The media have made much of the contrast between the shy, aristocratic aloofness of Pope Benedict XVI and the folksy approachability of his successor, Pope Francis. They point to the latter’s disregard for the trappings of authority as a refreshing departure from the stiff Vatican conventions of pontifical projection. But a more meaningful analysis of the divergences between two popes, if any, must focus not so much on their outward style as on their understanding of the Church’s mission in the contemporary world.
Benedict is clearly a teacher who has probably devoted more time than any of his predecessors to clarifying the function of religious belief and the exercise of the Christian faith in the modern world. Francis, on the other hand, is basically a shepherd who has spent a good part of his life ministering to the needs of the oppressed, the excluded, and the forgotten. One has used the power of the intellect to furnish the foundations of a life of faith in an era of doubt. The other has used the power of compassion to demonstrate what it means to love God’s creation in a world filled with pain, injustice, ignorance, and hate.
At first glance, the difference could be merely one of accent rather than of language. But as one listens more to Francis, one notes that papal discourse may indeed be taking a markedly different turn.
Francis brings to the papacy the precious experience of one whose faith was tested and tempered by the complex challenges posed by Third World societies run by repressive regimes. As the head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina in the late ’70s, he saw for himself how the military dictatorship killed and tortured people on the mere suspicion of being against the government. He saw how the times called for a response from the Church that went beyond pious expressions of sympathy. He saw how priests and nuns who worked with the poor found themselves being drawn into a conflict that offered little room for neutrality. In these extreme circumstances, the young future pope distanced himself from a theology that would justify the assumption of sharply partisan roles by the clergy in the violent social conflict.
Everywhere in the Third World, the clergy was divided on the issue of what it meant to identify with the struggles of the poor and the oppressed. Those who opposed armed struggle were labeled reactionary, tarred as defenders of repressive regimes. On the other hand, those who remained with the poor and the hunted throughout those dark days of state repression, to the point of going underground with them, were viewed as perilously departing from Christianity’s distinct way of standing with the victims. What ultimately prevailed in these societies, I think, was a witnessing Church working tirelessly for a just society alongside secular groups.
Benedict saw the dangers inherent in such a role, and it was left to him to formulate the broad theology from which the Church could draw a proper response to the issues of the times.
It is not a coincidence that Benedict’s first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (God is Love), perhaps the most philosophical of his writings, chose to address the meaning of Christ’s love and its relationship to justice. Worried that the encyclical was a little too theoretical and abstract, Benedict himself offered a concise summary of the main points shortly after the encyclical came out. I am quoting from this useful summary. He asks two questions that have specific reference to the love for those who suffer. First, shouldn’t the Church leave charity work to philanthropic organizations? “The answer is no…. The Church must practice love of neighbor also as community; otherwise she would proclaim the God of love incompletely and insufficiently.”
It is the second question, however, that is crucial to our discussion, and here it is worth quoting Benedict in full. “Would it not be better to promote an order of justice in which there are no needy people and charity becomes something superfluous? The answer is the following: Undoubtedly the aim of politics is to create a just order in society, where what is one’s own is recognized to each and where no one suffers because of poverty. In this case, justice is the real aim of politics, just as peace cannot exist without justice. By her very nature the Church herself does not get involved in politics, instead she respects the autonomy of the State and of its institutions.”
He elaborates: “The quest for this order of justice corresponds to common reason, just as politics is something that affects all citizens. Often, however, reason is blinded by interests and the will to power. Faith serves to purify reason, so that it can see and decide correctly. Hence, it is the task of the Church to cure reason and reinforce the will to do good. In this connection, without engaging in politics, the Church participates passionately in the battle for justice. It is for Christians involved in public service, in political action, to open ever new ways for justice.”
Benedict is at pains to locate the role of religion in a modern world in which the spheres of human communication and activity are becoming functionally differentiated. He favors institutional restraint, warning against the dangers of a Church losing its way in the blind spots created by the unexamined will to power. This view would have been consistent with Francis’ own take on the theology of liberation when he was a simple young priest in Argentina. But, it now appears that the new Pope’s appreciation of liberation theology was not entirely critical like Benedict’s, but nuanced. I will try to show this in my next column.