James Carroll writes: As Pope Francis heads to Cuba and the United States this month, with an itinerary that includes visits to the Castros, the U.S. Congress, the White House, the United Nations General Assembly, and a major Catholic convocation in Philadelphia, the measure of his accomplishments and further promise remains confused. Is he a radical or merely a liberal? Does he seek to revise Church dogma — to bring it in line with some ethical ideal — or to formulate a pastoral response that is rooted in reality, and that leaves the institution unchanged? Among Roman Catholics, conservatives emphasize that, for all the hoopla about gays, divorce, women, and dogs going to heaven, he is not changing Church doctrine. Liberals, on the other hand, recognize in him a longed-for reformer of Vatican corruptions and cruelties. In the secular world, where his reach is astonishing, he is celebrated as a prophet of compassion and economic justice, even as his stern pronouncements on climate change, global capitalism, the plight of migrants, and a host of other issues are dismissed as lacking “practical strategies for a fallen world,” as David Brooks put it in the Times.
The prevailing commentary so emphasizes the once-unimagined uniqueness of Francis that the larger and longer context of his arrival goes unrecognized: the real meaning of this surprising Pope is being missed. Rather than seeing him as a cult-worthy personality who represents something wholly new in Catholicism, it is better to understand Francis, even in his stylistic deviations, as the culmination of a slow, if jerky, recovery on the part of the Church from its self-defeating rejection of modernity. [Continue reading…]