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Pope Francis is sparking interest, but Catholic observers do not see theological change

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon - Pope Francis just might upstage an upcoming Saint Louis University symposium on the 2014 canonizations of two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II.

The session’s title is “On Earth As It Is In Heaven --The Canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II.” Its tagline, “The Church in the World Today,” opens the way to talk about Francis.

The two speakers -- Russell R. Reno and the Rev. Matthew Malone, a Jesuit, both New York-based religious magazine editors -- are ready with thoughtful takes on these 20th century popes advocacy for peace and the poor, among other issues.

However, each editor said that since March almost everywhere he has spoken in public -- no matter the topic -- the questions and comments focus on Francis. A few on the far right may think he’s too edgy, but symposium speaker Russell R. Reno advises them to relax.

“He’s what people want to talk about,” Reno, editor of “First Things.” an interreligious, nonpartisan magazine founded in 1990. Its writers include Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish theologians and leaders who generally support conservative public policies and social positions.

The academic periodical is closely associated with the thought of its founder, Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran who became a Catholic priest.

For months Francis’ actions and ideas have occupied Malone, editor of the Jesuit weekly “America” magazine. Its Sept. 30 edition published Italian Jesuit Antonio Spadaro’s tradition-breaking interview with Francis: “A Big Heart Open to God.” The interview has been called an “extemporaneous encyclical.” Church groups are using it for discussion sessions.

“People, not just Catholics, are fascinated, inspired by him,” Malone said.

A pope may gain more attention than ever in history, he said.

“Because our attention is so defused, our interests so fragmented, add to that our interest in celebrity, people can focus on Francis as a person,” Malone said. “Actually it’s rather helpful.”

Who is Francis?

“Francis is a different generation coming after a 35-year period of ‘dual papacies’ -- two intellectual popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who had endured Nazi domination” Reno said.

“Both had a profound sense of the power of evil,” Reno said.

John Paul spoke frequently of the “culture of death.” And just before his election as pope, Benedict warned that the West was “building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

As for the new pope, “Francis is not European, naturally Francis’ style and empathies are different,” Reno said. “Francis lived through the Argentina’s junta which was not so all black or all white the way Nazi (fascism) was,” Reno said.

(Human rights groups say that 30,000 people were killed during Argentina’s military junta from 1976-83. The military dictatorship fizzled after the British defeated the Argentine military in the Falklands War.)

Francis’ freer style and candor -- phoning lay strangers, smiling when a little boy hung out on his papal chair, washing non-Catholic prisoners’ feet on Holy Thursday -- are generally embraced but his style makes some conservative Catholics anxious, Reno said he has found.

This is even though Francis has led devotions to Mary, supported Benedict’s warnings about moral relativism, warned against “narcissistic, consumeristic and hedonistic” trends, echoed  John Paul’s condemnation of abortion, called for church to serve the poor and elderly.

“They (conservatives) are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the 1970s and ’80,” Reno said.

“Francis may sound to them like some priests in the 1970s who went to their parish pulpits to announce that they were leaving the priesthood. It is my view that the ‘70s Catholic relativism was very unfruitful. Many priests left, some Catholics stopped going to church. For two generations orthodox Catholics have been betrayed by some bishops.”

A few Catholic universities have given warm attention to other faiths and little intellectual attention to their own, Reno finds. But he thinks conservative Catholics should be patient and less wary of Francis.

“I feel very confident that their anxiety is not (founded). This is 2013. Not 1973,” Reno said. “Pope Francis is working to help people find God in the world.”

Part of their anxiety comes from reading enthusiastic articles in the secular press by writers with scant expertise in religion.

Reno and Malone both said that since Francis’ election they have been amused when someone quotes “the pope” and swoons over its fresh relevance not knowing that Pope Benedict XVI wrote the words before his retirement.  

“Francis has never been to the U.S. so we should not suppose he only is talking to us,” Reno said. Francis is reaching out to the developing world of the church in Asia and Africa.

“A Nigerian Catholic is not worried about the dictatorship of relativism but is more concerned with a dictatorship of Sharia Law.

“We in America, the U.S., are not the center of the Catholic world,” he said.

Based on two decades in academia teaching theology and ethics at Creighton University in Omaha, Reno predicts that Francis’ efforts in dialogue with secularists and atheists may be unfulfilling -- just as fruitless as Benedict’s disappointing dialogue and gifts of liturgical exceptions to members of the Society of Pius X. The society founded by French Bishop Marcel Lefebvre  opposes the Second Vatican Council’s changes. Its members have been excommunicated and hold services in Latin in their own churches in this country and Europe.  

“My 20 years in academia make me sure that various factions – Lefebvre’s (followers) or secularist and atheists – are looking for victory rather than compromise,” he said.

In the early 2000s, when Reno served on the Episcopal House of Bishop’s theological committee, he called himself an Augustine Anglican on a similar path as St. Louis native T.S. Eliot. He wrote the book “In the Ruins of the Church; Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity” and has called the Episcopal Church “disastrously, disordered and disarrayed.” In 2004 at the age of 45, he became Catholic. Reno became “First Things” editor in 2011.

Reno warns people to carefully think twice about wildly popular ideas about Francis in secular programs and publications.

One church, in dialogue

Even the announcement that John XXIII and John Paul II would be canonized at the same April Mass got observers reading tea leaves about why Francis decided to pair the ceremonies.

Either of the two 20th century popes would draw overflowing crowds to St. Peter’s Square.

“Some people were surprised that both men will be canonized at the same time because some observers see John as conservative and John Paul as more liberal,” Malone said.

“Of course, I can’t read the mind of the pope but I don’t think he sees them that way. I don’t.” Malone said. “I’m not surprised that Francis made a conscience decision to canonize both the same day.

“Pope Francis is reminding us that though both popes were different, what these two men have in common is holiness. Holiness does not mean you have to be right on everything.”

Malone says that often in the secular press there is a tendency to write a story with a protagonist and an antagonist.

“You have this duality, a way of telling a story that works in national politics,” Malone said. “It does not work in the church. The church is not a political body with factions but a sacrament, a communion (of the faithful).”

Categories defining popes, bishops, priests and the laity as liberal or conservative many be handy for the 24/7 news cycle but such shorthand forces people into niches. “It can damage discourse and understanding,” Malone said.

The two popes to be canonized in April came from different times, different places and had different training within the church, Malone said.

“John XXIII was a diplomat; John Paul II a theologian and philosopher,” Malone said. The dual canonization provides an opportunity to examine their differences and how we might become holy.”

Without the Second Vatican Council and John casting his nets beyond Western Europe and America to name cardinals “it is unlikely that a Pole would have been elected pope,” Malone said.

As a Jesuit, Malone has watched interest in Francis, the first Jesuit pope, increase worldwide interest in his society.

“The effect is two-fold,” he said. “First, more interest in what the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits’ formal name) is up to. How we work, how we live, our vows, our spirituality.

“More importantly, Francis’ election has helped to heal the vestiges of hurts that remained between the Society in 1980s and the Vatican,” Malone said referring to John Paul II’ s intervention in their election and leadership. John Paul abruptly named a new Jesuit superior general when a properly elected general had a stroke. Jesuits, the largest order of men in the Catholic Church, always had elected their own superior general. 

“Our Jesuit mission is in the margins,” Malone said. “It grows in tough places. Over 400 years sometimes relations with the papacy were rocky but the Society was never estranged from church.”

At the SLU symposium Malone may get in word about what he considers Benedict’s heroic and radical decision to retire.

“When he humbly announced his resignation and said ‘I am not the man for this moment’ he created a space for what has happened with Francis,” Malone said. “What world leader gives up power?”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.