There are two ways to look at the election of Pope Francis. He takes the name of the famous saint whose life was defined by a vision in which he was commanded by a crucifix to “rebuild my Church, which is in ruins.” That name, combined with rumors that Cardinal Bergoglio impressed his fellow Cardinals at preconclave meetings with his willingness to clean up the Curia, may be a signal that reform is on the way.
His choice of name may also signal an affiliation with the Jesuit saint Francis Xavier, an exemplary evangelist and missionary. Cardinal Bergoglio is known as a simple, humble person who eschewed the pomp of his high office in the church. Until now, he has lived in a simple apartment and cooked his own meals. He worked to prevent priests from abandoning their parishes and the sacraments entirely for revolutionary political activism in Argentina, when liberation theology was ascendant.
But the other way to look at the dawn of this papacy is that it is one more in the pile of recent Catholic novelties and mediocrities. He is the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit to be pope and the first to take the name Francis. And so he falls in line with the larger era of the church in the past 50 years, which has been defined by ill-considered experimentation — a “pastoral” ecumenical council at Vatican II, a new synthetic vernacular liturgy, the hasty revision of the rules for almost all religious orders within the church, the dramatic gestures and “saint factory” of Pope John Paul II’s papacy, along with the surprise resignation of Benedict XVI.
In this vision, Benedict’s papacy, which focused on “continuity,” seems like the exception to an epoch of stunning and unsettling change, which — as we know — usually heralds collapse.
There are reasons to believe that Pope Francis is a transitional figure, unlikely to effect major reform at the top of the church. He is not known as a champion of any theological vision, traditional or modern. He is just two years younger than Pope Benedict was upon his election eight years ago. He has deep connections to Italy, but little experience with the workings of the Vatican offices.
A contentious reading of Pope Francis’ rise is that Benedict’s enemies have triumphed completely. It is unusual for a one-time rival in a previous election to triumph in a future one. And there is almost no path to Bergoglio’s election without support from curial Italians, combined with a Latin American bloc. Low-level conspiracy theories already flourish in Italy that Benedict’s resignation was the result of a curia determined to undermine his reforms. This election will only intensify that speculation. An older pope who does not know which curial offices and officers need the ax will be even easier to ignore than Benedict.
Besides his lack of knowledge of the ins and outs of the Vatican, there is almost no evidence of his taking a tough line with anyone in his own diocese. Are we to believe that Buenos Aires has been spared the moral rot and corruption found almost everywhere else in the Catholic clergy? Or, more likely, do we have another cardinal who looked the other way and studiously avoided confrontation with the “filth” in the church, no matter the danger to children or to the cause of the church?
Presumption and detraction are sins, but Catholics should gird themselves; the sudden spotlight on his reign may reveal scandal and negligence.
Liturgical traditionalists (myself included) can only be depressed by this election — it is almost the worst result possible for those of us who think the new liturgy lost the theological profundity and ritual beauty of the Tridentine Mass. Benedict’s liberation of the traditional Latin Mass and revisions to the new vernacular Mass have not been implemented at all in Cardinal Bergoglio’s own diocese. Already some of the small breaks with liturgical tradition at the announcement of his election are being interpreted as a move toward the grand, unruly and improvisational style of John Paul II — an implicit rebuke of Benedict.
Of course, the papacy has offered surprises in the past. Catholic tradition holds that it was built on a mediocre man, St. Peter, who was once described as “a shuffler, a snob, a coward — in a word, a man.” Pope Francis is now the man at the head of a church impaired by immoral clergy, negligent bishops and a moribund intellectual and spiritual life.
God help him.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is national correspondent for the American Conservative.