It happened again this morning. As I was drinking my tea, and playing with my daughter -- something of a morning ritual -- I heard another report on the radio about how different the current Pope, Francis I is from his two predecessors. This report frustrated me deeply.
Confession: I am not a Catholic, nor has anyone sought me out as a counselor to the Vatican. So, I in no way have special knowledge about all the inner-workings of the Vatican. But I do follow stories about the Pontiff and with much interest. Broadly, because I am an ecumenical Christian (some might say a post-Protestant), and as such, I have a vested interest in the health of all communions of the faith, especially the juggernauts like the Roman Catholic church. But more specifically, my own theological formation and imagination has been shaped by much of the Catholic imagination...and the works of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have both played a considerable role in that.
NOW MY POINT: Back to my point. I am getting quite tired of those who describe Francis I as though his papacy represents a great disjunction from his two predecessors. Is he different? Yes, he is outgoing, which we all know that Benedict was not. Also he is uncomfortable, or so it seems, with ceremony. Essentially, Francis is much more at home in the office of a Pastor than he is in the office of a theologian or even a politician. (these are broad differences. of course all three men were theologians as well as pastors; this issue is about giftedness....)
But are these differences ones of substance? I hardly think so. Oh it has become vogue to say, however, "Francis cares for the poor and reforming the Vatican, that is a break from the agenda of the other two." Is that fair? It was JPII, after all, who spoke of the "personalistic norm," the principle to radically humanize a world that was increasingly post-human...all predicated on Christ's command to "love your neighbor as your self."
Benedict XVI's social teaching afforded much attention to both the ecology of the human and the ecology of nature. He had a keen eye toward supporting both concepts without denigrating or idolizing one or the other; indeed you cannot have one without the other (a radical creation theology). Further, he claims....often...that the family is a global family, and that all people have a responsibility for all others, a la the principle of solidarity.
And even though there was much critique of Benedict's dealings with the Vatican and curia....he like Francis I was supremely interested in reform.
No friends, Francis I's papacy so far, cannot be seen as a change in direction from the other two; rather it is a continuation. There are several reasons that Francis' work might look a little different:
1.) Each Pope dealt with problems and issues as they were pertinent in their own time.
2.) Each Pope is uniquely different in terms of temperament.
3.) Each Papacy has to engage Vatican II in new or refreshed ways given the current status of the church.
4.) Francis I is NOT European.
But make no mistake about it friends, if you look a little deeper, read the encyclicals and theological texts....you will see less difference and more unity, or rather continuity between the three.