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.
Weigel’s predictable call for “A Culture Warrior” was made in the context of what Catholicism’s “social doctrine” teaches about human dignity and human nature—teachings fundamental to the health of liberal democracy. Democratic citizens need certain moral virtues if they are to resist contemporary culture’s materialism, “cold pragmatism,” and narrow emphasis on “utility.” Fair enough. Unfortunately, Weigel advanced that claim with canned complaints about “the encroachment of the Leviathan state.”
Carroll and Eberstadt made for a complementary pairing in their conflicting certitudes. Carroll wanted the next pope to “dismantle” the Church’s hierarchy, much the way Mikhail Gorbachev appeared to outmaneuver the Soviet Union’s apparatchiks. The new pope, Carroll wrote, should “challenge the ruling elite, lay bare his power center’s secrets and sideline the bureaucracies that oppose reform.” Eberstadt saw the Church’s crisis as just the opposite, and urged the next pope to deploy its “most underutilized asset” by vigorously championing “doctrinal orthodoxy.” Carroll longed for the Church to embrace “feminism, gay rights, freedom of conscience,” while Eberstadt warned against any effort to “remake the Catholic Church by aligning it with that North Star of modernity, the sexual revolution.”
Why did I want a Californian? Well, that was not exactly what I wrote, although I appreciated the headline writer’s teasing provocation. What I did write was that the next pope should be “a bit of a Californian.” I opened the piece by quoting the novelist Walker Percy’s cantankerous assertion that Catholics had to choose between “either Rome or California.” In Percy’s mind, California stood for everything alienating, dehumanizing, and spiritually moribund in modern life, while Roman Catholicism offered the true, if demanding, path to human flourishing. I thought that was a false choice. The Church would have to come to terms with everything California represented; retreating from the modern world was not an option. “Rome is no refuge; it never has been, and as recent scandals remind us, never could be,” I wrote. “Yet Rome has much missionary work to do—in California and elsewhere. That work will require a change in tone and a refusal to condemn what it cannot yet understand.” In conclusion, I quoted the philosopher Charles Taylor. Rome proposes “too many answers choking off questions and too little sense of the enigmas that accompany a life of faith; these are what stop a conversation from ever starting between our Church and much of our world.”
As the fierce backlash over Pope Francis’s Synod on Synodality makes plain, the divisions among Catholics evident in the Wall Street Journal’s symposium are still very much with us. Some conservative Catholics have even called the synod’s listening sessions “madness.” But our current pope seems determined to start the sort of conversation “between our church and much of our world” that Taylor called for. At the same time, Francis has given no indication that he is interested in dismantling Catholicism’s hierarchical structure. Instead, he focuses on the concrete and personal ways in which the Church presents itself to the world, confident that the “abstract and cerebral” dimensions of the faith are secure. He has emphatically turned away from the culture wars Weigel and Eberstadt demanded, placing himself, as Winters hoped, “among the poor” at nearly every turn. The enigmas of a life of faith are evidently familiar to him. He is no Californian, but he does seem to have a kind of Californian optimism about the future of both the world and the Church. As Noonan hoped, he is joyous anyway.