Commentators speak of Pope Francis as “pastoral,” and some juxtapose his approach to the previous two pontificates. I find this unpersuasive because it is too vague. To my mind a key difference between John Paul II and Benedict on the one hand and Francis on the other is their attitudes toward contemporary secular culture.
There was a flinty, determined, and courageous spirit of opposition in John Paul II, one doubtless encouraged by his youthful experiences with Nazi brutalities and his long adult struggle with communism. His image of what we’re up against, the culture of death, was powerful. We admired him so much in part because we sensed that he would give his all in the struggle against evil.
Benedict had a different personality and focus, but he also tended toward a pessimistic, oppositional stance over and against the post-Christian west. The dictatorship of relativism is the obvious example, but the Regensburg speech also indicated that he had dark misgivings about secular culture, fearing it will evolve in the direction of will-to-power. I share these misgivings.
Pope Francis undoubtedly wishes to resist evil and rejects the dictatorship of relativism. But he emphasizes that God is in all people, giving a great deal of what he says a sort of Gaudium et Spes feel. Obviously, the previous two popes also affirmed this optimism about the human condition. John Paul II was in fact a proponent of Gaudium et Spes during the Second Vatican Council against opposition that thought the Council should stick to strictly doctrinal teaching. But a God-in-all-things affirmation has been Francis’ main thrust, to the exclusion (so far) of critical negations of the post-Christian culture of the West.
This is a good corrective, at least for me. I’m a pugilist at times, and that makes me favor the sharp rhetorical blows like “culture of death” and “dictatorship of relativism.” But I’ve become more and more aware of the temptations of a falsely grim and global view of today’s world among social and religious conservatives. It’s not the case that New York is an unpleasant, dysfunctional city. On the contrary, it’s safe, civil, and at time positively warm and friendly.
The same is true of the university culture that conservatives like me love to bemoan. It’s ideologically monochromatic now and riddled with careerism among faculty (and of course students, but that’s to be expected). But it’s also an interesting place, full of good conversations and moments of illumination.
Pope Francis encourages a more balanced view of our present circumstances. Yes, some bad, very bad dimensions. But also some good, very good dimensions. We’re to navigate judiciously, neither condemning broadly, nor naively affirming the status quo.
This balance is needed. My motto at First Things: We know what we’re against, now tell me what we’re for. That seems to be the spirit of some of what the Pope is saying.
Read R. R. Reno’s column on Pope Francis’ interview here.