Vatican City — All signs in Rome point toward a more evangelical future for the Church under the new pontiff. National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez caught up with the author of the recent book Evangelical Catholicism, George Weigel, who has been in Rome since almost immediately after Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation in February. He discusses what we’ve seen and what we might expect from the new Pope Francis.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What do you think the cardinals were thinking when they chose Cardinal Bergoglio to be pope?
GEORGE WEIGEL: This was never going to be a conclave of deep ideological conflict, because the Catholic Revolution That Never Was is over. The cardinals came to Rome concerned about governance, and what they experienced in the General Congregations of cardinals and, it seems, in the conclave itself, convinced them that a serious housecleaning was imperative. A consensus then formed that this could best be done by an older man with experience as a purifying reformer, a pope who would have little to lose in moving swiftly to change both culture and personnel in the Church’s central administrative machinery because he would not have to play a long game. Ideally, such a man would also be a winsome pastor with a commitment to the Catholic symphony of truth in its fullness — and an ability to explain that symphony to a skeptical world. Various men were measured against these requirements, and at the end of a rather quick process of discernment, eyes turned to Cardinal Bergoglio, who was then swiftly elected.
LOPEZ: People are asking me: “So when do Vatican heads roll”? It that the wrong way to look at this? The wrong question to ask?
WEIGEL: Change in personnel is essential and it’s coming: The most important decision the new pope has made thus far is to extend the terms of the heads of Vatican departments only provisionally — meaning, I assume, that he is going to assess the situation carefully and then make serious changes. When I spoke at some length with Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires last May, he had a very clear idea of what was wrong in the curia, and what needed to be changed so that the many good people who work there can make the contribution they want to make to the new evangelization.
Just as important, though, is a change in institutional culture in the Church’s Roman engine room. On several occasions since his election, Pope Francis has warned against the dangers of clerical careerism. If he brings that concern to the reform of the curia, things will look very different over time — and not only in terms of structure and personnel, but of organizational culture. I know a lot of good people in the curia, and they are eager to make their contributions to the evangelical Catholicism of the future. I’m hopeful that this pontificate will unleash that energy even as it swabs the deck in the engine room and changes more than a few of the chief petty officers who have been in charge.
LOPEZ: Is a pope who hugs people a sign of our shaking off some Counter-Reformation shackles?
WEIGEL: Let’s remember that this pope’s spiritual formation came from the heart of the Counter-Reformation: the Society of Jesus in its classical form. At the same time, Jorge Bergoglio is a true pastor, so all of that Ignatian, classically Jesuit discipline and orthodoxy (for which he suffered at the hands of fellow Jesuits with a very different idea of the Church and their Society) is going to be expressed through real human warmth, empathy, and sympathy.
LOPEZ: If Francis is truly an evangelical Catholic, will he pose a challenge to different ideological types?
WEIGEL: Perhaps. But the Church, finally, is not about ideology, but about the Gospel. Catholics who want the Gospel to shape (and reshape) the worlds of business, finance, culture, and politics are going to get a lot of support from this pope.
LOPEZ: What will be different about the dynamic of a Latin American pope? Can the more European Vatican handle it?
WEIGEL: One of the most important convictions that Jorge Bergoglio brings to the papacy, and one that is especially important for Europe, is the conviction that a “kept” Church — a Church that maintains itself through cultural habit — has no future in the postmodern world of the 21st century. He knew that was true in Latin America, and he gave a revolutionary analysis of the Church’s situation there — an analysis that called for the Church to stop whining about evangelical Protestant “sheep-stealing” and get back into the business of Christian mission. He will surely bring that perspective to bear on Europe, too.
LOPEZ: By greeting people outside of Mass on Sunday in Rome as he just did, is Francis simply modeling a parish priest for all the world to see?
WEIGEL: St. Ann’s, the church at which he celebrated Mass this past Sunday, is the “parish church” of Vatican City, so yes, he was introducing himself to his new parishioners. And why not? He’s a pastor, meeting his people.
LOPEZ: Was the pope surprisingly warm to the media during the Saturday audience?
WEIGEL: All that I spoke to were charmed. And the simplicity of his self-presentation was in welcome contrast to the baroque formulations to which the Vatican press office has become addicted.
LOPEZ: What would you like to see people take from your book as we enter Week Two of a new papacy, and the end of Lent?
WEIGEL: A sense of hope for a bright Catholic future, in which a purified and revivified Catholicism, meeting the Lord once again on the Emmaus roads of the 21st century, rediscovers the power that comes from a commitment to mission.
LOPEZ: What do you hope the Roman Curia is taking from it?
WEIGEL: Well, some who have read Evangelical Catholicism are very enthusiastic, and others are not. We’ll see who’s still here in a year, and then we can assess impacts.
LOPEZ: Has anything other than the choice of pope surprised you these past weeks?
WEIGEL: I was frankly surprised by the rapidity of the conclave (although I had been given a tip before the Wednesday voting session that things might in fact move faster, which they clearly did). I was pleasantly surprised by the determination to clean house, and not just in terms of letting a few manifest incompetents fade into the sunset, but in the sense of a real commitment to cultural change in the curia — which I take as a sign that the new evangelization is taking hold, because it’s seized the imagination of the Church’s shepherds, or at least a critical mass of them. And I was sadly surprised that some senior churchmen still don’t seem to understand that chronic self-referentiality is not a winning way to preach the Gospel.
LOPEZ: What should we be listening most for when listening to Francis?
WEIGEL: The pure Gospel, in which goodness and strength, as he said in his inaugural homily, go together.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.