On April 27, Pope Francis will canonize two of his predecessors, elevating them to the ranks of the saints in heaven who may intercede for sinners here on Earth. He has praised John XXIII as a “country priest” with a heart for the faithful and John Paul II as “the great missionary of the church.” But saints are human, and both popes have mixed legacies. John XXIII, father of the Second Vatican Council, initiated reforms that angered conservatives, while their limits left progressive Catholics frustrated. If Cold War historians have cast John Paul II as democracy’s hero, spokesman for Christians silenced by the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, in other ways he stood firm against the tide of 20th-century liberalism. He condemned contraception and homosexual acts as grave sins and censured theologians who called for the church to stand up to Latin American dictators (often Rome’s allies against communism).
Benedict XVI, John Paul II’s close friend and successor, defended traditional doctrine against the “dictatorship of relativism” and seemed to fear that bold action against clergy who committed or abetted child sexual abuse would present an intolerable challenge to the church’s authority. Benedict might have performed the upcoming canonization rite himself—except that last year he became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign his post, citing lack of “strength of mind and body.”
In some ways, these conflicts are nothing special. They are the most recent chapter in the church’s ancient minuet of adaptation and resistance, the old Christian dilemma of existing in the world but being not entirely of it. Francis, too, is unlikely to resolve the child-abuse scandal, the clash over women’s ordination, corruption in the Roman Curia, or any of the other long-standing crises plaguing the church.
Yet Christian and non-Christian observers alike can’t take their eyes off this pope. They probe the symbolic significance of his humble dress and the make of his car (a 1984 Renault 4). No matter that his declarations on behalf of the poor deviate in no way from more than a century of church teaching; no matter that Francis has affirmed his predecessors’ views on sexuality. There is a collective sense, at least in the West, that the papacy—as an ancient institution presiding over a modern world—is at some kind of turning point.
American Catholics themselves often seem impatient to pronounce verdicts on the pope rather than to alter their beliefs or conduct on the basis of his counsel. Both liberals and conservatives pounced upon Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, when the Vatican published it last November, and both found in it some affirmation of their views. Liberals lauded the pope’s denunciation of free-market ideology and the “globalization of indifference.” Conservatives noted that he called for the “defense of unborn life.” Both sides also have found cause for complaint: Either Francis doesn’t favor real reform (and excommunicates priests who are too outspoken in support of women’s ordination and LGBT rights), or he has bent too far with the winds of secular unbelief. “Francis is beating a retreat for the Catholic Church, and making sure its controversial doctrines are whispered, not yelled—no wonder The New York Times is in love,” Catholic journalist Adam Shaw wrote in a column for Fox News last December.
Despite this grumbling, the vast majority of American Catholics (88 percent, as of December) approve of Francis. The reason is not because they believe he will settle questions that have troubled the church for generations. Rather, his example—his decision to wash the feet not of fellow priests but of juvenile inmates on Holy Thursday; his invitation to homeless men to join him on his birthday—reminds many Catholics of what the church means to them on a daily basis and what they hope it means to the world.
“The married-priests issue is a footnote; the female-priests issue is a footnote; so is divorce, contraception, Latin Masses, changes in the liturgy, even perhaps the death penalty,” Yale historian Paul Kennedy, who is a practicing Catholic, wrote last year. “What matters is your reaching out to help. That’s the sole question you will be asked when you reach the Pearly Gates.”
Francis’s personal conduct has reframed the church’s resistance to secular Western pluralism. Under Benedict, this clash was a “culture war” over sexuality and exclusive claims to truth, and an ugly contradiction between public moralizing and private protection of sexual predators. In Francis’s care, the narrative of the church has become the story of a persistent Christian community of dissent: one led by a man who tries to abide by Jesus’s commands in his own life and one that challenges income inequality on the same grounds it challenges abortion and gay marriage (all of these, Francis says, reflect “moral relativism” and the “throwaway culture” of modern capitalism).
Francis is a countercultural prophet, whether you like his prophecy or not. He has caught the attention of Protestants as well. It’s worth recalling that they have always followed the Vatican closely. Until about 50 years ago, the one thing that united Protestants—who otherwise disagreed about nearly every aspect of doctrine and worship—was their common hatred of the pope. (The Vatican has, in this sense, provided more consistent confidence and clarity of purpose for Protestants than it has done for Catholics.) From the Puritans’ first ventures in Massachusetts Bay to clergy’s warnings that John F. Kennedy would let the Vatican dictate White House policy, anti-Catholicism was a powerful creed. Most of the time, liberals were just as anxious as conservatives to publicize the threat that “Roman-controlled priests” and their unthinking sheep posed to democracy.
The strong undercurrent of prejudice that had long informed this bias slowly declined as Catholics of European descent climbed the socioeconomic ladder and assimilated (racism continues to inflect ill will against Latino Catholics, although modern nativists are more likely to attack their immigration status than their church). The Second Vatican Council’s elevation of the laity’s role in worship and parish life, as well as the council’s olive branch to Protestant “separated brethren,” looked to some like a mild “Protestantization” of Rome. A global Pentecostal revival swept through Protestant and Catholic congregations alike in the 1960s and 1970s—while at home, conservative evangelicals increasingly saw Catholics as allies in the culture wars.
Anti-Catholicism is no longer a socially acceptable form of intolerance. But perhaps we underestimated the ideological vacuum left behind. Anti-Catholicism permitted American Protestants to claim the side of free thought, democracy, and progress without wholly confronting their own hypocrisies. The liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s provided liberals and conservatives with a means to reorient their theology: Would Jesus have stood for or against the March on Washington? What about Stonewall? But the late 20th century yielded more fracture and confusion than unity. What exactly does it mean to be Protestant—as opposed to merely Christian—now that they have stopped protesting “that arrant Whore of Rome, And all her blasphemies,” as the Puritans’ New England Primer put it?
In the 21st-century West, thoughtful Christians of all persuasions are looking for guidance as they transition from centuries of cultural dominance in Christendom to their new identity as a subculture in a wider world—a moral minority. Francis offers a reference point that resonates with Christians disillusioned with the grandstanding of the religious right and the confrontations of the culture wars.
Dave Miller, a Southern Baptist pastor in Iowa, recently urged fellow believers to take heart: “We can learn to live as a minority in America. … The church was born in a hostile Israel and spread throughout a depraved Roman Empire.” Progressive evangelicals agree, even if their politics are different. Shane Claiborne, who heads a Christian commune in inner-city Philadelphia called the Simple Way, says he is devoted to “creating God’s counterculture in the midst of a dominant culture.” Evangelicals like Claiborne have long made no secret of Catholic role models like Dorothy Day, the laywoman who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. They have branded communities like the Simple Way a “new monasticism” that draws on the example of service-oriented Catholic orders like the Franciscans.
I am not Catholic, but when I opened a Twitter account a few months ago, @Pontifex was one of the first feeds I sought out. Like many of the Holy Father’s 11 million–plus followers, I find his (or rather his e-deputy’s) tweets—oracular entreaties to compassion and faith—a welcome antidote to the tide of political debate, depressing headlines, and self-promotion that greets me on social media. “Lord have mercy!” he tweeted last fall. “Too often we are blinded by our comfortable lives, and refuse to see those dying at our doorstep.”
The underlying message of many of Francis’s homilies is that Christians are no longer called to police the boundaries of public morality but should speak the gospel’s unsettling truths to arbiters of worldly power. During a recent prayer with college students in Vatican City, he told them “to be not spectators, but protagonists in contemporary events.” “If you don’t let yourselves be conditioned by prevailing opinions, but remain faithful to Christian ethical and religious principles, you will find the courage even to go against the current,” he said.
Liberals have been overly optimistic in interpreting Francis’s reluctance to harp on sexual morality as a sign that he is a closet liberal. Benedict, too, worried that preaching constantly on sexual sins gave “the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears.”
At the same time, Francis’s self-effacing manner and his insistent call to “be poor among the poor” have challenged the way in which conservative Christians typically think about their priorities.
The notion of being a minority in a hostile culture is not news to them. However, conservative evangelicals have tended to see themselves as political martyrs on behalf of “family values” while they have allowed the drift of laissez-faire economic ideology to carry them away from Jesus’s social teachings. “We need to be known more by how we care about the hurting than how we yell at them,” wrote Southern Baptist leader Ed Stetzer in a Christianity Today essay on what evangelicals can learn from the pope. “The world is often confused when they see Jesus caring for the poor and hurting while His followers, well, don’t.”
Jesus, of course, had many things to say that confused and angered the world. He warned of God’s judgment against those who defied his law and a hell where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” When Francis adds the names of John XXIII and John Paul II to the litany of the saints, he will remind us that each pope was a mortal man shaped by his moment in history—but also one called by the gospel to stand against history, to eschew an easy home on our modern political map. If Francis manages this, perhaps he is doing his job.