The First American Pope

National Review Online | Published on March 14, 2013

By George Weigel

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Rome–The swift election of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., as bishop of Rome is replete with good news–and not a little irony. To reverse the postmodern batting order, let’s begin with the good news.

A true man of God. The wheelchair-bound beggar at the corner of Via della Conciliazione and Via dell’Erba this morning had a keen insight into his new bishop: “Sono molto contento; è una profeta” (“I’m very happy; he’s a prophet”). That was certainly the overwhelming impression I took away from the hour I spent with the archbishop of Buenos Aires and future pope last May–here was a genuine man of God, who lives “out” from the richness and depth of his interior life; a bishop who approaches his responsibilities as a churchman and his decisions as the leader of a complex organization from a Gospel-centered perspective, in a spirit of discernment and prayer. The intensity with which Cardinal Bergoglio asked me to pray for him, at the end of an hour of wide-ranging conversation about a broad range of local and global Catholic issues, was mirrored last night in his unprecedented request to the vast crowd spilling out of St. Peter’s Square and down toward the Tiber to pray for him before he blessed them. Gregory the Great, in the sixth century, was the first bishop of Rome to adopt the title Servus servorum Dei (Servant of the Servants of God). That ancient description of the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church will be embodied in a particularly winsome way in Pope Francis, who named himself for the Poverello of Assisi, the most popular saint in history.

A pope for the New Evangelization. The election of Pope Francis completes the Church’s turn from the Counter-Reformation Catholicism that brought the Gospel to America–and eventually produced Catholicism’s first American pope–to the Evangelical Catholicism that must replant the Gospel in those parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored, while planting it afresh in new fields of mission around the globe. In our May 2012 conversation, the man who would become pope discussed at some length the importance of the Latin American bishops’ 2007 “Aparecida Document,” the fruit of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean. The essential message of that revolutionary statement (in which there was not the least bit of whining about Protestant “sheep-stealing” but rather a clear acknowledgment of Catholicism’s own evangelical deficiencies in Latin America) can be gleaned from this brief passage, which I adopted as one of the epigrams for my book, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church:

The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission. . . . It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats. . . . What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel . . . out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries.

. . .A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. . . . We must all start again from Christ, recognizing [with Pope Benedict XVI] that “being Christian is . . . the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Here, in a statement that then-cardinal Bergoglio had a significant hand in drafting, is what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the “New Evangelization” in synthetic microcosm:

  • The Church of the 21st century cannot rely on the ambient public culture, or on folk memories of traditional Catholic culture, to transmit the Gospel in a way that transforms individual lives, cultures, and societies. Something more, something deeper, is needed.
  • That “something” is radical personal conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ and an embrace of the friendship he offers every human being: a friendship in which we both see the face of the Father of Mercies (who calls us out of our prodigality into the full dignity of our humanity) and learn the deep truth about our humanity (that it is in making our lives into a gift for others, as life itself is to each of us, that we come into human fulfillment).
  • This conversion of minds and hearts builds a community that is unlike any other: a “communion” of disciples in mission, who understand that faith is increased as it is offered and given away to others.
  • That communion-community best embodies the truth of the human condition if each individual member of it, and the Church itself, fully embraces the entire symphony of Catholic truth, and in doing so, lives the moral life as a life of growth in beatitude, in compassion for others and in evangelical charity.
  • Finally, this communion-community lives “ahead of time,” because it knows, through the Easter faith the Church will celebrate in a few weeks, the truth about how the human adventure will end: God’s purposes in creation and redemption will be vindicated, as history and the cosmos are fulfilled in the New Jerusalem, in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb where death will be no more and every tear will be wiped away (Rev. 21:2-4).

That is the message that Pope Francis will take to the world: Gospel-centered Catholicism, which challenges the post-mod cynics, the metaphysically bored, and the spiritually dry to discover (or rediscover) the tremendous human adventure of living “inside” the Biblical narrative of history.

A reforming pope. One of the principal dynamics of Conclave 2013 was a settled determination among a clear majority of the cardinal electors to see that the next pontificate addresses, in a root-and-branch way, the incompetence and corruption that has made too much of the Roman Curia an impediment to the New Evangelization, rather than an instrument of it–and in doing so, to empower the good people of the Curia to give the world Church the benefit of their remarkable talents. Pope Francis is not going to have a happy time reading the 300-page report on Vatileaks and related Roman messes that is waiting for him in the papal apartment. But he will read it with a reformer’s eye, with the aid of some very shrewd and reform-minded veterans of the Curia, and with a clear understanding from his own experience (as related to me last May) of what went wrong in the management of the Church’s central administrative machinery under the leadership of Benedict XVI’s cardinal secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B. It may be reasonably expected that real reform, in both curial culture and curial personnel, will follow in due course. The sooner the better, many would say.

A pope in defense of human rights and democracy. Pope Francis has left behind an Argentina in which he was a stern critic of the Cristina Kirchner government’s deepening of that beautiful country’s democracy deficit, and of Madam President’s commitment to a public policy of bread-and-circuses wedded to legally enforced lifestyle libertinism–what Benedict XVI aptly called the “dictatorship of relativism.” At a moment when the momentum of the democratic project in Latin America is flagging (while new opportunities are opening up in places like post-Chávez Venezuela and the inevitable post-Castro-brothers Cuba), the new pope should be able to rally Catholic forces in defense of religious freedom and other civil liberties in a continent where they are now under assault. And if he can do that at home, he can do it throughout the world.

Pope Francis is also deeply committed to the Church’s service to and empowerment of the poor, as he made unmistakably clear in his ministry in Buenos Aires. But those Gospel-based commitments should not lead anyone to think that he will be Paul Krugman in a white cassock. That seems very unlikely.

And now for the ironies.

The 2005 runner-up takes the checkered flag in 2013? Well, not really. Cardinal Bergoglio was used in 2005; he knows precisely who used him and why; and while he is a man of the Gospel who is not looking to settle scores, he is also a man of prudence who knows who his friends, and who his enemies, are. Here’s the story:

In April 2005, the progressive party (which was a real party then) came to Rome after the death of John Paul II thinking it had the wind at its back and clear sailing ahead–only to find that the Ratzinger-for-pope party was well-organized; that Ratzinger had made a very positive impression by the way he had run the General Congregations of cardinals after John Paul II’s death; that he had deep support from throughout the Third World because of the courtesy with which he had treated visiting Third World bishops on their quinquennial visits to Rome over the past 20 years; and that, after his brilliant homily at John Paul’s funeral Mass, he was indisputably the frontrunner for the papacy.

Confronted with this reality, the progressives panicked. Their first blocking move against Ratzinger was to try and run the aged Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, S.J., emeritus archbishop of Milan, who was already ill with Parkinson’s disease and had retired to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. The idea was not to elect Martini pope; it was to stop the Ratzinger surge. Then, when Ratzinger blew past Martini with almost 50 percent of the vote on what was assumed to be the “courtesy” first ballot (where some votes are cast as gestures of friendship, esteem, etc.), and subsequently went over 50 percent the following morning, the panic intensified. Martini was summarily abandoned (or may have told his supporters to forget it). The progressives then tried to advance Cardinal Bergoglio–who was very much part of the pro-Ratzinger coalition; who embodied “dynamic orthodoxy,” just like John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger; who had been persecuted by his more theologically and politically left-leaning Jesuit brethren after his term as Jesuit provincial in Argentina (they exiled him to northern Argentina where he taught high-school chemistry until rescued by John Paul II and eventually made archbishop of Buenos Aires); and who was doubtless appalled by the whole exercise on his putative behalf.

It was a last-ditch blocking move, perhaps constructed around the idea that a Third World candidate like Bergoglio would peel off Ratzinger votes. In any event, it was a complete misreading of the 2005 conclave’s dynamics and a cynical use of Bergoglio, who would almost certainly have been abandoned had the stratagem worked–and it failed miserably.

Thus it may be safely assumed that the coalition that quickly solidified and swiftly elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope in 2013 had little or nothing to do with the eminent cabal that tried to use him in 2005. Pope Francis was elected for who he is, not for taking the silver medal eight years ago.

The first Jesuit pope? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. Bergoglio is an old-school Jesuit, formed by classic Ignatian spirituality and deeply committed to an intelligent, sophisticated appropriation and proclamation of the full symphony of Catholic truth–qualities not notable for their prevalence among many members of the Society of Jesus in the early 21st century. I suspect there were not all that many champagne corks flying last night in those Jesuit residences throughout the world where the Catholic Revolution That Never Was is still regarded as the ecclesiastical holy grail. For the shrewder of the new pope’s Jesuit brothers know full well that that dream was just dealt another severe blow. And they perhaps fear that this pope, knowing the Society of Jesus and its contemporary confusions and corruptions as he does, just might take in hand the reform of the Jesuits that was one of the signal failures of the pontificate of John Paul II.

There will be endless readings of the tea leaves in the days ahead as the new pope, by word and gesture, offers certain signals as to his intentions and his program. But the essentials are already known. This is a keenly intelligent, deeply holy, humble, and shrewd man of the Gospel. He knows that he has been elected as a reformer, and the reforms he will implement are the reforms that will advance the New Evangelization. The rest is detail: important detail, to be sure, but still detail. The course is set, and the Church’s drive into the Evangelical Catholicism of the future has been accelerated by the pope who introduced himself to his diocese, and to the world, by bowing deeply as he asked for our prayers.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.