In 846 AD, a Muslim army sacked Rome’s unfortified Vatican Hill, making off with precious gold and silver ornamentation from altars built upon the resting place of St. Peter, Christ’s disciple and, by tradition, the first pope. Two years later, Pope Leo IV oversaw construction of 40-foot walls to protect the restored Basilica of St. Peter from a violent world and to preserve for eternity the safety of his successors as Bishops of Rome and leaders of the worldwide Catholic Church.
For more than a millennium, the enfortressment of the Holy See served as a vivid metaphor for Church attitudes toward worldly influences, especially the corrosive effects of creeping modernity. Social and intellectual phenomena ranging from the Enlightenment to the sexual revolution were kept at bay by Pope Leo’s battlements. Vatican walls protected the church from invaders, shielded its inner workings from scrutiny, and launched a thousand conspiracy theories: Pope Pius XII was complicit in the Holocaust; Pope Paul VI was drugged, imprisoned, and replaced by an actor; Pope John Paul I was murdered; the Vatican Secret Archives contain historical evidence that Jesus never existed.
Facing calls from reformers to craft a more responsive and humanistic Church, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in,” he said. The consequences were immediate and dramatic. In hopes of igniting renewal, the Council produced numerous documents amending key Church teachings, reformed traditional liturgical practices, and, the reformers said, ended hundreds of years of insularity and elitism. With the Council’s 1964 approval of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” the document known as Lumen gentium, the metaphorical walls, at least, came tumbling down.
Over the next ten years, the “spirit of Vatican II” gave the Church in America and elsewhere a radical makeover. Catholicism looked different, sounded different, and acted different. “It was as though some took the Church to be ‘dis-incarnate,’ detached from flesh and history—detached, that is, from Rome and the Vatican, and so far as possible from any concrete local authority,” wrote the acclaimed American Catholic writer and former seminarian Michael Novak, who covered the Council as a freelance reporter.
“For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe. One could be a Catholic ‘in spirit.’ One could take Catholic to mean the ‘culture’ into which one was born rather than a creed making objective and rigorous demands. One could imagine Rome as a distant and irrelevant anachronism, embarrassment, even adversary.”
Fifty years on, the American Church is damaged, diminished, and mired in an identity crisis—trapped between orthodox traditionalists with a deep ambivalence about its post-Vatican II direction and progressives seeking greater accommodation with the culture. Add in the bishops’ botched (and worse) response to the sexual-abuse crisis and the desire of powerful secular forces to banish all religious voices from the public square, and a picture emerges of an institution at least as vulnerable as it was during the Muslim conquests. In the 15 years prior to the Second Vatican Council, as Novak sees it, the American Church had never been healthier.
“[R]eligious orders of priest, brothers, and sisters had been growing more rapidly than they ever had in history,” he wrote in a 2010 reconsideration of Vatican II. By contrast, in the subsequent decades, mass attendance in the United States dropped precipitously. The number of American priests has fallen 34 percent since 1965 and membership in women’s religious orders has dropped off a cliff. There were more than 180,000 religious sisters in the U.S. in the mid-1960s—roughly half of whom taught in Catholic schools. In 2014, there were just 49,883 American nuns, a nosedive of 72 percent.
Into this upended world swoops the enigmatic Pope Francis, a humble South American whose impromptu pronouncements on economics and sexuality have given comfort to Catholicism’s usual critics while vexing its faithful practitioners and their allies. His arrival in Washington on Tuesday marks his first time on American soil since his election in March 2013, and the first apostolic journey to the United States since Benedict XVI’s April 2008 visit to New York and Washington.
Papal visits always generate some hysteria, but usually the excitement is confined to the ranks of the parish councils, youth ministries, and energetic college students who pack buses and stadiums to spend a few hours in the presence of the Holy Father. This time it’s different. It’s the liberal-dominated media and the secular-progressive political establishment that’s gone batty over Francis. “Pope Francis’ Popularity Bridges Great Divides,” declared The New York Times on Wednesday.
In Francis, American liberals see a lefty pope onto whom they can project their dreams of a popular backlash against the stultifying bigotry of right-wing religious conservatives. According to The New Republic’s Brian Beutler, by speaking respectfully of Islam, Francis’s goal is to “troll the entire American right.”
As the first Jesuit pope and the first from the Americas, Francis was bound to bring something unique to the papacy. Especially in Europe and the Americas, the Jesuit order has long been viewed as a bastion of left-wing radicalism within the Church. The Catholic writer and editor David Mills called the Jesuits “the archetype of the priests with PhDs who set themselves in opposition to the Church’s teaching and run institutions notorious for their disregard and abuse of that teaching.”
Pope Francis is not your average Jesuit, however. He served as the order’s local leader during the turbulent 1970s, while Argentina’s right-wing military dictatorship fought its “Dirty War” against left-wing guerillas. His deft stewardship—one Argentine Jesuit called him “a mixture of Machiavelli and a desert saint”—made him popular with the men he led but not with those in the order who coveted his job. After a power struggle got him stripped of his leadership and sent into a kind of internal exile, a split was inevitable. According to biographer Austen Ivereigh, the period was “a radical purgation that left [Francis] humbler, gentler, and more compassionate. It also brought an end to his time with the Jesuits, although he technically remained a member of the order.”
Pope Francis is his own man, and that man is most definitely a liberal Church reformer. But he’s also the Vicar of Christ, the successor of St. Peter, and the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. It seems unlikely in the extreme, as some on the right have alleged, that the aim of his papacy is to undermine traditional teachings on morality or in any way do harm to the Church he loves and to which he has dedicated his life. That so many believe otherwise is an indication that we are hopelessly addicted to viewing the world through the binary lens of American politics. One thing’s for sure: Pope Francis is tone-deaf about how his remarks play in American political context. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn’t constitute an existential threat to the Church.
Pope Francis has nontraditional views on marginal issues not typically thought of as being in the pope’s purview. He’s a Catholic priest, however, not a secular progressive or a free thinker. For example, his stance on gay marriage wouldn’t fly in the Democratic Party of 2015. “The image of God is the married couple — not just the man, not just the woman, but both,” he said during a general audience at the Vatican last year. Were he not the Hero Pope of the climate-obsessed liberal media, his views on abortion—and animal rights—would get him thrown off most American college campuses. “At times more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the equal dignity of human beings,” he said. Exactly right.
Lost in the hype surrounding Francis’s visit has been the real reason behind it. After his address to Congress, his Madison Square Garden mass, and his rally in Central Park, he will go to Philadelphia to oversee the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families—a celebration of the “sacred bonds” of traditional marriage. The event’s host, Philadelphia archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the more eloquent conservative voices in the American Church, made news last year when he remarked on the “confusion” emerging from the Vatican’s two-week Synod on the Family. Media reports suggested that the participants were debating whether to change Church teaching on marriage.
“I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion,” said Chaput. “There’s no doubt that the Church has a clear position: on what marriage means and that you don’t receive communion unless you’re in communion with the teachings of Christ, that gay marriage is not a possibility in God’s plan and therefore can’t be a reality in our lives. There’s no doubt about any of that.”
While the Left fantasizes about an imaginary ‘Hero Pope’ come to beat up the American Right for its views on social issues, the real Pope will be on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, endorsing a markedly traditional Catholic view of the family, reflecting the structure of the Holy Family itself and forming a kind of fortress against what he’s called the “ideological colonization” of same-sex marriage. The family, he said earlier this year, is “threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life.” Does that sound like a pope come to tear the Church down—or a pope come to protect it?