Opinion: Pope Francis likely to continue 'robust, evangelical Catholicism'

by Dr. Rodney Howsare | Mar 15, 2013

Please note, this opinion originally appeared in The Morning Call, Friday, 3/15/13:

At 7:06 p.m. Wednesday, white smoke billowed out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, signifying the election of a new pope. Just about an hour later, the announcement came that it was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a man who was certainly not a front-runner among the papabili — possible popes. As it turns out, he is reported to have been the runner-up when Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope the last time around.

There are a number of things notable about his election. First, the name. He will be the first pope in history to take the name Francis, almost assuredly after Francis of Assisi, but perhaps with a nod toward the other two important St. Francises, Xavier and de Sales. The name is most immediately associated with poverty, humility and simplicity, all of which seem to be characteristics of this new pope.

While archbishop of Buenos Aires, he opted to live in a very simple apartment with another priest, rather than in the more luxurious archbishop's residence. He also took public transportation, rather than being chauffeured around in a private car. On a final note along these lines, he reportedly visited an AIDS clinic some years back and insisted on washing and kissing the feet of several of the patients there.

We should also recall that Francis of Assisi was explicitly called to rebuild God's Church at a time that it was thought to be in ruins. A final note on the name: Francis of Assisi is famous for saying that Christians should preach the gospel at all times, using words if necessary, an emphasis that provides an explicit link to the other two Francises, both of whom are remembered as great evangelizers.

Apart from the choice of name, however, most Americans at least want to know where this pope fits on the liberal-conservative continuum. He's already being called a moderate by numerous media outlets. This would be a good time to warn readers of the dangers of applying recent political tags to an institution as old as the Catholic Church. Americans tend to have an overblown sense of their own importance in the grand scheme of things, and this would be a good time to remember that.

From what we know about this pope, he, like his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, will appear to Americans and Europeans alike as being liberal on issues of economics, war, capital punishment, the environment and the like, and conservative on issues such as women's ordination, homosexual marriage, contraception, abortion, etc. In short, he will be a Catholic, and Catholics don't base their teachings on the latest opinion polls. Or, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, we also give votes to dead people.

On a more theological note, our past two popes have been explicitly associated with the 20th century theological school known as Communio. Communio was an academic journal founded in the early 1970s by, among others, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) and Hans Urs von Balthasar, a favorite theologian of John Paul II. The school was known for trying to find a third way, beyond the ultratraditionalists and progressives at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The Communio school was also interested in refreshing Catholic theology by returning to the sources of the faith: the Bible and the Fathers of the Church. They felt that the theology that was being taught in the seminaries during the 19th and early 20th centuries had grown stale and failed to speak to the people of its day.

While Jorge Bergoglio was not explicitly associated with the Communio school, he has strong ties to a movement known as Communion and Liberation, founded in Italy in the middle part of the 20th century by Luigi Giussani. Giussani resembled the Communio school in his attempt to find a way to present the traditional Catholic faith in a way comprehensible to modern men and women.

If Pope Francis is not quite the theological giant of our past two popes, it seems that he does continue in the mold of robust, evangelical Catholicism that characterized their papacies. In short, the cardinals appear to have elected a man who preaches the Gospel at all times, using words if necessary.

Rodney Howsare is a professor of theology at DeSales University.

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