Pope Francis has been an inspiration to many millions of people, but Ross Douthat, writing in the Sunday Times, claims to have spied the fatal flaw. Douthat sees an “an almost-frantic engagement with the lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world.” He is concerned about the softer tone on abortion and gay marriage, and he worries that the church will stagnate under his leadership. In Douthat’s imagination, the Pope will win casual admirers, but not strong disciples. The Pope’s error on his analysis is that he departs from “traditional” Catholicism. Douthat believes that only traditional religions are resilient. The others have lost ground.
If we accept for purposes of argument, the view that only traditional religions are resilient, we are left to inquire what traditional Catholicism might be. I do not take Douthat to claim that the Pope has departed from traditional theological teachings of the Church. Douthat does not suppose that the Pope is a secularist in Christian disguise. It seems to be the failure to emphasize the issues favored by conservatives that bugs Douthat.
What is distinctive about the current Pope as opposed to the last two Popes (though undiscussed by Douthat) is that he has emphasized the Christian responsibility to care for the poor and he has shunned conspicuous displays of wealth and power in his daily life. When I went to Catholic schools in the 1940’s and 1950’s that message was a conspicuous part of the Catholic being. Students wore uniforms that deemphasized class distinctions and the responsibility to help the poor was daily reinforced. In fact, Kerry Kennedy has a book interviewing Catholics and former Catholics about religion and one of the aspects that impressed me was that virtually all of those interviewed had internalized the message that everyone had a responsibility to help those in need.
It is the last two popes who abandoned traditional Catholicism not by renouncing the duty to help those in need or to be critical of unjust hierarchies, but by emphasizing issues like abortion and homosexuality. Meanwhile the departure of American Catholics has matched the decline of American Protestants except the American Catholic Church has been fortunate that immigration has masked this decline. I do not know if the current Pope’s emphasis on poverty and humility will help reverse the outflow of Catholics from the Church. But I know of another religious leader who never spoke of abortion or homosexuality, but did speak hundreds of times about the poor and the rich. He had a significant impact. You may remember him. The New Testament tells his story in some depth.