Watch What They Do: Francis I and the Direction of the Roman Catholic Church

Bill Evans head shot

Vatican watching has again become a major media pastime.  With the shift from what was widely perceived as the stuffy and ineffective papacy of Benedict XVI to that of Francis I, the first non-European Pope since the eighth century (and a charismatic fellow at that), there is a general sense that winds of change in the Roman Catholic Church are blowing.  In fact, sitting on my desk right now is the December 23, 2013 issue of Time with Pope Francis on the cover as “Person of the Year.”   All this excitement in the mainstream media is not surprising, for the direction is now becoming a bit more clear, and the liberal media apparently likes what it sees.

An early indicator was the in-flight interview given by the Pope during his trip to South America in July.  Bemoaning the church’s “obsession” with social issues, the Pope opined that the church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”  He went on to say, “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge,” adding that “it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person” (for these and other quotes, go here).

On the face of it, however, these statements are exceedingly odd, since the Roman Catholic Church has never insisted “only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” and the penitential system is all about efforts to “interfere spiritually in the life of a person” for their good.

Responses to the papal interview in question ranged from excitement at what appears to be a new openness to change on social and moral issues, to skepticism by gay and lesbian voices because church doctrine on sexuality issues was not being changed, to nervous suggestions on the right that the apparent change in direction was more style than substance, or that the pope was using the media for his own ends.

About that time I had an extended conversation with an academic colleague, himself a cultural conservative and recent convert to Roman Catholicism, in which I expressed my own concerns that Roman Catholic capitulation on issues of basic Christian morality could be disastrous for Christianity generally—Protestant as well as Roman Catholic.  His response understandably echoed the “more style than substance” argument, but I’m increasingly skeptical.

Up to this point, all these explanations of the papal language have been to some degree plausible.  But the Roman Catholic Church is a vast bureaucracy, and we have learned that when dealing with bureaucracies we must pay at least as much attention to what those in charge do as to what they say.  Particularly important are the crucial personnel choices made.  As they used to say in Washington during the early days of the Reagan administration, “personnel is policy.”

All this makes the Pope’s recent appointment of Washington, DC prelate Donald Cardinal Wuerl to the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, the vitally important group that selects new bishops for the Pope’s approval, that much more interesting.  As George Neumayr of the American Spectator notes, Wuerl has been at odds with his predecessor in the Congregation, Raymond Cardinal Burke, over Wuerl’s penchant for serving communion to Democratic politicians who support abortion on demand.   The Pope’s abrupt removal of Burke, a favorite of his predecessor Benedict, and his replacement of Burke with Wuerl seem to people on both the right and left to be significant indicators about the direction of this current papacy.  Neumayr may well be correct in describing this as an example of “in-your-face papal politics” in which “the bad guys have won.”

Thus far the passions of Francis seem to involve the relationship between the church and economic realties (his suspicions of capitalism reflect his background in South America, with its vast disparity between rich and poor, and the legacy of Liberation Theology) and the relationship between the church and culture, as evidenced by his clear desire to move beyond conflict over sexuality issues.  An obvious question emerges—what are the implications of such a papacy for the Roman Catholic Church and for Christendom more broadly?

Most fundamentally, we may well be seeing a reboot of the Roman Church’s aggiornamento (updating) process that began with Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.  Though this progressive impulse was restrained by the lengthy conservative papacy of John-Paul II, there are tremendous cultural pressures, especially in Western Europe and North America, demanding accommodation to the contemporary context.  Part and parcel of this impulse will likely be a de-emphasis of traditional doctrine and a focus on this worldly matters.

With such a trajectory we can expect the Roman Catholic Church to look more and more like liberal Protestantism.  And this, of course, does not bode well for the Roman Church, for it is Liberal Protestantism, with its wholesale accommodation to modernity and postmodernity, that has declined most precipitously in recent decades.  There is considerable anecdotal evidence suggesting that the current enrollment uptick in Catholic seminaries is driven by conservative vitality (after the progressive impulses unleashed by Vatican II had emptied many of them).

Nor does this bode well for American Christianity and society more generally, for it is the Roman Catholic Church that has most consistently carried the flag in recent years on issues such as religious freedom and society’s responsibility to protect the unborn.  Roman Catholic institutions were among the first to challenge the contraceptive mandate of Obamacare.  And while Evangelicalism has provided much entrepreneurial leadership for American Christianity, the intellectual heavy lifting has more often been done by Roman Catholics.  It is Roman Catholic thinkers such as Robert George of Princeton, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, the late Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and others that have spoken most substantively and compellingly about the relationship of religious faith, morality, culture, and politics.

All this is to say that conservative Protestants should pay close attention to this new Pope, and to the direction of the Roman Church.  There is a lot at stake.