Approbation for Pope Francis?

Honeymoons are by definition marked by a profound measure of affection. In such seasons, one perceives the best traits of his beloved. Such seasons, however, generally last for only a short period of time.

In this vein, it is interesting to observe how opinions take shape in the public domain. In our celebrity culture, honeymoons with global figures are frequent and passionate. Once a person is elected to an important office, the public opinion soars with the new powerful figure, selecting and praising all his merits and overlooking the rest, at least at the beginning. This is what has been happening with Pope Francis after his election to the papacy. A global honeymoon is taking place. Among the many sides of it (e.g. in Catholic inner circles, on the ecumenical dimension), two main angles are worth considering.


The Secular Honeymoon

Comments from the international press have been very generous if not enthusiastic so far. Francis’ image was perceived as “real”, “down to earth”, “personal”, “non presuming”, very different from a “regal” arrogance of more traditional popes. His references to the care of the environment, poverty, and tenderness were highly praised and understood as being very politically correct. His insistence on “mercy” was understood by some as an open door to different sexual life-styles and moral choices, moving away from a judgmental attitude on the church’s side. His willingness to intermingle with people and his relaxed behavior as far as protocols are concerned were seen as proof of his desire to be identified with normal people and with ordinary life.

The international press decided to bypass and consider irrelevant Cardinal Bergoglio’s relationship with the Argentinian political past. No further press investigation was pursued concerning the “dark” years of the totalitarian regimes and the role of the Catholic Church in Latin America. His strong stance against gay marriages in his country was forgotten. His rather conservative positions on moral issues were simply overlooked. Unlike his predecessor, who was a published and public theologian, Pope Bergoglio does not have a record of being a Catholic maitre-à-penser. People that know all his staff say that Pope Francis is on the same page as Benedict XVI in defending the traditional position of the Catholic Church in these areas. Yet the secular press fell in love with Francis. Why?

There may be a sociological explanation to this phenomenon. In times marked by social crisis, cultural disruption and economic uncertainty, people are eager to find someone that inspires trust and injects hope. Someone who is powerful but nonetheless gives the impression that he is in the same boat as us. A positive father-like figure that can speak simple words of love and distribute psychological caresses. Someone who can identify with the people, sending the message that “I am with you”, and struggling with the same challenges and helping everyone to overcome them. A secular “savior” that proclaims a “soft gospel” of compassion and resilience. In his first days as Pope, Pope Francis has met expectations. The secular world strongly dislikes the Church but loves the celebrity Pope. What is going to happen when he begins to speak the “hard” sayings of the Catholic Church? The irony of it all is that the cynical, suspicious and disenchanted modern world was re-enchanted by a man using the name of a medieval, primitive and deeply religious saint.

The Evangelical Honeymoon

Comments from the Evangelical world were also marked by the honeymoon attitude. Official statements and the social networks sent out enthusiastic reactions to his election. “Man of God”, “friend of Jesus”, “man of prayer” … these were some of the most common remarks. Francis was also acclaimed as the new national or even continental hero to be proud of, the new Diego Armando Maradona (of my generation) or another Lionel Messi, i.e. a man that embodies the expectations of an entire nation, someone that Evangelical people too want to identify with.

With all due respect, the idea of a Christ-centered man of God praying to Mary and the saints, bowing in front of an icon and committing himself and his audience to the care of Mary, is difficult to accept from an Evangelical point of view. But this was exactly what Pope Francis did on the first day of his papacy. No one is denying the deep spirituality of Francis or his godly devotion. The problem lies with the Evangelical discernment that tends to select few apparently positive aspects and forgets the negative ones. The outcome is a truncated picture at best, a false assessment at worse.

The global Evangelical movement does not have celebrities that can compare with those stemming from the worlds of music, sport and politics. Pope Francis apparently filled the gap. Unlike his cerebral predecessor, he knows how to speak to the heart. He knows how to embrace people.

Evangelical comments were largely based on past personal acquaintances with the former Cardinal Bergoglio. Again, no one for a moment doubts the integrity and warmth of the Pope, but the man can never be separated from his role and his loyalty to his Jesuit mission, which is now papal as well. The Jesuits were founded in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola and in their turbulent history they have always been committed to serve as “soldiers” of the Pope in order to fight against the (Protestant) heresy and to promote the Catholic mission in the world. Francis is the first Jesuit to become Pope and time will tell just how Jesuit his papacy will be, especially in Latin America where the Evangelical-Catholic border is moving. Will the Jesuit Pope be able to stop the Evangelical expansion? Will he manage to take it back into the Catholic fold? Will he be able to enchant Evangelicals with his manners without changing the doctrinal points of controversy? Will Biblical doctrine still be an issue for Evangelicals in dealing with the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level?

Anyone who is aware of history should carefully consider these questions. The Spirit is surely able to work miracles even in traditional institutions, but the Bible warns us to not be forgetful of history. Personal relationships are important, but Biblical discernment is bigger still. It calls for theological awareness, historical alertness, and spiritual vigilance.

The honeymoon with Pope Francis continues. Yet the mood of the public’s opinion can suddenly change when the fuller mission of the Pope is put on display. What seemed to be a promising marriage with secular media could turn into a painful divorce. As for Christians who are experiencing the honeymoon, let the exhortation of Revelation 2:4—to not forsake our “first love”—lead us continually upward in a biblically chaste vision of Jesus, our ultimate Shepherd.

by Leonardo De Chirico

Rome, 21st March 2013

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