He has been called an “improv pope,” a pope of many surprises, but the biggest surprise of all is that Francis continues to elude all efforts to classify him. Since the opening days of his papacy, a flood of commentators have come forth to tell us what to expect of him, only to miss the mark. Among the numerous errors about Francis, five in particular stand out.
1. “Francis is the anti-Benedict.”
Because Pope Francis is from Latin America, and Pope Emeritus Benedict from Germany—and because Francis is a natural extrovert and Benedict more reserved—some people thought that these stylistic differences signaled a difference in their whole way of thinking. But anyone who ever believed that was not being attentive. (A similar mistake occurred when the rotund and smiling John XXIII succeeded the more regal and austere-looking Pius XII, even though the two were very close). Among Francis’s first words to the world, after succeeding Benedict on March 13th, was to pray for his predecessor, after which he immediately called him on the phone. Just ten days later, Francis traveled to Castel Gandolfo to greet Benedict in a very public and powerful way; and upon Benedict’s return to Vatican City in May, there was a similar and well-publicized embrace. Francis recently told one of his students how sublime a thinker he believes Benedict is, and how much he relies upon his predecessor’s counsel: “It would be foolish to turn down Benedict’s advice.”
If there was any lingering doubt about Francis’s fulsome support for Benedict, it’s been erased by Lumen Fidei. This extraordinary teaching document was begun (but never completed) by Benedict in the last stages of his papacy. Francis could have easily put it aside, and written his own papal message. Instead, he decided to finish the projected work, and publish it as his own inaugural encyclical—giving Benedict full credit for the draft. By doing so, Francis endorsed all of Lumen Fidei’s insights about faith and reason, the importance of truth, and the hermeneutic of continuity—all hallmarks of Benedict’s papacy. Francis is actually doing more to consolidate and elevate Benedict’s legacy than the latter’s admirers could have imagined.
2. “Francis is Not a Cultural Warrior.”
Following the first error flows a second: unlike the supposedly hard-edged Benedict, we have been told, Francis has a much softer touch. He avoids confrontation and strident denunciations, and wants no part of any culture war; nowhere is that clearer than in his treatment of the hot-button social issues. Religious reporter Allesandro Speciale recently wrote that Francis “has been less eager to engage in the culture wars over abortion or gay marriage cherished by his predecessors.” Sandro Magister added: “It cannot be an accident that after 120 days of pontificate Pope Francis has not yet spoken the words abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage.”
It’s hard to imagine more misleading statements than these. In addition to being an outspoken defender of the unborn and traditional marriage as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis, since becoming Pope, has not yielded one inch on Christian moral truth. Less than two weeks into his papacy, Francis explicitly promised to continue Benedict’s fight against the“dictatorship of relativism.” In May, Pope Francis not only exhorted tens of thousands at a rally to protect human life “from the moment of conception,” but personally joined Rome’s March for life himself. More recently, he sent a special pro-life message to Ireland, during the midst of pending legislation on abortion, exhorting the country to defend “even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn…” Everyone, proclaimed Francis, “must care for life, cherish life . . . from the beginning to the end.” Is that language not clear enough?
As for gay marriage, after France legalized it, against the vigorous protests of the Church, the new pope rebuked legislators for following “fashions and ideas of the moment,” and subsequently taught in Lumen Fidei: “The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage”—prompting the Advocate to complain, “Pope Francis, Benedict Jointly Condemn Same-Sex Marriage.”
3. “Francis is a ‘Social Justice’ Pope.”
When people say, as they often do, that Pope Francis is a “social justice pope,” what they invariably mean is that he cares about the poor above all else, and will focus his papacy on solving poverty. This is at once obvious and incomplete. Of course Francis, like his predecessors, cares about the poor, a fact demonstrated in his first pastoral visit to Lampedusa, where he spoke eloquently for abandoned migrants. But Francis is not exclusively concerned about poverty, for he knows, as Blessed John Paul II taught, that the quest for social justice is “false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right, and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.” He also knows, as Benedict taught, that the Church’s teachings on the economy are inextricably linked to its teachings on the family and human sexuality, so Humanae Vitae needs to be upheld with equal force.
More importantly, the Pope believes that individual conversion must precede societal improvement, and therefore rejects secular progressivism, which detaches spirituality from social justice. Francis’s teaching calls for an interior change of heart, and examination of conscience, as the key to social reform. He is thus not so much a “social justice” Pope as he is the world’s foremost retreat master— reminding people that unless we transform our souls, true social justice will never be attained, for that can only come about through humility, sacrifice and spiritual discipline—never by mere governmental decree.
4. “Francis Will Be More Charitable Toward Dissenters.”
No sooner was Francis elected than did dissenters start elevating him at the expense of his two predecessors, suggesting he would finally fulfill Vatican II’s promise. But Pope Francis does not see Vatican II as a charter for dissent any more than did Blessed John Paul II or Benedict. Francis has firmly said that to know Jesus is to be in full communion with the Church and Magisterium; one cannot be a faithful Catholic and practice an independent, free-floating spirituality. Consequently, one of the first things Pope Francis did from the Chair of St. Peter was re-affirm Benedict’s critique of dissent and disobedience within the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. And in Lumen Fidei, Francis drives the meaning of orthodoxy home, declaring that it is not a matter of picking and choosing what doctrines Catholics like, but accepting them all:
“Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole. Each period of history can find this or that point of faith easier or harder to accept: hence the need for vigilance in ensuring that the deposit of faith is passed on in its entirety.”
5. “Francis Loves the World.”
This is the greatest misconception of all. Francis, we are told, has an ease with the world that so many other religious leaders, fearful of modernity, lack. But this is not because Francis loves the world per se. Francis loves people, and wants to lead souls to Christ—and that is why he speaks so often about the devil, and warns against worldly temptation, urging us to flee it. He loves God’s creation, but knows how damaging original sin is, and how easily free will can be abused. To confuse the Pope’s kindness and friendliness with love for this world is to misunderstand the whole nature of his pontificate: Francis, far better than most, knows that the world is sunk in sin, and is passionately trying to heal it through the new evangelization.
The one thing many people do get right about Pope Francis is when they say he resembles John XXIII—though even there the comparison often goes astray, especially when political terminology is introduced. Blessed John was never a “liberal” in the modern sense of that term; he was a champion of orthodox reform, as is Francis. And if Pope Francis, supported by the faithful, and properly understood, is blessed to succeed in the reform he now so desires, the suffering Church, and even more troubled world, will benefit from his courage, strength, and faith.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.