Skip to main content

Pope Francis’ Balancing Act

The pontiff walks the divide between two ideas of his church

This article originally appeared in The Boston Globe on Sept. 21, 2015.  

By Garry Wills

Will Pope Francis come to America as a healer or a divider? A bit of both, I guess. A healer, surely, by intent. But by situation, for some, a divider. This pope has a double orientation — as the first pope to have a respected predecessor, with a loyal following, living next door to him; and as the first pope from the New World, with a populist instinct and gift. I think of him as a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel operating behind enemy lines. Well, not quite enemy lines, but alien divides. For there are two Catholic churches now, and each is in some degree alien to the other. One, the Second Vatican Council church, the people of God, is people-centered. The other, the church of the hierarchy, is pope-centered.

Call them Our Church and Other Church. Here in America, Our Church wants priests to be married (72 percent in a March 2014 Pew poll), and wants women priests (68 percent), and uses contraceptives for family planning (77 percent). Other Church does not have (until just last week) bishops openly proposing all (or any) of these things. They all (even Jorge Bergoglio, as bishop of Buenos Aires) had to pass a papal litmus test by opposing them. Most priests in Our Church know that their parishioners do not agree with the pope, and minister to them anyway. Priests in Other Church do not look around at their congregations. They look up at the hierarchical ladder they mean to climb. They are not pastors but careerists.

Then how did Bergoglio slip across the lines into Other Church’s highest office? It helped that a rift had developed between him and other Jesuits on how to handle Liberation Theology under a dictatorship. That rift was a recommendation to John Paul II, who despised the Jesuits (he was the only pope to take away, temporarily, their right to elect their own superior general). After John Paul made him a bishop, Bergoglio did not make the customary stop at the Jesuit house in Rome; he planned to retire to a non-Jesuit care center, and to be buried in a non-Jesuit cemetery. But still he was a pastor at heart, a shepherd who had to know (as he puts it) “the smell of the sheep.”

Of course, members of Other Church do not think there are two churches, just one — theirs. It is The Church, the only true one. They think of Our Church as No Church. Other Church has reduced the whole of morality, in all its majestic height and depth, into policing certain sex acts, from abortion and contraception to artificial insemination and masturbation. What a majestic vision! They are good at guarding their incredible theological shrinking machine, keeping or kicking people out of their pure sanctuary — with the result that in America there are as many ex-Catholics as Catholics (52-to-48 percent in a June 2015 Pew poll), since 32 million people have left the Catholic faith. Good work, popes. They obviously believed that “the fewer, the truer.”

Pope Francis, as our people-centered operative in alien territory, does not mean to blow things up in the Vatican. He wants to close the disconnect between the two churches — to speak of people, especially the poor, and of Jesus’ love for them. He wants to speak for them, against systems that ignore or trap them.

Of course, some members of Other Church live in Our Church, “behind the lines’’ from the other direction, and they think this pope is confused about where he and we belong. When the pope pleads for those who suffer from the gap between the super-rich and the barely living, men like GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum say he has no business doing that — he should stick to “religion.” For people like Santorum, sticking to religion means talking about contraception and abortion, not the poor. Yet Jesus is not on record as ever mentioning contraception or abortion, and he talked continuously of our duty to the poor.

The pope wants to expand our sense of religion, not narrow it down to contraception-abortion disputation. He has said the church should be like a field hospital to care for the fallen after battle. Other Church would rather send troops out to shoot the wounded. Typically, Other Church wants to bar politicians like Representative Nancy Pelosi from the communion rail, while Francis said “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a medicine for the weak.”

Though the pope fascinates some non-Catholics with his openness to the poor and weak, he frightens others. Those invested in climate destruction agree with Santorum that the pope has no business meddling in care for those hurt most deeply by diminished world resources. The Koch brothers would be very happy to have Francis talk of nothing but contraception and abortion. That does not affect their bottom line. So the pope, with his people-centered religion, is bound to give equal-opportunity offense to Other Church and to the wealthy unchurched. He will come before Congress not to plant bombs but to heal, if we let him. He must perform a delicate balancing act. But he’s good at that.

- Garry Wills, a professor of history at Northwestern University, is the author of “The Future of the Catholic Church With Pope Francis.’’

Topics: Opinion, Unions

Editor's Picks

Back to top