Icon (Close Menu)

Pope Francis: Shifting the Language

By Hannah Matis

This spring marks the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election, and I have been browsing the editorials released to mark the occasion, as well as paging through a recent collection of short essays, A Pope Francis Lexicon. The essays are remarkably diverse, and the editors are to be commended for their insistence on representatives from every corner of the world and in particular for their inclusion of so many women. Alongside Archbishop Justin Welby and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, I was struck by the number of adjunct instructors who have been included: they are, certainly, the academic equivalent of the periphery and the margin. That said, this is not a particularly academic collection, and for anyone looking for a way in to understand the unique perspective of the present pope, this is an excellent place to begin. Fittingly for Francis, who has been more than usually willing to listen to conflict and criticism, these essays are honest and sometimes critical.

Five years in, Francis remains, if not a paradox, then definitely an emulsion: holding together within himself a whole constellation of elements that map uncomfortably onto everyone’s expectations. After the pontificate of that consummate insider, Benedict XVI, Pope Francis deliberately sets out to confound. He does this in part through language, deliberately taking up idiomatic Spanish — “Hagan lío!” — or caustic characterizations of spiritual inwardness, such as his pungent injunction that a Christian should not be a “sourpuss.” He does the same thing in gesture: consider his dismissal of personal solemnity and an embrace of collegiality with other bishops and with ecumenical colleagues, or the time he held the hand of a little girl with Down’s syndrome while giving a homily. He is as aware as his own namesake, Francis of Assisi, of the disarming power of an enacted parable, and conversely, that to speak in parables is, unavoidably, to invoke Christ.

Whatever else he is, then, Pope Francis is a gifted and flexible popular communicator, much more in the vein of John Paul II and the spirit of Vatican II than his immediate predecessor. This appears to be a highly deliberate and conscious strategy on his part, and worthy of both of the two streams of the spiritual tradition that he invokes: the enthusiasm of Francis and the sober self-awareness of Ignatius. It is also worth remembering that the pope would have come of age surrounded by the glamour of Juan Perón in Argentina, and therefore could be said to know a thing or two about the power of charismatic populism.

Not surprisingly, then, the resistance Francis has encountered has largely been from his Curia, whom he has accused of the following gorgeous list of spiritual vices:

thinking they are “immortal,” “immune,” or downright “indispensable”; the “Martha complex,” or excessive busy-ness; mental and spiritual “petrification”; excessive planning and of functionalism; poor coordination; “spiritual Alzheimer’s”; rivalry and vainglory; existential schizophrenia; gossiping, grumbling, and back-biting; idolizing superiors; indifference to others; lugubriousness; hoarding; closed circles; seeking worldly profit, and forms of self-exhibition. (38)

It’s not a bad list to think with, at any institution or spiritual community.

Much of the Pope Francis lexicon can be summed up in his effort to shift the orientation and energies of the Roman Catholic Church from introversion to extroversion: from the center to the periphery, from Europe to the Global South, from the rich to the poor and the refugee, from the clergy to the laity, and to speak on behalf of the family and the planet and of the Church as a field hospital. He has pushed for transparency, particularly with regard to the finances of the Vatican and the internal workings of the Vatican Bank, and is crisply critical of the excesses of untrammeled capitalism and its harm to the environment. Again, perhaps unsurprisingly, the other major center of resistance the pope has encountered has been from American Catholic bishops, caught in the particular polarization of American politics of the last decade and in the troubling alliance — in recent years and in certain circles — of Catholic family values language with conservative Evangelical and Republican political ideology. Those cardinals who pleaded with Francis at the end of November to address several dubia questions raised by the encyclical Amoris Laetitia are not likely to have their anxieties stilled by Monday’s apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, in which Francis sets care for the poor and refugee on a par with pro-life activism.

To many, then, in America, Francis sounds liberal. I would suggest that this says far more about America than it does about Pope Francis. When more than half the world’s population will face water shortages within our lifetime, sustainable care of creation and strategies to combat global warming must cease to be a partisan issue; in the Global South from which Francis hails, it already has.

On the other hand, those expecting a liberal progressive agenda from Francis have found themselves equally frustrated, despite or even because of his ostensibly supportive language of gay and divorced couples, and with regard to the place of women within the Catholic Church. The pope’s anti-clericalism, ironically, may combine with a complementarian understanding of gender roles to militate against women’s ordination: to women who insist that the only way they will truly be taken seriously within their church is to be ordained on a par with male clergy, this is small comfort.

Others have expressed frustration at the pace with which sexual abuse cases have been handled. If, as I heard repeatedly in the early days of his pontificate, Francis was the necessary outsider elected with the intention that he clean out the stables, then for victims progress has been slow and agonizing and still unsatisfactory.

As I have heard and read, it is perhaps ironic, then, that the Roman Catholic Church is in certain respects less hierarchical than it looks or pretends to be: Francis cannot and does not have the institutional authority to do everything himself with regard to these issues, even were he to try. Ultimately he is, as he stated, a sinner under the mercy of God, who can only present a model to the Christian community. He is not a messiah. As such he represents himself as a listener and as someone comfortable sitting with the tensions of the flock he must pastor. That in and of itself represents a paradigm shift, and one by now familiar to anyone in the Anglican Communion.




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

Patristic Sex and Society

When you hear the name Michel Foucault, what do you think of? For many younger denizens of our contemporary...

Episcopal Jenga

Reflecting on the July session of the Church of England’s General Synod and considering where we now find...

A Recommendation of the Acton Institute

I have been attending theology conferences for over 40 years, and I have just returned from a conference...

Wycliffe College and the Character of Anglicanism

Wycliffe College came into being in the midst of a bitter dispute over what it meant to be...