Ten years into Pope Francis’s pontificate—he first waved from the balcony of St. Peter’s on March 13, 2013—he has been analyzed, praised, criticized, and interviewed ad nauseam. He began the decade being hero-worshipped by the world’s media and ended it being denounced by Jordan Peterson. Books, articles, Twitter threads have poured forth from overheated brains. And yet—and I include myself in this—nobody, absolutely nobody, has managed to understand him.
For a while, in those heady early days, the explanation looked simple enough: He was a rough-and-ready orthodox Jesuit, a veteran of real pastoral work in the hard-as-nails barrios of Buenos Aires, who was prepared to take risks and make provocative statements in the service of the gospel. He accepted the Church’s harder doctrines unquestioningly and proclaimed them unflinchingly, but he saw that they might go unheard unless they were preached with true radicalism: the radicalism of Jesus Christ, who dined with tax collectors and prostitutes, who shocked the respectable religious people of his day with his outrageous words, who lived among the poorest of the poor and made their life his own.
Well, that would have been nice. But it does not come close to describing the last ten years. Instead, the simplicity of our Lord’s teaching has been almost buried under an avalanche of unofficial interviews, semi-official documents, half-forgotten footnotes, and cryptic asides, all in the service of a bewildering ambiguity. The story has been told so often—by the highest-ranking cardinals (here and here), the most serious theologians and philosophers (here, here, here, here, here, and here), the canniest journalistic observers (here, here, and here), that it is hardly worth repeating. Suffice to say that the definitive comment on the era was given by that marvelously succinct thinker Alice von Hildebrand when she remarked: “I beg God to take me before I have a chance to get confused.”
So is the pope, to take a second theory, a liberal Catholic with a cunning plan? Has he, by speaking so ambiguously about such doctrines as the indissolubility of marriage, the necessity of the Church for salvation, and the immorality of contraception, laid the ground for the abandonment of such teachings in favor of an uplifting humanitarian mush? Has he, by promoting such boomerish and dogmatically-challenged figures as Cardinals Hollerich and McElroy, effectively shown that he wants to remake the Church in their image?
Again, the evidence only goes so far. For Pope Francis has also, from time to time, punctured the hopes of the liberals—declining to impose married “viri probati” clerics on the Amazon, approving the CDF’s condemnation of same-sex blessings, shaking his fist at the German synod. And he does, from time to time, appeal with a deep emotion to such unliberal themes as the fearful reality of demonic activity and the central place of the Blessed Virgin in the Christian life. It is not how Pope James Martin—may God preserve us—would conduct himself in office.
This contradiction has led some observers to suggest a third theory: that this pontificate is best understood, not in terms of the beliefs which animate it, but as the pursuit and retention of sheer power. Sympathy for this theory, amusingly enough, unites the pope’s hardcore traditionalist critics with as sophisticated a commentator as the Irish novelist Colm Toíbín, who writes in the London Review of Books that Francis stands in the Argentine tradition of Peronism. “The whole point of Peronism is that it can’t be pinned down,” Toíbín writes. “Being a Peronist means nothing and everything. It means that you can at times be in agreement with the very things that in other circumstances you don’t really favour.”
Adherents of the Peronist theory point to the curious number of incompetents, weirdos, and sexual abusers who have been brought into the pope’s favor. Doesn’t this suggest he likes to have people near him who depend on him utterly—a classic dictatorial strategy? Again, there is the decay of the rule of law in Rome, prompting the remarkable statement of Cardinal George Pell, the pope’s former finance czar, that the Vatican is “lawless.” One might also note that, in the manner of a true tyranny, strong institutions elsewhere have had to be destabilized or dissolved. The Order of Malta, the Latin Mass community, China’s underground church, contemplative religious houses, the Pontifical Academy for Life—wherever this pontificate finds something solid, it melts it into air.
But I hesitate over the dictator theory. Partly for sentimental reasons: There is no doubt that Catholics can criticize the pope under certain unusual circumstances, and no doubt that the current circumstances are well beyond unusual. Nevertheless, he remains the father of all of us Catholics, the direct descendant of St. Peter to whom the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given; and he deserves, not just my love, but the benefit of the doubt for as long as I can give it. And it is hard to believe so cynical an account of a pontificate which has at times been the opposite of cynical: above all, when the pope has returned to his great theme of “the throwaway society,” his lonely stand against a global system which, from the sweatshops to the euthanasia clinics, treats the vulnerable not as the image of Christ but as useless trash. That magnificent critique will be one of his most significant legacies.
Will there be other positive legacies from this pontificate? I think we are obliged to pray that there will. As for the first decade, despite the mysteriousness that hangs around it, its legacy can be simply summarized: ten years which have destroyed a great deal and created almost nothing.
Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.
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