In the new issue of the New York Review of Books, church historian and sometime Commonweal contributor Eamon Duffy has an excellent review-essay on three books about Pope Francis. I don’t think anything Duffy writes will come as news to most Commonweal readers, but he does cover a lot of territory with his usual nuanced approach to Catholic issues, in his customary elegant prose.

Duffy is perhaps best known for Saints and Sinners, a comprehensive but accessible history of the papacy. He made his academic reputation with The Stripping of the Altars, a study of pre-Reformation Catholicism in England, a book that changed our understanding of the often misunderstood upheavals of that period by documenting the popularity and vitality of traditional Catholic practice and belief. A favorite Duffy book of mine is Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition, a collection of essays that strikes the right balance between the inevitability of change in the church and the even greater need to rely on the resources of the tradition to guide those developments. “Faithfulness to that tradition is not a matter of uncritical obedience to authority; it is a shared labor of learning, in which we work together to draw new and surprising growth from the old soil,” he wrote. Tradition is “the trace of a complex shared life, rather than a clear-cut compendium of answers.”

In his NYRB piece, Duffy emphasizes the fact that Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after the Second Vatican Council. He does not pine for some allegedly lost, golden age when the church claimed to be a perfect society. Francis’s “commitment to conciliar values is instinctive, strong, and different in kind from that of either of his immediate predecessors,” Duffy writes.

I think that gets at what is perhaps the most obvious nature of the change in tone and focus coming from the Vatican, and that instinctive commitment to the council goes hand in hand with Francis’s determination to encourage debate among the bishops and his sure-to-be-contested push to return real decision-making authority to the local church. Duffy also notes how different Francis’s idea of priesthood is from “the exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates.” He cautions that, although those in the pews are cheering on these developments, many of those ordained during the past thirty-five years are likely to have a difficult time adjusting to Francis’s often blunt critique of clericalism. Divisions within the church are deep and not easily bridged.

In that regard, I was reminded of a short piece by the philosopher Charles Taylor (“The Church Speaks—To Whom”) where he observes that the church, at least in Europe and North America, is going to remain divided for some time. Many Catholics are seeking spiritual and religious engagement, but reject “ready-made” answers to every moral and doctrinal question. A smaller, but still significant number of Catholics, cherish Catholicism precisely because it insists that it has always had those answers. The challenge we face, Taylor writes, is “that of holding together in one sacramental union modes of living the faith which have at present no affinity for each other, and even are tempted to condemn each other.”    

I don’t think Duffy is merely being a cheerleader. He is too devoted to the value of tradition for that. He’s also well aware of the challenge Taylor is concerned about. But as best I can tell from everything else I’ve read, Duffy’s essay is an essentially accurate description of the surprising things that are going on in Rome. I have been skeptical about the ability of any new pope to dramatically set a different course for the church, and I realize that anything Francis has put in motion can easily be reversed by a successor. Nor do I think it is a good idea for Catholics to focus so intently on any one pope, no matter how congenial they find his actions and words. But I confess that I find myself rooting for this pope to find a way to move us off the dime while still holding the whole “Catholic Thing” together. Francis does seem “different in kind.”

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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