A pope who reminds us of the church we know

The historian Molly Worthen has a worthwhile essay about (what else) Pope Francis in the American Prospect, which you should read now or save for a day when you're not too poped out. Worthen, the author of the new book Apostles of Reason (and a friend from my undergraduate days), offers a quick and perceptive summary of the history of American attitudes toward the pope. But it's her explanation for the "Francis Effect" that I found most insightful. It gets at a truth I don't think I've seen articulated anywhere else.

Liberal and conservative Catholics have "found cause for complaint" with Francis's priorities, she notes, and yet:

Despite this grumbling, the vast majority of American Catholics (88 percent, as of December) approve of Francis. The reason is not because they believe he will settle questions that have troubled the church for generations. Rather, his example—his decision to wash the feet not of fellow priests but of juvenile inmates on Holy Thursday; his invitation to homeless men to join him on his birthday—reminds many Catholics of what the church means to them on a daily basis and what they hope it means to the world.

Francis, as Worthen writes, has "reframed" the church's "resistance to secular Western pluralism," moving decisively away from the culture-war approach that for decades has driven the Catholic hierarchy and helped build bridges with non-Catholic Christians in the United States while alienating many ordinary Catholics. Professional culture warriors -- people on both sides who have staked their reputations on standing in strong opposition to each other -- have been left struggling to regain their footing. Thus the spectacle of George Weigel on the one hand and Patricia Miller on the other, both in total agreement that whatever fascinates people about Pope Francis is irrelevant, and everything important is the same as it ever was.

I don't think most of the "people in the pews" who are so excited about Francis really need to be told that big, dramatic changes are hardly imminent when it comes to married priests, women's ordination, birth control, and so forth. We're not new on earth. But I do think most of us had gotten used to the idea that the pope was somehow not of this earth, and so it's a shock, a delightful one, to see a man we seem to recognize in the papal chair. I like the way Worthen puts it: he "reminds" us of the church we know; he seems to live in it with us. Just a couple months into his papacy, he spoke in a homily about the need to be "facilitators of the faith of the people," instead of "controllers of the faith." And to illustrate his point, he gave some examples of people who might come to a parish looking to be married, or to have a baby baptized, only to be discouraged by their encounter with an officious or unwelcoming parish secretary. I was astonished -- the pope knows about something as real-world and basic as parish secretaries! He even knows about how they kind of run things, and how their dispositions are a major asset or obstacle to successful ministry. Why should that be so surprising? And yet it is -- and I think maintaining that footing in Catholicism-as-it-is-lived has everything to do with Francis's decisions to style himself as "bishop of Rome" and to decline to live in the papal apartments, at a decorous remove from the rest of us.

Francis does remind me of favorite pastors and priests and other church ministers I've known, and of so many of the things that shape my life of faith. And he reminds people of what Nicholas Kristof once rather reductively called "the other Catholic Church" -- and in doing so illustrates the error in looking at the church that way. That's why I think there's so much enthusiasm for Francis, and so much hope that his papacy is the beginning of a new day in the church -- hope that may not be tied to specific reforms, but is no less substantial for that. I see Francis gently marginalizing those who have worked hard to define Catholicism in a way that pushes many believers to the margins. And it turns out a lot of Catholics would really prefer that there be just the one church.

"American Catholics themselves," Worthen writes, "often seem impatient to pronounce verdicts on the pope rather than to alter their beliefs or conduct on the basis of his counsel." Guilty. And when the pope seems like a distant oracle, it's easy to compartmentalize. Francis, on the other hand, issues challenges that are hard to ignore. If he represents what most of us love about the church, and what we "hope it means to the wider world," he also reminds us in an especially vivid way that we're the ones who are responsible for making the church the world sees look the way it's supposed to look.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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