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Have the Popes Written Enough? A Sharp Turn in Renewal

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 12, 2014

In a discussion with family members gathered for Mother’s Day yesterday, the question arose as to why modern popes have tended to write so much. One of our number suggested that perhaps enough had been written, and it was time for something else. The discussion then turned to whether Pope Francis might be of the same mind.

One reason modern popes have written so much, of course, is that the modern world has drifted so steadily away from the Catholic faith. This has had all kinds of repercussions within the Church, leading popes to attempt to clarify many different questions by writing encyclicals to all the bishops of the world, and dense apostolic exhortations to the whole Church.

But in the second half of the 20th century, another reason seemed to emerge. We might take the pontificate of Pope Paul VI as a kind of turning point. Pope Paul will be beatified in October, but this is hardly an honor arising from his effective ecclesiastical leadership. On his ninth anniversary, he himself admitted, with considerable sadness, that all he had been able to do for the Church was to suffer. The rapid secularization which roared through the Church in the 1960s and 1970s made it very difficult for the Pope to be an effective administrator. Paul VI, in fact, was widely ignored and even ridiculed by theologians, priests and even bishops.

When Pope St. John Paul II was elected in 1978, he must have recognized that the lines of ecclesiastical authority were in such disarray as to render effective ecclesiastical discipline nearly impossible. In any case, John Paul clearly set himself the long and patient task of attempting to reunite the Church around the See of Peter and to teach the bishops around the world how to be good bishops. He was both a great public presence and a great teacher, issuing an enormous body of papal texts. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church was also produced on his watch.

If Pope John Paul II was a philosopher, his successor Benedict XVI was a theologian who carried on this tradition with many more teaching documents. He even developed a conceptual framework for the implementation of the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council, a renewal to proceed as Catholic renewal always proceeds, through a hermeneutic of continuity with the entire Tradition, not through the dissident hermeneutic of rupture that was so characteristic of the first generation following the Council.

But, again, this was primarily a teaching phase. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI even used their Wednesday audiences to give systematic instruction in the Faith in weekly installments. They also wrote personal books while in office. And while Benedict began to devote himself to ecclesiastical administration in ways which probably exceeded expectations for such a prodigious scholar, he ultimately resigned when he became convinced that he no longer had the strength to see through all that needed to be done.

There were several important practical results of these two pontificates which stretched from 1978 to 2013, a period of 35 years. One was the emergence of a vigorous laity, as called for by Vatican II and necessitated by the collapse of the clergy shortly thereafter. Perhaps even more important, the quality of the Catholic episcopate was improved markedly, and the quality of the priesthood as well. Call it a slow process, but the worldwide episcopate is a very different body now than it was in, say, 1968, and it has better priestly tools to deploy.

This may be just the context for a different sort of pope, one less interested in teaching and writing, and more interested in the implementation of concrete reforms.

Pope Francis

As a Jesuit, Pope Francis has the intelligence and academic background to have become another scholar-pope. But he seems to be unfitted by personality and preference for such a role. Francis did wish to complete Pope Benedict’s trilogy of encyclicals on the theological virtues, using the former Pope’s notes to issue Lumen Fidei last July. But he is known more for his interviews, short homilies and practical criticisms than his major contributions to Catholic thought, and he seems more interested in evangelization and pastoral reform than scholarship.

There would seem to be two alternatives to the predominately pedagogical program of the recent past, the attempt to explain everything in great detail. Pope Francis shows a deep interest in both of them. The first alternative is evangelization. Francis constantly emphasizes the sacrificial, redeeming love of Jesus Christ. He insists that we must ignite a fire of yearning and hope before souls can grow, under the influence of sacraments and catechesis, into spiritual and moral maturity.

The second alternative is practical ecclesiastical change. Picking up the gauntlet which Pope Benedict threw down just before his resignation, Pope Francis is obviously serious about transforming the Curia into a kind of leaven for the service of the whole Church—whether this involves elimination of bad apples, or structural change or profound attitude adjustments. He has also said he wants to transform the synodal model from a program that simply follows the initial curial outline to a more aggressive process that surfaces workable proposals for actual pastoral change.

Pope Francis’ focus seems almost unrelentingly pragmatic. His questions are invariably simple and direct: What are our motives? How are we acting? What are we trying to accomplish? He seems to want to shake up our attitudes toward the Faith and our ecclesiastical habits in order to prompt a new sense of the wonder of our Redemption and a new determination to act on that wonder in the deepest possible service to others. As he has so often warned, ecclesiastical careerists need not apply.

This is not a question of escaping words, of course, nor is it a question of proceeding carelessly. It is more a question of proceeding at all, of doing something with our time and energy besides intellectualizing everything. In this sense, active evangelization and concrete pastoral reform ought to be effective substitutes for any number of long, official explanations—explanations which, ironically, can stall us in a constant cycle of digestion, as we break down each point to the last molecule.

Though I ask this as a writer, might we not hope that such a departure from writing is exactly what Pope Francis envisions, desires, and will succeed in setting in motion? Would it not be wonderful if the question of whether enough has been written could be taken as rhetorical, with an obvious answer? In that case, then, effective action would be the next logical step.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - May. 14, 2014 10:06 AM ET USA

    The type of reform to come from Pope Francis will be similar to the reform of the Vatican bank. The bank was expected to comply with international standards of transparency and accountability. Oh really! That sounds so very catholic but not Catholic. I am afraid that true reforms will come despite any offered reforms from Pope Francis. Come Lord Jesus come. We have much to pray about!

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 13, 2014 11:40 AM ET USA

    The challenge is perhaps over whom to govern. Does the Pope govern the laity, priests, or bishops? Given the physics of space and time, It's hard to see that he can govern anything but the bishops. Over our lifetime, however, bad bishops hardly ever get fired. It all seems very chaotic and unjust. So why does it continue? Perhaps recent Popes know that they are barely managing a Church is on the edge of anarchy, herding cats, hoping ceaselessly--Deus ex machina.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 13, 2014 11:03 AM ET USA

    Our Lord said we must love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. He advised that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. He admonished the apostles to let the children come to him, and he advised that unless we become like them we cannot enter heaven. It seems the answer to the rhetorical question is obvious. It is, however, imperative that we are oriented properly. Despite the best of intentions if our efforts are animated by human sentiment over grace, they will falter.

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