Insights on the enigma that is Pope Francis

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 27, 2015

Two years after his election, millions of Catholics are still trying to understand Pope Francis. Two recent essays have provided useful perspectives:

Writing for Crisis, Msgr. Hans Feichtinger, a priest of the Diocese of Passau, Germany, makes the important point that Pope Francis is not, like his two illustrious predecessors, an academic. He is a very intelligent man, with a rigorous Jesuit training. But his instincts are those of a spiritual director rather than a professor.

After 35 years of extraordinarily gifted teachers, the world may have slipped into thinking that every Pope would communicate the same way. That was never likely. In the history of the papacy there have probably never been two back-to-back Pontiffs with the intellectual credentials of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But even if their successor was equally brilliant, it was unlikely that he would share their academic background. Most Popes have not spent their formative years in university classrooms.

Pope Francis has been a teacher. But his priestly ministry has been devoted to working with non-scholars. He does not instinctively address his statements to an academic audience; on the contrary, he appeals to ordinary men and women. (This simple style helps to explain his popularity.) Moreover, his preference for grass-roots Catholicism is reinforced by his realization that John Paul II and Benedict XVI, often working in partnership, have left the Church a treasure-trove of teaching; there is no urgent need for more.

So rather than continuing the work of his two predecessors, Pope Francis is taking a quite different approach. You might say that instead of trying to teach the world how to think, he has concentrated on teaching the faithful how to act. Msgr. Feichtinger recommends that we think of him as the “universal spiritual director.”

It’s noteworthy that Pope Francis has chosen to deliver homilies at daily Mass and make them public. When you think about it, some of his more formal public statements sound suspiciously like homilies, too. Msgr. Feichtinger concludes:

Pope Francis has made his choice about how he would like to exercise his office. Catholics respect his choice by taking his pronouncements and gestures for what they are, which includes not treating them as expressions of the primacy of teaching when they are not. Francis does not want to—and in fact he cannot—challenge the teaching authority of his predecessors; rather, he wants to help us “consider how to provoke one another to love and good works.” (Heb 10:24)

Because he so often speaks informally, without worrying about the possible consequences, Pope Francis has sometimes drawn criticism for causing confusion among the faithful. Sandro Magister, the noted Vatican-watcher for L’Espresso, has often been among the critics. But Magister is fair enough to point out that it is wrong to see the Pope as a liberal—much less a radical—on controversial issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and divorce.

”Among the many things that Pope Francis says there are some that almost never make the front page of the newspaper,” Magister writes. “And if they do they are almost immediately swept away by other headlines of an opposing and compelling nature.” When the Pope expresses sympathy for homosexuals, say, the media give the story top-headline treatment. But when he reaffirms the Church’s teaching on sexuality, that is treated as a non-story.

Magister helpfully provides a sampling of the “conservative” statements by Pope Francis that have been ignored by the mass media. While there is certainly a great deal of mystery about the Pope’s thinking, Magister finds that he is “a faithful witness of tradition on questions like contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexual marriage, ‘gender’ ideology, euthanasia.”

Some of the prevailing confusion—or sense of mystery, if you prefer a more neutral term—could be avoided if the Pope laid out his arguments logically, setting out a thesis and the arguments to defend it. Then analysts could not ignore the Pope’s defense of Catholic tradition, and critics could not accuse him of undermining established doctrine. But this Pope does not choose to communicate in the style of the scholar. Get used to it.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Geno190 - Apr. 01, 2015 2:56 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis invites us beyond right teaching, further than fidelity to moral action. He calls to the “transforming experience” of the overwhelming mercy and compassion shown by the “Good Shepherd.” He is more than a “universal, spiritual director.” The Good Shepherd seeks the lost, the wanderers from the fold, the sinners, the indifferent, the stone hearted. He calls and carries them home. He invites not only to comprehend, but to surrender to the “mystery” of mercy.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Mar. 31, 2015 9:14 AM ET USA

    JPII didn't appeal to ordinary people? I guess 10 million professors showed up for his funeral.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Mar. 31, 2015 12:43 AM ET USA

    i rather enjoy his spiritual direction. he has made me see things I never would have realized i had spiritual pride about.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 30, 2015 3:21 PM ET USA

    I don't buy it, either. On the other hand, I remember the last years of St. John Paul's papacy, and complaints were thick and heavy. We survived. Now we look back on his papacy and see how marvelously fruitful it was. The jury's still out on this papacy, and I'm just a little over 60. What I really like is this trend toward electing 76 year-old Popes. It's almost like term limits.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 28, 2015 9:12 PM ET USA

    Hear, hear! I agree with the Shrink. It took the vulgar (vulgus, i.e., common folk) no more than 5 seconds to "get used to it." Thus the pope's great popularity. As an apologist, I cannot help but not get used to it. If I ever got used to it, I'd be sleeping on the job. No thanks.

  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 27, 2015 10:45 PM ET USA

    I don't get "used to" confusion, I tune it out.