It’s the Bergoglio effect. While some scholars and websites – who were declared papists up until a month ago – continue to criticise the new Pope, whose sobriety in comparison to Benedict XVI has not gone down well with them, the wave of fondness for Francis has also not stopped.
This fondness is not down to a media infatuation: droves of people approached the sacrament of confession again at Easter, struck by Bergoglio’s words about forgiveness and mercy. Numerous Italian parish priests and ordinary priests can attest to this.
This is a nice surprise, naturally. But I’m not shocked by it. I think a rigid Catholic traditionalism, one too much focused on peripherals, was a spent exercise fifty or even more years ago. The resurgence always seemed artificial to me, an effort to wear the 21st century with a 19th century wardrobe. A costume ball at best.
What is most striking of all, of course, is that Pope Francis preaches best when he’s not employing words. Frowny-face Catholics gasp at women’s feet, wet and tempting. Nothing worse than an ordination advocate sticking a female foot in the door. Cluck–bad theology plus poor pastoral practice: an unwinnable conbination.
And yet, we do have a conundrum to consider. What to make of Pope Benedict and his legacy? B16 was not a bad man. Far from it: he was earnest; he did the best he could. There was nothing outright wrong, heretical, or false in anything he preached or did. So what’s the difference? Are the negotiables like style, symbolism, and personal charm more essential to the proclamation of the Gospel than orthodoxy? What does that say about the place of neo-orthodoxy in the realm of evangelization and ministry? Doesn’t seem all that important, does it?