Communication problems are usually not just communication problems: this is as true at the Vatican as it is anywhere else. The fiasco surrounding Benedict XVI’s letter declining an invitation to write the introduction for a series of volumes on Pope Francis’s theology was more than a PR snafu. It reveals deeper issues in the ongoing transition from the pontificate of Benedict XVI to the pontificate of Francis.
In his now-famous letter about Francis’s theology, Benedict XVI rejected the “foolish prejudice of those who see Pope Francis as someone who lacks a particular theological and philosophical formation.” Benedict also insisted on an “interior unity” between his papacy and that of his successor. Nevertheless, it is clear, five years into Francis’s pontificate, that Catholic theology—at least in Europe and North America—has yet to receive and fully explore the theology of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. There have been notable exceptions and new efforts are underway. But the fact that we had to wait until the fifth year of this pontificate for an Italian philosopher, Massimo Borghesi, to write the first intellectual biography of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is significant. It underscores the difference between the way this pope has been understood and the way the two previous popes were. From the beginning of their pontificates, John Paul II and Benedict XVI were treated as serious theologians. Francis, by contrast, has been treated—even by some of his admirers—as if he were less interested in theology, and less intellectual in general. This is partly a reflection of the fact that European and North American Catholic theology still does not take Latin American theology as seriously as it should. It is also partly attributable to Francis’s inability to forge productive relationships with academic theologians.
This is not just about Francis himself; it will also be an issue for the conclave that chooses his successor. In the decades before Francis, Catholicism addressed itself to the secular world in intellectual terms in order to combat what Rome regarded as a cultural crisis. The papacy has been a powerful shaper of this intellectualization of Catholicism because of the election of popes whose message was more theological-intellectual than pastoral. In the past, popes tended to entrust the intellectual part of the church’s mission to others—the Holy Office, religious orders, universities and academies, etc. The evolution of the papacy toward a more intellectual focus is part of a larger process: the weakening of the role of cultural gatekeepers in the relationship between the church at large and the pope. The commercial success of books written by the past three popes is one sign of this change; Catholics want to hear directly from the man at the top, and not only in his official utterances. One function of theologians was to mediate between the Vatican and the laity, but in the era of pope-as-a-theologian-in-chief that function has been rendered mostly redundant.
Now the understanding of the pope’s role with respect to Catholic theology is shifting again under Francis, and this has left many feeling unsettled. The transition from the last pontificate to this one has been complicated less by the personal relationship between Benedict and Francis than by disagreements about the proper job description of the modern papacy.
That brings us to a second problem highlighted by the crisis in the Vatican communications office: the conflict between the expectation that the pope should manage and reform the Curia—a demanding task unto itself—and the expectation that the pope should continue to play a more charismatic role, a role that began to take shape with the First Vatican Council’s declarations of papal primacy and papal infallibility. In recent decades the mass media have amplified this aspect of the papacy, and it is precisely this that has made it so difficult for one pope to step aside and make way for another. The close association of the papal office with the personality of whoever happens to be pope makes it harder for many people to accept, or even conceive of, a resignation. So far at least, there has been a failure to understand the ecclesiological implications of the modern papacy’s charismatic character—and in particular the way mass media and social media have reshaped the papacy in recent decades.