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.
But, then, the first comments from New York’s Cardinal Dolan and others suggest he may have been chosen pope precisely for his personal sanctity. There are certainly odd elements in his election. Why would the conclave choose a 76-year-old man to replace a pope retiring on the grounds of age? Why would they select someone whose hidden life has left him so little known to the world, despite his managing of a large South American diocese? Initial news reports made much of the fact that Bergoglio was, by all accounts, the second-leading candidate in the conclave that elected Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005—but, as papal biographer George Weigel has repeatedly explained, Bergoglio’s candidacy was not a serious one at the time. He was an apparent conservative briefly backed by liberal cardinals in an effort to split the vote coalescing behind Ratzinger.
Then, too, he is a Jesuit, the first Jesuit pope, in fact—a member of a society that frowns on high church offices for its priests. Of course, he is also something of an outlier in the Society of Jesus, not just in his having been a metropolitan archbishop but also in his theology. In the days of Bergoglio’s young priesthood, South America’s Jesuits were almost entirely persuaded by Communist-tinged liberation theology, and Bergoglio remains far more in the world of traditional and socially conservative ethics.
Finally, Bergoglio is from the Third World, the first non-European pope in 1,200 years. And yet, with his Italian heritage and study in Frankfurt, to say nothing of his role in the Synod of Bishops, he is something of a safe Third World choice. South America holds the largest collection of Catholics in the world, but the church is weaker there than it appears, and Pope Francis will help shore up South American Catholicism. Still, the church’s most dynamic presence at the moment is in Africa, while its largest growth is taking place in Asia, and a pope chosen from those continents might have had a greater immediate impact.
It would be wrong to say that Francis was elected to serve as an interim pope. He’s too active for that, too holy, too smart, and too involved. But he’s also much older than most observers predicted the new pope would be, and he represents, in a way, the limits of what the cardinals were willing to accept.
Think of it this way: The ghost of John Paul II still haunts the church, and the good and the bad elements of his papacy still influence the cardinals’ decisions. They wanted someone who has John Paul’s kind of symbolic value, who shines above the age. They also wanted someone to dig in as an administrator and address the massive problems in the curia that John Paul swept into the wings in the grand drama that was his papacy.
That combination may not be possible for anyone. Certainly it was not the strength of the intellectual Benedict XVI, whose great legacy lies in his writing. Will it be the strength of Pope Francis? By choosing a non-European, by reaching out to the world and refusing to elevate someone from the Vatican bureaucracy—by being moved by personal sanctity, for that matter—the conclave went as far as it could in the line of John Paul II.
But by seeking out a quiet bishop, known to them for his skillful and courageous handling of accusations against priests and his willingness both to work with and work against national governments, the conclave also went as far as it could in the line of Pius XII’s sheer Vatican competence. And in selecting a 76-year-old, they also hedged their bets, understanding that the new papacy will not last as long as John Paul II’s reign of 26 years. Bergoglio may not have been chosen as an interim pope, but it would not be wrong to describe his election as having been for a compromise pope—and such compromises rarely work out well.
Still, having been elected as a compromise does not mean Francis will reign as one. He has that core of the thing—not medieval, not modern, but ancient—and it will not be confined to any age’s apparent limits. This may well be a papacy full of surprises, particularly in the evangelizing Francis undertakes and the changes he makes in the curia.
But, then, little could be as surprising as the sudden appearance of this holy man on the world stage. Asked for a toast at dinner after his election, he is reported to have raised his glass to the cardinals and said, “I hope God forgives you all.” If he has the strength to go with his humility, Pope Francis could well prove to be what the church needs as it moves through the coming years.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.