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Who, And What, Is Pope Francis?

No matter where you come down on the question of Pope Francis, there can be no doubt that he is the most fascinating public figure to come along in a long time. As an observer of religion in public life, I am genuinely fascinated by the various analyses of the pope and where he is trying to take the Catholic Church. I appreciate you readers sending new pieces to me to consider. Here’s a sampling of what’s come in just in the last day:

Mary Eberstadt, who is conservative, says the pope isn’t backing away from the Church’s teachings on traditional morality at all, but rather trying realistically to reach those most affected by the Sexual Revolution. Excerpt:

The ubiquity of their sad stories–the sheer volume of human beings whose lives are now definitively shaped and sometimes deformed by a consumerist sexual ethos–is precisely what Pope Francis is responding to. Asking Catholics to lead the case for faith by emphasizing traditional morality in an age glutted by sex is, indeed, a pretty tough sell. He’s suggesting that believers work with the facts on the ground and find creative ways of planting the same eternal seeds in damaged soil.

“Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God,” he said. Maybe this means using the “genius” of women to heal breaches within the hierarchy rather than to create more of them. Maybe it means understanding the moral energy behind environmentalism and building new bridges between that movement and Christian ideas of stewardship. Maybe there’s synergy too in connecting the obvious moral dots between concern for all kinds of animal life and concern for unborn human life.

These are just some ways in which others can reach out as Pope Francis seems to want–and they don’t involve compromising or countermanding the Magisterium by so much as an ampersand.

Far from selling the beleaguered faithful down the Tiber, this Pope is simply asking them to find bigger nets. This fisherman in chief is not a radical. He is something more interesting and unexpected both inside the church and out: a radical traditionalist.

On the other hand, George Neumayr, also a conservative, says that orthodox Catholics should resist and rebuke Pope Francis to his face. Excerpt:

It says a lot about the crisis in the Church that the first Jesuit pope in history came at the very moment the order was weakest and most corrupt. The Pope’s scolding of “small-minded” restorationists for “pastoral” incompetence is laughable in light of his own order’s disintegration: What exactly would the editors of America and the other Jesuits whose liberalism Pope Francis was flattering in the interview, know about saving souls? Just look at the U.S. Congress: it is overflowing with Jesuit graduates who have abandoned the faith and support abortion and gay rights. Oh-so-pastoral Jesuits, heal thyself.

Has Pope Francis not been paying attention for the last 50 years? The only vibrant religious orders are traditional ones; the only packed churches are traditional ones; the only seminaries producing shepherds for the flock are traditional ones. To use his analogy, at the Catholic Left’s “field hospitals,” all the patients are dead.

From the left, the Guardian‘s Andrew Brown reads with excitement the Interview pretty much like Neumayrian conservatives do. Brown compares the interview to Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin. Excerpt:

The defeat of the church’s conservatives is utterly comprehensive in this interview. All of their favourite causes are taken up and rejected – “It is not necessary to talk about … abortion, gay marriage and [contraception] all the time” says the pope. So much for the “culture of death” that Pope John Paul II thought he saw in those things: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

Finally, Leonie Caldecott calls Francis an “imaginative conservative.” Excerpt:

[Francis says:] “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

From my own experience, as a convert, a mother and an educator, I have to say I agree with him. Unless we convey the core reality of the Christian faith, a reality which has nothing whatsoever to do with politics, we cannot hope to convey, far less enable activation of, the moral teachings of the Church.  If Pope Francis sounds like a liberal, it is because he is self-critically applying liberal spurs to the flank of the conservative position. By empathising with the poorest and most alienated, he is not posturing.  He is seeking to create, and thus to conserve, conditions under which their lives, both now and in eternity, can achieve the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

Our new Pope is precisely an imaginative, rather than a prescriptive, conservative. He has the conservative’s sensibility that each individual must make a free choice to adhere to what is best for all, and the conservative’s concern to apply only necessary medicines for the present crisis. One of those medicines is humility. When conservative forces face the humiliations and failure that has been meted out to them in recent years, it is perhaps necessary to reflect deeply on the roots of those problems, which may indeed require thinking, imaginatively, outside the box.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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