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The mysteries of Pope Francis

By Peter McDonough


If you’ve visited Rome, you may have noticed that the Jesuit headquarters, right off St. Peter’s Square, overlooks — “looks down on” — the Vatican. Jesuits are fond of reminding visitors, with a smile, of this topographical curiosity and its symbolic freight.

Much Vaticanology depends on this sort of it-can’t be-just-an-accident logic. What is Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope, really up to?

It is hard to overestimate the importance of Francis’ Jesuit background in shaping his approach to the papacy. He is a rare bird. He is a Jesuit who has had a significant career within the Society of Jesus, as a provincial superior of the order in Argentina. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis became prominent as well as in the episcopal arena. He is about as cosmopolitan a pope as the church has seen since John XXIII, who was a professional diplomat.

Moreover, when he was a leader in the Jesuits, Francis participated in drafting the statement, put together a decade or so ago, by the Latin American provincials of the Society of Jesus, that criticized “the Washington consensus” espousing neo-liberal economics and the gospel of the free market. Francis’ rhetorical credentials on the social question are indisputable. Since the mid-1970s the Society of Jesus has taken a strong stand in favor of a “preferential option for the poor.”

During his visit to Brazil, Francis was dubbed “the pope of the people.” Once we probe beneath the populist language, however, Francis runs up against obstacles and interests tied more to the constraints of the papal office than to his Jesuit origins.

Pope Francis at Varginha, 27 July 2013.
Pope Francis at Varginha, 27 July 2013. Photo by Tânia Rêgo/ABr (Agência Brasil), CC by 3.0-Brazil, via Wikimedia Commons.

Besides matters of social justice, the big issue facing Catholicism is “the sexual question”—the rights of women, gays, etc. in and outside the church. It is hard for Francis, for any pope, to move on the latter set of issues. They touch directly on the hierarchical configuration of the church, its sexism, in ways that matters of economic policy do not. They cut to the quick of institutional Catholicism.

It is possible to argue that the sexual question, at least as it applies to controversies like the ordination of women and married men, is secondary to the preferential option for the poor. Such concerns have a hot-house air to them. Yet observers of the church in Latin America have been struck by the appeal that evangelical “sects” have for women. Women preach regularly on the evangelical channels coming out of Rio and São Paulo. The support that evangelical churches give to women, many of them down-and-out, struggling with feckless partners, has overtaken the faded attractions of liberation theology.

In effect, two things are going on here. First, evangelicals pay attention to and include women. Second, many draw on variations on the prosperity gospel. Neither is a tune that Francis plays.

Nevertheless, the new pope is developing a strategy of his own. It is to shift priorities rather than change doctrine outright.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI wound up fixating on matters of authority and sexuality, in an extended reaction to the ’60s. This agenda lingers, but it is showing signs of wear. Pope Francis cultivates a more tolerant manner than either John Paul II or Benedict. His talk of social justice is less strident, less radical than the language used by some of his Jesuit peers; he sounds like a social democrat. And his attitude toward gays sounds more accommodating.

Again, the shift is in the register of the voice more than the substance of the message. Jesuits gained fame not only as explorers but as confessors at the courts of Europe. Confessors listen. There is something to the old saying that it is not what you say but how you say it that matters. The advice is cogent for an institution to which fewer and fewer people pay attention, no matter what it pronounces upon.

Will the strategy succeed? If “succeed” means to stem the drop in adherents not only in Latin America but in the United States, the answer is doubtful. The twin inroads made by evangelical churches and secularization are unlikely to be undone.

At the same time, Francis’ style may manage to dial down the religious temperature. This could be a genuine contribution in polarized times. One of his great predecessors, the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, pulled this off when he drafted the decree on religious liberty that was adopted half a century ago at Vatican II. Then, Catholicism came to recognize democratic pluralism as a legitimate political system. The church faces a similar challenge today in dealing with the internal politics of its treatment of women and gays and dissent in general.

Faced with the challenges of modernity, the church has behaved like a patriarch that has never quite grown up. That predicament is increasingly anomalous and probably untenable. As a Jesuit, Pope Francis knows a bit about casuistry. He also knows about the importance of imagery, trial balloons, bullet points, and the culture of propaganda. Nuance is the coin of the realm in the land of absolutes.

Peter McDonough has written two books on the Jesuits and others on democratization in Brazil and Spain. His most recent book is The Catholic Labyrinth: Power, Apathy, and a Passion for Reform in the American Church. He lives in Glendale, California. Read his previous OUPblog posts.

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Recent Comments

  1. gene bianchi

    Peter, excellent comments. I got to this via Kaiser and Companions. A topic we may underplay in all the hoopla is the economics of change in the church. Follow the money. You might start with the Vatican Bank. Could they shut it and sustain the livelihoods in the Vatican? Much of the resistance to change in the high clergy and its structure comes down to who owns the plant. My God, Peter, do you want women to sign those checks?

    I write poems in my new cloistered life of old age, wrestling with one on that topic. Best. Gene

  2. [...] McDonough suggests the Pope’s emphasis on women in the Church is a reaction to “the appeal that evangelical ‘sects’ have for women” in Latin [...]

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