Pope Francis, the Anti-Strongman
By Paul Elie, cross-posted from the NYTimes.com, 24 March 20180
VATICAN CITY — One recent Friday evening, Pope Francis presided over a penitential service at St. Peter’s. After the Gospel was read he strode beneath the great dome and knelt at a wooden booth, while other Catholics did likewise throughout the basilica. “I am a sinner,” he had said shortly after his election in 2013, and five years later the self-description still holds: Before going into the booth to listen as others confessed their sins, he confessed his own.
In recent centuries, the pope has been both symbol and cipher for an authoritarian ruler. As Western governments became more expressive of the will of the governed, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church has been seen, by contrast, as a figure vested in bulletproof pre-modern absolutes, immune to electoral or popular pressures, accountable to God alone.
So it’s striking that in our time, Pope Francis has emerged as a counterweight to authoritarian rule, a pope who has set the office he holds in symbolic opposition to would-be autocrats.
The age of the strongman is at hand: Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Donald Trump in the United States all disdain checks and balances, the independent press and other forces that might counter a self-determined chief executive.
In these circumstances, Pope Francis has emerged as the anti-strongman. His choice of name evoked Francis of Assisi, humble patron saint of the poor. His decision to live in the Santa Marta guesthouse rather than the Vatican Palace suggested his essential simplicity. Paying his hotel bill in Rome, carrying his own briefcase onto Shepherd One: Here was a pope with both feet on the ground.
While John Paul forged a relationship with Opus Dei — the strict and secretive movement with roots in the postwar Spain of Francisco Franco — Francis is at ease with the Community of Sant’Egidio, founded in Rome during the student uprisings of 1968 and now present in 70 countries, working with the poor, migrants, the elderly and people with AIDS. With its members, Francis has acted like a 21st-century Christian who happens to be pope: washing the feet of Muslim men and women on Good Friday, airlifting Syrians out of the Lesbos refugee camp on the papal plane and instituting a shelter for homeless people inside the Vatican.
Those gestures also signaled his wish to unhitch the papacy from the office’s authoritarian legacy. The name Francis (never before chosen by a pope) placed him outside the lineage of his roman-numeraled, monarchical predecessors. Setting up in the guesthouse kept him clear of the papacy’s history of worldly power through rule of the Papal States. Paying his hotel bill suggested that even a potentate doesn’t get a free ride.
Francis took office at a time of unprecedented change for the papacy. Benedict’s resignation in February 2013 — the first by a pope in 598 years — altered the power structure of the Vatican overnight. Now that it can no longer be assumed a pope will rule for life, the Vatican is less like an absolute monarchy than a coalition government in which politicking is out in the open and the pope must hold factions together.
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Francis has embraced this new openness: appointing a group of consulting cardinals, and actually consulting them; holding a papal synod focused on discussion more than conclusions; answering hard questions unguardedly; and taking his strongest stand on the problem of environmental degradation.
Even as they grant that he was elected to shake up the constricted Vatican bureaucracy, his critics see his approach as that of a stealthy revolutionary or a reckless agent of disruption. In fact, Francis’s exercise of the papal role reflects the Jesuit practice of discernment, which involves waiting, listening, letting competing options for action emerge, and choosing one after prayer and internal deliberation.
The group of advisory cardinals is significant because it belies the supposed solitary autonomy of papal decision-making and incorporates cardinals from places long thought remote from power: Santiago, Chile, and Mumbai, India, as well as Munich and Boston. The group’s members are compromised figures whose blind spots are often akin to Francis’s own. But it is a significant step that such a body exists at all.
The 2015 synod on marriage and the family, judged a debacle by many, is better understood as an instance of soft power in action. By calling the synod, Francis signaled that the issues surrounding Catholic teaching on marriage are not closed to further Vatican discussion — in sharp contrast to the “Rome has spoken” approach of his predecessors. Then Francis set out to point the synod discussions in a progressive direction on the issue of whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics in certain countries may receive communion at Mass. Traditionalists accused Francis of flirting with heresy.
Of necessity, the process was unruly. But discussions were had, and cardinals who opposed Francis were heard — because Francis let them be heard. He gave a closing speech thick with exasperation, replaced some resistant curial officials and demoted the hostile American Cardinal Raymond Burke — but he set aside the most far-reaching proposals about marriage and family for a future time, meanwhile keeping the discussion open.
Francis has acted on his conviction that Catholic faith is less about the use of power to shape the social order — the stuff of present strongmen and past popes — than about straightforward efforts of kindness and generosity.
Francis could serve as pope for another year, or five or 10. The test of his soft power in the coming years will be its encounter with hard power. Will he issue an encyclical on migration and the demonizing of the immigrant “other”? As he seeks openings for the church in seething Russia and rising China, will he address those countries’ human rights violations, opposing authoritarianism with the authority of the Gospel? Possibly — but not certainly. Traditionalists in the Vatican are insisting that Francis would do better not to engage with intransigent leaders and intractable problems at all.
Symbolically, the papacy is meant to be a “contrast structure” to worldly forms of authority. Too often, it has been such a structure in the wrong ways: crabbed, self-protecting, aloof and denunciatory. Five years into his pontificate, our upside-down age has a leader whose approach and example stand as reminders of what the sensitive exercise of power can look like.