Why I Like Popes (Some of Them, Sometimes)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. I didn’t take any notice–but then, I’m neither Catholic, nor from Argentina. (Of the tens of millions of people who do fit that description, the word is quite a few of them noticed it very much.) Perhaps I should have, though, because one of the most important things John Paul II did during his 26+ years as the Bishop of Rome (the second-longest period of service in all of Catholic history) was bring into the College of Cardinals large numbers of bishops whom he trusted to carry forward the church in a manner that he understood to be where the Holy Spirit was calling it. And Francis, the current Roman Pontiff and now Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, is certainly a servant of God very much after the pattern of John Paul the Great.

The popular acclaim which Francis has received (particularly in social media) would seem to suggest otherwise. JPII–and Benedict XVI after him–were, so the story goes, “conservatives,” Christian leaders obsessed with sexual sins and papal authority. By contrast Francis, the “people’s pope,” the Jesuit, the man who worked in the slums of Buenos Aires, is different–he’s leaving private matters alone, and taking the fight for righteousness directly to those political and economic Powers That Be, the Masters of Capitalism, who are most responsible for the injustice in the modern world. Yee-haw!

Of course, anyone even minimally familiar with how these sorts of news stories are enabled and kicked around in the mass media recognizes that what we’re seeing here is the usual cycle of celebratory over-reaction, followed by hysterical over-denunciation. Damon Linker, among others, has noted that Francis is hardly a revolutionary, and that the real significance of his papacy will be whether he can rhetorically and organizationally plant seeds that might sprout in unexpected doctrinal and ecclesiastical ways decades and centuries hence. In the short term, then, all we have really before us is Francis’s public words, and the tone by which he utters them. And, as best as I can tell, what he’s saying sounds a lot like the man who made him a cardinal over a decade ago.

Nearly two decades ago, in 1994, Time Magazine declared John Paul II as their “Man of the Year” (gender awareness in the office’s of Time was still a few years away). I remember buying the magazine, clipping the front cover, and framing it; it hung in our apartment (Melissa and I had been married just over a year at that point) for years. Why did I do that? Because John Paul II was a hero of mine. It was a long time before I could articulate as well as I perhaps can today why I felt that way (graduate school–at Catholic University of America, as it happened–was still in my future), but if I was asked, I probably would have said something like this: because he insists that Christian morality has a place at the civil table. And not just a “place” as a private scold or a convenient party member or an outsider calling us to our better natures whom we can safely ignore, but as a participant, with a public agenda that connected the teachings of Jesus to the present moment. Under John Paul II the Vatican was a major player in the final death-throws of Soviet communism–and yet, for all the ways the National Review fell all over the man, he looked every bit askance at Western and capitalist triumphalism as Francis does today. Don’t believe me? So I assume you’ve forgotten “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis” (“On Social Concern”), which JPII penned to commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Populorum Progressio,” Pope Paul IV’s classic document of Catholic social justice teachings? Here’s JPII, lowering the boom:

It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a “social mortgage,” which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods….The motivating concern for the poor–who are, in the very meaningful term, “the Lord’s poor”–must be translated at all levels into concrete actions, until it decisively attains a series of necessary reforms. Each local situation will show what reforms are most urgent and how they can be achieved. But those demanded by the situation of international imbalance, as already described, must not be forgotten. (SRS 6.42-43)

Which really, isn’t very different from what Francis has written in “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”):

The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few….Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual. (EG 4.2.188-189)

In short, the message of both men is the same thing that had made me, twenty years ago, a fan of the papacy, or at least of some of the inhabitants of that office, and of some of the things they say. Because Catholicsm–or at least Catholic Social Justice teachings as they have developed in modern times, to be precise–insists that Christianity brings with it to the table of civil discussion a moral platform, one with explicit political and economic dimensions. The American Christian (and Mormon) conservatism I grew up surrounded by had no problem claiming to itself the prerogative to speak out in the first of those dimensions, at least in a limited way: you know, abortion, homosexuality, feminism, the whole culture war/Moral Majority rigamarole. The message of the popes is, or at least can be, different–it can be a message which insists that Christianity charity does not simply mean individual generosity, but rather is a call to structure whole economies so that the welfare of the poor takes priority. Christian righteousness includes the unborn and the unemployed, sexual fidelity to one’s spouse and solidarity with those who labor, equality in the eyes of God and in terms of education and economic empowerment. Jesus’s message, in short, is one that demands justice and dignity for all from the whole culture, since it is, ultimately, one “seamless garment.” That phrase has come in for much abuse over the years, and remains contentious today, in Catholic circles and beyond, even as it has continued to be affirmed by the Vatican. I don’t agree with every aspect of that teaching; like any other platform, it can become an excuse for idolatry. But overall, as I became aware of it years ago through the example and work and teachings of JPII, I came to realize that there was a platform out there upon which someone like myself–a pro-life socialist, a left communitarian, a populist egalitarian who is also something of a cultural conservative–could stand. And for that, I was grateful.

So now Francis I is Pope, and also Time Magazine’s Person of the Year (apparently, the problem with gender exclusiveness finally dawned on them at some point in the past two decades), and I’m delighted. Francis has shown himself to be a profound and dedicated man, whose uncompromising social justice rhetoric–perhaps more pointed now, coming as it does from the mind and lips of a man from the southern hemisphere, and man who has grown into his present stature as an archbishop and cardinal without the Cold War looming over his every word–is something that in a world which still hasn’t recovered from the appalling financial criminality and stupidity of 2008 needs to hear. And keep in mind that, as he reminds us again and again, to put the poor front and center in our Christian thinking is nothing more or less than to proclaim the Good News–indeed, the greatest Good News of all. As Time reported:

The script falls to his lap and he leans forward, looks out over the crowd and just starts talking, his hands in the air, his voice stronger now, doing his own call and response. Jesus is risen, and so shall we be one day, he tells them. And as though they might not quite grasp the implication, he pushes them: “But this is not a lie! This is true!” he says. “Do you believe that Jesus is alive? Voi credete?” “Yes!” the crowd calls back, and he asks again, “Don’t you believe?” “Yes,” they cry. And now he has them. They have become part of the message. He talks about Christ’s love like a man who has found something wondrous and wants nothing more than to share it. “He is waiting for us,” Francis says. And when he comes to the end of his homily, the script drops once more. “This thought gives us hope! We are on the way to the Resurrection. And this is our joy: one day find Jesus, meet Jesus and all together, all together–not here in the square, the other way–but joyful with Jesus. This is our destiny.”

I’m a Mormon (though, truth be told, doctrinally probably more Lutheran than LDS) who rejects as plain unscriptural a large amount of Catholic dogma. (Infant baptism, the intercession of saints, transubstantiation, etc.) But the Catholic tradition presents an understanding of Christian ethics and economic and political concern which has an intellectual comprehensiveness and–I think, anyway–a moral persuasiveness that dwarfs anything that Mormonism (particularly in light of the unfortunate cultural influence of western American libertarian attitudes over the past half-century) has yet managed to articulate. And that part of the tradition, as laid out by the popes, I believe. Maybe someday we’ll have Dorothy Days and Sargent Shrivers of our own (we’ve come close at least once or twice), but in the meantime, as a Christian, I have Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Francis, carrying a torch, passed down to him by his papal predecessors, that illuminates, on Jesus’s behalf, much that I see. And thank God for that.


  1. Some really good thoughts, Russell. Thank you.

  2. Yes, thank you Russell. I did not follow John Paul II as closely as did you. But I do recall having good feelings about him, feelings similar to those I have about Francis. Since John Paul II, the Catholic Church has been scandal ridden and appears to have lost a Christ centered focus. Seeing Francis start on what I judge will be a decades long quest, I ask myself if other denominations need to start on similar quests, too. Russell, you mention Lutheranism. Care to say more? Sometimes I fear that we are too removed from the simple aspects of faith and too fixed on more remote doctrines, doctrines that fall short of service to others as Christ taught. It is this detached focus on doctrines that seems to be driving many away.

  3. Amen

  4. It’s funny. I am a practicing, believing Mormon. But more and more, I find myself wanting to be like the Pope.

    And honestly, how do I say this, it may sound sacrilegious to some– at times I find myself wondering if maybe, just maybe, Jesus might come back wearing a Pope suit.

  5. I have liked Francis ever since he was elected. I like the fact that he disdains the expensive trappings the Catholic church has had for such a long time, and hope the other church leaders will follow suit. I think the complaints people have about his denunciation of capitalism are because they don’t want to give up their wealth. I do believe we should help the poor (as our church does so readily through the welfare system). There is always more we can do. I heard the other day about someone paying over $100,000 at an auction for an old pair of some athlete’s shoes. That definitely shows misplaced values. That money could have helped a lot of poor and homeless. Although I am not against the acquisition of wealth, I do believe that the more we have, the more we should give. And if we don’t have a lot of money, we need to give through service.

  6. Last Lemming says:

    What’s with the “John Paul the Great”? ( A local Catholic high school has adopted the name too.) I can’t help but think that his departed spirit cringes every time he hears himself called that.

  7. Great post. Having been an adult during the administration of John Paul II, I agree that they are both cut from the same cloth as it were, with JPII tempered in the fires of the Polish Solidarity movement, and Francis in the slums of Buenos Aires. We can learn much about charity and concern for the disadvantaged from both of them, I believe, and I have no issue with holding these two Catholics in particular as personal heroes. May Francis have as long and influential a term as Pope as the man who selected him as a cardinal.

  8. Last Lemming,

    What’s with the “John Paul the Great”? ( A local Catholic high school has adopted the name too.) I can’t help but think that his departed spirit cringes every time he hears himself called that.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Karol Wojtyla, wherever he is now (though I think I can guess), dislikes the appellation, but there actually is a purpose to it. First, there have been other popes that took the name John Paul (which is why he was JPII), and this is just another way to distinguish them. Second, he actually has been beatified, and will–unless some other objection is raised–by canonized a saint by the Catholic church sometime in this coming year. These sorts of honorifics are typical of those who occupy that kind of divine territory.

  9. Great article. This:
    “But the Catholic tradition presents an understanding of Christian ethics and economic and political concern which has an intellectual comprehensiveness and–I think, anyway–a moral persuasiveness that dwarfs anything that Mormonism (particularly in light of the unfortunate cultural influence of western American libertarian attitudes over the past half-century) has yet managed to articulate.”

    Couldn’t agree more. It is curious that Mormons have become so enamored with the far right of American conservatism when the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants presents such a starkly different commentary on social justice than most members are willing to consider.

  10. UltraMontane says:

    Great is a term used by popular acclaim only and by history itself, not an official title. Only three popes have held this honor in the past.

  11. Isaiah 2: 1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

    2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

    3 And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in this paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

    4. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

    5. O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD.

    In his Christmas message delivered in Vatican Square, Pope Francis challenged peoples of all faiths as well as agnostics to work for peace and turn away from war. Soon he will be visiting Israel where he is expected to call for peace there. Does Pope Francis know something which we have forgotten?

  12. I was Catholic for 20 years and then converted to Mormonism 5 months ago. I can honestly say, as someone who has lived through JP2, Benedict XVI, and Francis, I have no problem with any one of them. They were all wonderful men who sought God. Pope Benedict calls his book series “Jesus of Nazareth” (which I highly recommend) his personal search for the face of the Lord.

    I personally hate how the media tries to play Francis against Benedict (Francis is humble, Benedict isn’t. Francis is kind and Christlike, Benedict was evil). However if you look closely, THEY’RE THE SAME! The only difference is that Benedict is a German scholar and Francis is an Argentine Jesuit. If you read “Fr. Z’s Blog” (http://wdtprs.com/blog/) you’ll see they are the same! From Blessed John Paul the Great, to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, to Pope Francis there has been a wonderful sense of continuity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help the progressive media narrative of Francis to admit that.

  13. Totally. In terms of policies and dogmas, they’re virtually identical. But Francis knows messaging and he seems like a different man. This is something to applaud, I think.

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