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Pope from the periphery: Five Years of Francis

Editor - The Tablet - Tue, Mar 13th 2018

The world needs popular leadership, but not the sort that exploits and cultivates cynicism and resentment. Yet that type of populism is increasing across the globe. The one great exception is Pope Francis, who for five remarkable years has provided a civilising, humanising, compassionate influence wherever he has turned his gaze. He has, to put it crudely, weaponised God’s merciful love as a moral and political force to be reckoned with. And it has made him popular: as much, if not more so, outside the Church than in.

Yet the immediate result is often disappointing, as for instance on his own doorstep. The Italian elections this week saw a triumph of the sort of populism that targets immigrants, contrary to his insistent message that human dignity transcends nationality, race and religion. It was not a happy anniversary present for him to celebrate the end of his fifth year as Pope. There have been many other examples. But as he likes to say, time is greater than space. All is not lost. After his smile, Francis’ most attractive feature is his optimism.

Humanity does not have to sink ever further into the mud until it drowns, he said in one of his vivid metaphors for the human condition. God’s merciful hand is there to pull it out, if humanity would but take it. The Catholic Church is an agency for that offer of redemption and salvation, but only if it is true to its own nature. True, in other words, to the example of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.

In the conclave five years ago there was a sense of a need for a different approach at the top of the Catholic Church. It was as if the assembled cardinal electors were saying to themselves – we have tried two Italians, a Pole and German, and the battle has not been won. We have tried all their versions of what the Second Vatican Council was trying to achieve. If anything, the enemy has gained ground, without but also within.

It was time, they thought, to look elsewhere than Europe. It was time, maybe, to look to the periphery. And it is a characteristic of the thinking of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires that things do look different from the periphery. Periphery people themselves are different. The marginalised have something to teach the rest that they would not have arrived at by their own efforts: in another of Francis’ striking aphorisms, “reality is greater than ideas”. So the Church has to be of and with the poor, not just for or about them.

And he was a Jesuit, steeped in the theology and psychology of the Ignatian Exercises, including their emphasis on prayerful discernment as a prelude to intervention. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had thought deeply about the Jesuit experience in Latin America, especially the heroic but ultimately defeated attempt in the Indian Reductions to find a respectful balance between Christianity and native cultures. They fell victim to an aggressive and exploitative colonialism – which also claimed to be acting in the name of God.

He is not a garrulous and unsophisticated preacher, as he is sometimes represented by his critics. His philosophy owes a debt to Romano Guardini – a heritage he shares with Pope Benedict XVI – and to the French Jesuit theologian Gaston Fessard. So though not a European, his mental furniture has Italian, German and French antecedents, but also Latin American influences such as the theologians of liberation from his native continent. It is significant that there has been not much influence on him from the English-speaking world, which may be why his ideas have been slower to attract attention from English-speakers. Fortunately his charismatic personal style needs no translation.

These sources have given him the mental equipment to analyse situations not simply in terms of right and wrong, but as tensions and balances between polar opposites. He often thinks in couplets – time greater than space, reality greater than ideas, mercy greater than law, fullness greater than limitation. But he does not dispense with the lesser quality – that is the key. Ideas are necessary, as is law, as is space. Some of his couplets – globalisation and localism, for instance – are not between a greater and a lesser concept, but they nevertheless tend to pull apart from each other without an effort to hold them in creative tension.

He points out in Evangelii Gaudium that “unity is greater than conflict. Solidarity, in its deepest and most challenging sense, thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity. This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides. This principle, drawn from the Gospel, reminds us that Christ has made all things one in himself: heaven and earth, God and man, time and eternity, flesh and spirit, person and society. The sign of this unity and reconciliation of all things in Him is peace.”

This refusal to resolve a tension between polar opposites and his insistence on maintaining a dialectic between them, perhaps his key idea, is characteristically Catholic. But is it possible to discern in his writing an undeclared critique of other approaches, such as that of Pope John Paul II? That could be summed up as saying “If X is right and Y is not X, then Y is wrong.” Francis, on the other hand, would want X and Y to coexist, to adjust to each other over time, until some other truth emerges – often, the cardinal importance of mercy.

Given the profound and immeasurable influence of John Paul II’s 27 year papacy, including the appointment of the majority of the Church’s present leadership, it is not so surprising that the different approach taken by Pope Francis has provoked resistance. It is taking time to sink in. Yet Francis is deeply rooted in tradition. He wants church teaching and long-standing practices to be respected, though he also wants to test them against the Gospel and against the lived experiences of the faithful.

Only if a teaching stems from the neglect of the other half of a significant polarity will he call it into question. “If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord, who am I to judge?” he famously said. This was the dialectic of Pope Francis in action. It is liberating; it is human; it is not judgemental. It certainly does not open the door to anarchy. It is faithfully Christian. And it is popular.

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