Monday, March 18, 2013

What kind of modernist is Pope Francis?

During the past hundred years, in particular, admiration of St. Francis has been widespread and spontaneous among Christians of all communions and among others too. There is a compelling appeal in his Canticle of the Sun, and in what we are told about him by the Little Flowers of St. Francis, and the Mirror of Perfection; in his simplicity, directness, and single-mindedness; and in the lyrical qualities of his life. He was the popularizer, though not the precise originator, of the Christmas 'Crib".
The Penguin Dictionary of Saints
The word "modernism" is always going to have special resonance when applied to religion. (It's a Catholic word, by the way; we invented it and we have been using it for a lot longer than you have so don't tell us what it is supposed to mean.)

Gregory XVI was the last pope you can convincingly argue was an anti-modernist. All the popes from the end of his reign until the end of that of Pius XII accommodated modernism to one degree or another, some more grudgingly than others. Beginning with John XXIII, the popes have all been enthusiastic modernists.

It's easy to miss that last point because, with the exception of John XXIII, all of these popes have been painted as opponents of modernism, mostly because of their attitudes on matters of sexual morality. What has really driven these popes, however, is a desire to make a church more responsive to the modern world without provoking a free for all. And, if you think of it that way, the hard line on sexual morality makes a lot of sense; if a free for all is going to break out in any area of human life, it will be with regards to sexuality.

But modernism is not monolithic. There are different kinds of modernism and there are different shades within each type of modernism. For better or for worse, Saint Francis of Assisi has become the rallying point for a certain kind of modernism.

The principal quality of this modernist religious is pure spirituality. People want to believe in a saint who was not practical or concerned with earthly things. They want to believe in a saint who was terribly, terribly spiritual—a guy who could reason with wolves. Such a saint is the perfect one to back the notion that all we need to do to make it stop raining or to stop war is to want it badly enough. He is also the perfect saint for those who embrace narcissistic political movements such as environmentalism. Finally, and probably most significantly, he is the perfect saint for those people who believe poverty is caused entirely by unequal distribution of money.

And the obvious question when confronted with a pope who names himself for Saint Francis is whether he too believes this nonsense. Honest answer: I don't know. That said, there are good reasons to worry.


The most obvious aspect of this is what Pope Francis believes about economics. He is deeply wed to the notion that the problems are largely matters of inequality. That said, economic literacy is not very high among popes. He is not much, if any, worse than any of the other popes of the last 150 years.

On the plus side, while he preaches a naive economics, he is most emphatically not naive about politicians nor is he naive about nonsense such as Liberation Theology. He is unlikely to lend support to demagogues either inside or outside the Catholic Church.

Uriah Heep

The bigger worry, as far as I'm concerned, is personality. I've never been a Dickens fan but Dickens was good on character and we do well to take seriously his warning against people who put their humility on display. This for the simple reason that humility put on display isn't humility.

Now in Francis' defense, it must be admitted that we don't know who is putting this humility on display. Pope Francis may be just being himself and it may be the cynical efforts of the public relations staff at the Vatican and the self-serving response of even more cynical journalists that is behind this.

That said, I am waiting to see. (There is no reason to believe that every Pope is God's choice, by the way. As Benedict XVI said while still Joseph Ratzinger, beyond any theological arguments that might be advanced, there is the incontrovertible truth that there are far too many examples of really bad men who became pope to the contrary.)

Not the patron saint of managers

Ever since his election, I keep reading conservative defenders of Pope Francis arguing that concerns such as mine are based on a false view of the saint from whom he takes his name. The real man, they tell us, was much more hard-nosed. That's true enough but which Saint Francis did the pope have in mind in picking his name? Was it the real guy or the modernist spiritual fantasy? I think it is way too early to safely draw any conclusions.

But even if we are focused on reality and not fantasy, the simple fact is that the real Francis was a disastrous manager. (And he was not an effective diplomat either.) Saint Francis had a huge influence but he didn't fix the church. It was men such as Gregory IX who did the actual work (Added: Often with a brutality that was not nearly so repugnant to Saint Francis as his modern fans would like to think.)

There is one aspect of the Saint Francis mythology that seems to fit the actual man and that is the belief that sufficient good will is all it takes to achieve success. With it goes a less sugary corollary: that all failures can be blamed on a lack of good will. I say "less sugary" because the hatred that follows when failure is believed to based on lack of good will is staggering.

Again, I don't know about Pope Francis himself. Perhaps he isn't as naive as he can seem. But you can rest assured that a lot of the enthusiasm he is currently stirring up is that naive and look out when, as it inevitably will, disillusion sets in.

In the mean time let's be cautiously  optimistic.


  1. As far as his actual remarks and actions go, Francis has made a good impression on me. But as you say, people’s interpretations of him are another story. Ross Douthat said the other day on twitter that it was “Fascinating to watch so many Catholic writers read their hopes/ideas/theories into Pope Francis” and this is the part that has been a little disheartening. In many cases it’s clear that people intend their exuberant praise of Francis to carry an implicit critique of Benedict, and for me as a BXVI admirer this is disappointing.

    1. I love Benedict and I'm going to miss him a lot. It became increasingly obvious as time went on, however, that there was a corrupt clique in the Vatican determined to undermine him at every step and Benedict is not the sort of guy to go down and bang people's heads together until they smarten up. I am praying that Francis is but scared that he isn't. We'll see.

      But even if not, the church has survived worse.

      And we have Deus Caritas Est—the best thing any pope has written in my lifetime—to remember Benedict by.

      You must be through your third scrutiny by now. You're in my prayers.

  2. Actually because I was a candidate and not a catechumen I was confirmed last week, whereas the catechumens will be baptized at Easter. I'm not sure if this was the normal timing--it was originally going to be after Easter. And thank you!