There was much talk during the recent conclave in Rome, as there usually is at such times, about the Catholic church as a medieval institution. Occasionally that took the mild form of newspaper Sunday supplement pieces brightly describing the voting process in the Sistine Chapel. More often it combined a sneer at the past with an attack on the present.
In the face of a wild, almost hysterical national rejoicing—Argentinians flooding the churches to weep in joy, parading through the streets to cheer in a way not seen since Poland went mad in the wake of John Paul II’s election 35 years ago—Argentina’s president Cristina Kirchner could not avoid issuing a statement of congratulations when her old enemy Jorge Bergoglio, cardinal of Buenos Aires, was elected Pope Francis by the Roman conclave on March 13. But her earlier denunciation of the man as the residue of “medieval times and the Inquisition” reflects her better documented view. The Middle Ages are the Dark Ages, and the Enlightenment has left those terrible, benighted times behind, except for the strange anomaly of the Catholic church, and, well, Ecclesia delenda est. “Men will never be free,” as Diderot put the famous Enlightenment adage, “until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
The funny thing is that, in its forms and ceremonies, the Vatican is far more Renaissance than medieval. In its placement in the world, the church is more reflective of the era of the Counter-Reformation than any medieval arrangement. In its supra-national organization, the faith is probably most influenced by the post-Napoleonic settlement in Europe.
To visit Rome, in truth, is to be overwhelmed by the kaleidoscope of history: flashes of the past presenting themselves anew and demanding attention, slices of time come alive again to influence the world. Yes, the medieval is there, but so is the Renaissance. And so is the Prisoner in the Vatican in the days of Italian unification. And so is the Second World War. And so is the looming presence of John Paul II. And underneath it all is something far older: a belief in the moment when the Roman Empire put to death Jesus Christ, and he rose from the dead.
The Catholic church is not one of the last surviving medieval institutions in the world. Even in the Middle Ages, it was old, for the church is the world’s only surviving ancient institution—born in a world shaped by Alexander’s conquests, deriving from a time of Roman rule. And we will never understand it, never grasp its fundamentally countercultural nature, unless we recognize that fact. In every age, somewhere in the church, there flashes into the present moment a religious claim—a divine revelation, say its believers—from the ancient world.
And that, perhaps, is the best way to understand the strange and interesting character of Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentinian just elected pope. He is an advocate of the poor who has consistently opposed the Argentinian government’s ostensible programs for the poor. A social activist who rejects most social reform. A churchman who refused many of the elaborate trappings of his office while promoting the power of the church. A populist who denies almost every request for an interview. A leftist who denounces the state power and cultural changes demanded by the left. A reactionary who despises the accumulation of wealth and the libertarian freedoms praised by the right. No attempt to impose liberal and conservative definitions on him will succeed. Pope Francis simply won’t fit in those categories, mostly because the ancient religious insights of Christianity—taken, as he takes them, in their undiluted form—cannot find an easy place in the modern world.
All of which makes him quite possibly a saint, in the mode of his namesake, Francis of Assisi. The question, of course, is whether the church can survive a saint like that. Francis of Assisi would have made a horrendous pope; he proved an awful manager of even his own order, as far as that goes, his administrative legacy a drag on the Franciscans until Saint Bonaventure finally regularized them. From Saint Crispin the shoemaker to Saint Louis the king, the Catholic understanding has always been that nearly any human profession can be turned to God’s service. That has never meant, however, that one form of sanctity is appropriate for every sort of job, and the kind of saintliness for which most commentators are praising Pope Francis is not, on its face, the kind the church may need in a pope.