The anniversary of the election of Pope Francis occasions an opportunity for reflection. It should, of course, be sober reflection. As one may imagine, this is not the case with the media coverage. Among mainstream American media outlets, the anniversary of this papacy is portrayed as analogous to a great healing and enlightening of the Roman Church. The reality is more complex, and it is detectable despite the glosses.
There were many considerations that undoubtedly went into the election of Pope Francis. Benedict's papacy concluded in chaos. The leaking of documents which offered a glimpse into the power struggles and intrigues that surrounded the Bishop of Rome, including veiled allegations from a Sicilian hierarch, caused many of the Cardinal electors to believe the secretive world of the Vatican required transparency. There was the unavoidable fact that the mass of the Roman Church largely resides in the Southern Hemisphere. In the West, there was the desire to regain some of the footing lost for the Roman Church since the death of John Paul II, coupled with dissatisfaction with the restorationist elements that surrounded Benedict's papacy.
It is hard to measure the impact of any pope. These days, our celebrity obsessed culture seems to condemn any pontiff to the fast fashion of post modern tastes. There has been, to be sure, a media circus producing every possible headline of positive press for Pope Francis. There are a myriad of human interest stories too.
We read of various people who felt so ashamed at their religious association in previous years, but now with the wider culture accepting Francis, there is no need to apologize and a sense of pride in one's religion. We are treated to accounts of priests who were censured during the previous papacy now making dramatic gestures, often times in the context of the liturgy, imbibed with the nebulous virtues of post-modern America. I suspect, at the root of all of this coverage, there is a window into the collective Roman Catholic psyche. You have, in large part, a generation of baby boomers who on the one hand cling dearly to the new set of morality and ideals they imbued into the American culture, and on the other hand are approaching those crucial years of one's life in which one must begin to accept human mortality. There is, then, a desire to retain generational identity and reengage the religion of the their youth as they have begun to enter the next period of human liminality.
One cannot fail to notice that, in the American landscape, Roman Catholicism feels the pains of cultural pressure. Many of the exposes on the first anniversary of this papacy contain unmistakable themes of reconciling Catholciism to American culture and finally feeling the relief of cultural acceptance. This is demonstrable from the bishops to the laity. Perhaps it was inevitable. Whereas Orthodoxy had to often find a way to survive in cultural climates that were opposed to Christianity, Catholicism, in its Western homeland, has rarely been the true cultural outsider, surrounded with suspicion and contempt. Rather, Catholicism has often been one the of primary hosts for the culture. Being at odds with the culture, being a genuine other in the culture, is not something Catholicism knows readily nor do many of its churchmen and adherents understand how to function in such a climate. Indeed, in many respects Vatican II was designed to assure Catholicism could continue to engage with Western culture, working as it did to re-frame many of the propositions that were becoming difficult for the West to accept.
Yet, whatever acceptance or media obsession the Roman Church has acquired under this pontificate has to be balanced against unmistakable disadvantages. First, Pope Francis's many off the cough remarks and his penchant for the press interview has caused no small amount of confusion among clergy and laity. Some believe he is affirming a progressive agenda, others are pained to perform hermeneutical acrobatics to reconcile his statements with the previous two pontificates. Everyone seems to agree that, at first glance, he is pushing for changes to the application of Roman Catholic doctrine. Second, Francis's papacy has been marked by a plethora of affirmations, to the point that this pontiff seems to affirm things that, when examined for their consequences and connections, appear irreconcilable. It is impossible to affirm, for instance, the Orthodox Tradition, and then proceed to affirm some of the propositions Francis has offered on certain social issues in the West. Any Orthodox theologian would point this out. Third, numbers rarely lie. Despite the media attraction, despite inculcating a sense of reconciliation for an aging generation to its childhood religion, there has been no demonstrable "return" to the Roman Church. Statistics demonstrating a continued decline in the West remain the norm. As much as certain persons want to claim it is not about numbers, plainly, religion is about numbers. Without the numbers a religion fails to perpetuate itself to succeeding generations and eventually becomes obsolete. Without the numbers, a religion has a dwindling ministerial class. Without the numbers a religion looses its ability to provide institutional support. Without the numbers, more churches are shut and sold off to become the latest trendy rental dwellings among yuppies and hipsters. Without the numbers, your media papacy and everything it symbolizes becomes a mueseum exhibit. To be blind to Francis's inability to boost the numbers and its significance is self-delusion. Fourth, as much as Benedict's papacy was to the right of John Paul II, Francis's papacy is to the left. No amount of interpretive gymnastics changes this. The capability of the Roman Church to change with the wind based upon who holds the papal office exposes the serious deficiency in Roman ecclesiology. The insistence upon a papal primacy redolent with universal jurisdiction and infallibility has created the situation in which the mind and personality of the Roman Church changes with the reigning pontiff. If we saw the same traits in an individual, we would say that he or she is either schizophrenic or suffering from multiple personality disorder. In any case, we would see such changes as evidence of a psychological disorder. How then are such traits acceptable for a religion?
I write this as someone who did not live through the pre-Vatican II period, who has experienced it largely through studying its liturgy, its thinkers, and the body of prayer and spirituality that never managed to transfer through the filtering and sifting that took place after the Council. I write this as someone who has tried to comprehend why any religion would institute a revolution upon itself. I write this as someone who has watched a once great Tradition abandon its own heritage in favor of transient models that would scarcely distinguish it from any other charitable NGO. I write this as someone who has had to accept that the Church which once held that Tradition has determined to embark upon a certain process until the process is either deemed complete or said Church can simply no longer go on. God only knows which one will come first.