Who is Pope Francis? His pontificate will be ten years old in March, yet he continues to shock people within the Catholic Church and beyond it. Francis’s interview with AP yesterday (25 January), which covered controversial questions such as the treatment of LGBT+ people and relations with communist China, only adds to the impression that the pontiff is, to quote Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.
Conservative critics claim that, in seeking to modernise the Church and liberate the faithful from the constricting shackles of tradition, he is a Marxist in league with liberals. Yet liberal commentators accuse him of not going far enough in the fight against conservatives, who reduce religion to a single world-view. So is he progressive or reactionary?
Francis’s detractors are right about each other but wrong about the Pope. Francis is neither progressive nor reactionary. Instead, he tries to defend a paradoxical position that can be described as “radical tradition” – extending Catholic universal principles to particular practices in pursuit of greater social compassion, economic justice and ecological balance.
From the outset of his pontificate, Francis rejected being pigeonholed in ideological categories that are more secular than religious. Instead, the Pope tries to blend Catholic doctrine with openness to the contemporary world. Whether that is with the treatment of refugees or divorcees receiving Holy Communion, Francis has linked traditional teaching to the commandment of charity and compassion for the downtrodden.
On migration, he has repeatedly called on states not only to welcome refugees who face persecution or economic hardship, but also to provide assistance to countries where migration originates. “The Church,” he announced in 2016, “stands at the side of all who work to defend each person’s right to live with dignity, first and foremost by exercising the right not to emigrate and to contribute to the development of one’s country of origin.” That is why he rejects a policy of open borders or closed doors.
Against modern moralism, the pontiff views participation in the Eucharist not as a matter of absolute rules, but rather as a rite open to the baptised and the penitent. Priests should discern the latter, just as Jesus’s example shows. That is why Pope Francis has asked “the Church… to rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us.”
This means that neither theological nor ecclesial divisions should obstruct the free flow of forgiveness and all the activities aimed at building more ethical and ecologically resilient models – as developed in his 2015 social encyclical Laudato si’ on our common home of nature.
Francis’s faithfulness to the living tradition is most clearly visible in relation to Catholic social thought, where he builds on the intellectual legacy of his predecessors to promote “common good” thinking. This is a balance of interests between state, market and the intermediary institutions of civil society, in pursuit of both individual fulfilment and mutual flourishing. More than conservative hierarchy or liberal equality, Francis is committed to a more dignified life for everyone.
Yet this clarity has gone missing when it comes to enacting liturgical reform (severely restricting the old Latin Mass for no good reason), rooting out clerical abuse, cleaning up the Vatican’s murky finances, or launching a global consultation of the faithful about how the Church can be more inclusive.
Francis is a reformist, not a revolutionary, but it is hard to work out what his proposed direction for the Catholic Church is. The interview with AP only makes clear his determination not to give up and resign. Whether the enigma that is Francis will be resolved remains to be seen.
[See also: What the left can learn from Pope Francis]