Of course, the difference between Francis and Che Guevara should be obvious, and young Catholics would find in St. Francis a real challenge to live a radically Christian life for the poor and the Church, if they might spend some time reading, reflecting and pondering the story of the saint himself, and not caricature. Remember the command of God to St Francis: "Rebuild my Church."

The original St. Francis in the twelfth century embraced Lady Poverty, not in discontinuity with the Christian faith, but in radical continuity with the Gospel. In this way, those who embrace humility before others, and the gestures of joyful self-denial in the Catholic tradition, are those who articulate in their lives a central mission of the Church. Because of this, attempts to over-emphasise Pope Francis's humility as some kind of rupture in recent Catholic history have missed the point. And not only that, they disingenuously imply some failure of humility in the person of Benedict XVI.

It must be remembered that it was Benedict who stepped down from the papacy when, on close and prayerful examination, he did not believe himself capable of going on. Perhaps the most radical papal event of recent years is not that Francis has reached out to those on the margins and living outside normative living arrangements for the Church, but that a pope resigned. A year on, we have seen that Benedict retains a remarkable agility of mind and no signs of misunderstanding the world around him - yet a year ago, he placed the good of his Church ahead of his own intellect and will.

Moreover, it was Benedict who put himself fundamentally at the service of the unity of the Church, which has all the hallmarks of a reflective thinker who gives himself over for others. As pope and as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict sought creatively to heal the Catholic dialogue with German Lutheranism, re-ignite the thwarted dialogue with Eastern Orthodoxy, bring back those devoted to the Tridentine Mass who had been treated unworthily by other Catholics, and burrowed out a place for Catholics with an Anglican patrimony to feel more at home in the wider Church, thus bringing with them their particular traditions and ecclesial identity. These actions serve a rich plurality in the Church.

The Benedictine Papacy was, ecclesiastically speaking, a remarkable one. In fact, Ratzinger's sense of mission concerning the healing of older historical wounds in the Church were informed by a mind that had given itself over to the task of theology for most of his adult life. Ratzinger did not just know the Catholic tradition, but was fundamentally aware of the tangents and disparate threads at work in the Western philosophical stable, and of the conflicts within Catholic theological circles since the Second Vatican Council. As one of the young enthusiasts for the ressourcement work of the Council, Ratzinger had the experience to serve alongside John Paul II in articulating a post-Vatican II account of the Catholic intellectual tradition across a broad range of issues, including questions of morality, Church unity and Christian engagement with the world of politics.

In these things, the intellectual capital of the Catholic tradition was built steadily and resourcefully, and this framework makes it possible for the work of Francis to now engage the world. As one of my colleagues puts it, John Paul II helped re-craft the Church's expression of Truth, Benedict XVI re-crafted the Church's approach to Beauty and Francis is refreshing the Church's witness to the Good. These are the traditional 'transcendentals', viewed as the higher goods which, for Christians, show us the way to a harmonious concept of the goodness of God. A crucial aspect of the transcendental character of truth, beauty and the good is that they must be sought after in a mutual harmony. If a person seeks only one at the expense of the others, one ends with a discordant understanding of the world and of God. That which is true, beautiful and good, belong together.

In the same way, viewing Francis divorced from the contributions of his two most significant predecessors since the Second Vatican Council misses the point of his outreach from the See of Peter. And only by understanding the trajectory upon which the Franciscan legacy is built, will we appreciate his deep love for the poor, the outcast, the sick and the oppressed. Francis is building upon his predecessors' work in enabling the Church to serve the rich capacities of human beings for knowledge and service to others.

We would do well to keep in mind that the tradition in which Francis operates is one that sees no contradiction between building a strong university or a wondrous Cathedral, and building up each suffering human person by digging deep and giving sacrificially. By serving both intellect and humility, the Catholic tradition reaches out beyond itself, and each person is loved and raised higher. This synthesis is unknown to much mainstream commentary, and is sadly not taught in many of our schools and universities. Nevertheless, this has always been the genius of the Church, and in a culture which trivialises the intellectual and marginalises the poor, it will be crucial to understand well the shape and the content of the Franciscan era.

This opinion piece by Nigel Zimmermann, Lecturer at the School of Philosophy and Theology Sydney at the University of Notre Dame, Australia was original published on the ABC Religion and Ethics blog.

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