The Week

(Roman Genn)


A Francis for Our Time

In choosing his papal name, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, invokes the complex example of one of the Church’s most illustrious and beloved saints, Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis, who preferred poverty, or simplicity, to the comfort he was born into in central Italy in the late twelfth century, was an early champion of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor,” an expression with roots in Pope Francis’s native South America in the mid 20th century and now an established term of art in Catholic social teaching.

Pope Francis has long emulated his new eponym by living simply and eschewing many of the trappings of ecclesiastical high office, relying on public transportation, for example, and forgoing the luxury of the official residence of the archbishop of Buenos Aires in favor of a small apartment. His advocacy for the poor is of a piece with his orthodox Christian firmness on social issues relating to marriage and the family, the social institutions that are the primary support for children, the aged, and the vulnerable in general.

Cardinal Bergoglio sparred with Argentina’s left-wing government over same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples. That government’s supporters in the Argentine press greeted his elevation by smearing him as a collaborator with the military junta of the 1970s, a charge echoed by naïve and irresponsible Western media outlets. It soon emerged that Bergoglio had actually helped opponents of that regime escape the country. He saw no contradiction in opposing both the liberation theology of the time and the oppression of a military dictatorship. Observers make a similar mistake if they assume that his concern for the poor means sympathy for statist solutions to it or, indeed, support for any determinate political program.

Saint Francis’s famed humility was his method for acting on his zeal to reform the Church of his day. “Preach the gospel always,” he urged his brothers in religion, according to Franciscan tradition, “and use words if necessary.” That is, his answer to the ecclesiastical corruption around him was first of all to demonstrate the purity that men and women of the Church are called to practice. Then as now, a great stumbling block for those who failed to live up to the Church’s call to moral rectitude was money. In that vein, one of the tasks facing Pope Francis is to bring greater transparency to the Vatican Bank, long shrouded under a cloud of suspicion, and move it toward greater adherence to international banking standards. His unassailable reputation as a man who has tamed the vice of greed should lend credibility to his exercise of a strong hand in this matter.

The need for reform in the Church extends, of course, to the Curia at large, where in too many cases ambition and careerism have tended to drive out the noble desire simply to serve. Here too Francis needs to take bold steps but also to lead by his Franciscan example. Curial reform “will begin with a change of attitude,” as George Weigel noted only a few weeks ago, “not merely a change of structures, important as the latter is.” Such reform is a necessary prerequisite for the Church to be effective in its evangelizing mission, a mission not least of all to Catholics themselves.

In his first address to the city and the world, Pope Francis preceded his blessing of the same with the request that the faithful pray for him. He bowed his head and paused as they did so, silently. It was a remarkable gesture. The challenges facing him are serious and touch not only the world’s largest Christian church but the world itself. The world needs a thriving Catholic Church, and so not only the billion members of his flock but all men and women of goodwill should extend him their moral support.

April 8, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 6

  • Congress can limit drone strikes, but the Constitution does not.
  • The alarming scope of the power President Obama claims.
  • Reagan’s vision is not a national priority, but should be.
  • At South by Southwest, the politics are as conventional as the technology is innovative.
  • Justified and the dream of bourgeois life.
  • Obamacare cannot succeed while remaining Obamacare.
  • Catholic reform through evangelical purification.
  • At retirement, the Heritage Foundation’s leader is optimistic, as ever.
  • Prisoners should work and learn rather than be idle.
Books, Arts & Manners
  • Vincent J. Cannato reviews Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage by Jeffrey Frank.
  • Kelly Jane Torrance reviews In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin.
  • Emmy Chang reviews The PBS American Masters program Philip Roth: Unmasked, written and directed by William Karel and Livia Manera.
  • Bruce Cole discusses many of the notable works on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s The Civil War and American Art exhibit.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .