Many news organizations are gearing up to evaluate Pope Francis’s papacy as we approach the tenth anniversary of his election. To be sure, any assessment of a living pope’s impact is bound to be distorted by the internal church conflicts and secular pressures of the moment. I don’t propose to offer such an assessment here, but I thought it might be interesting to look back at a written symposium I participated in for the Wall Street Journal in March 2013, just after Benedict’s resignation.
The symposium was titled “What to Look for in a New Pope,” and the participants included Catholic writers from across the ideological spectrum, beginning with Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and ending with yours truly. In between, you could find papal biographer and neoconservative polemicist George Weigel, novelist and New Yorker contributor James Carroll, NCR columnist Michael Sean Winters, and Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The panel was pretty evenly divided between those presumably more skeptical of theological and ecclesial reform and those presumably more receptive to it. The WSJ editors gave each short contibution a catchy title responding to the question posed in the headline. Weigel’s answer was “A Culture Warrior”; Carroll’s, “A Catholic Gorbachev”; Winters’s, “Among the Poor”; and Eberstadt’s, “Ready to Play Offense.” Noonan wanted the next pope to be “Joyous Anyway”—meaning joyous despite the unfolding sexual abuse crisis—and the title for my piece was “A Californian,” which I will explain below.
Winters and Noonan seem to have come closest to predicting what the future Pope Francis would bring to the papacy from “the end of the world,” as he called his native Argentina. “The next pope should be a man who can greet the world with a look of pleasure on his face, with a smile of joy. He should not come forward with the sad, bent posture of one who knows the world is in ruins,” Noonan wrote. John Paul II and Benedict XVI made the faith seem “somewhat abstract and cerebral.” Noonan wanted the next pope to “journey constantly to the outside,” to “invite sunlight” by opening the Vatican’s doors and windows. Many argue that Francis has done precisely that, much to the discomfort of the Church’s bureaucracy. He has also identified himself “more closely with the world’s poor,” thus giving “visible evidence of Catholicism’s deep-seated suspicions of modern consumer capitalism,” as Winters had hoped.