Are our expectations of Pope Francis unrealistic?
Writer argues that a 'slimmed-down, democratic Church' has never existed
It’s filthy wet weather in Tuscany, so I’m lying on my bed in the afternoon reading through the Italian newspapers.
They are full of stuff about Pope Francis — how his humility, his simplicity, and his reforming zeal are breathing new life into the Roman Catholic Church. They say that the long decline in church attendance in Italy has been reversed in the few months since a previously little-known bishop from Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected to the papacy.
His public appearances at the Vatican are also drawing enormous crowds. He is, in short, a superstar, and by no means in Italy alone. Everywhere in the world, including Britain, lapsed Catholics are flocking back to church. And even among non-Catholics on the left, his popularity is huge.
In last Saturday’s Guardian, the self-confessed atheist Jonathan Freedland wrote passionately in his praise. The Pope’s personal modesty, he said, conveyed ‘a powerful message of almost elemental egalitarianism’; and he was now ‘the world’s loudest and clearest voice against the status quo’. ‘You don’t have to be a believer,’ said Freedland, ‘to believe in that.’
Well, I was lapping up this stuff when I chanced upon an article in Corriere della Sera by a well-known Catholic writer, Vittorio Messori, which sounded a note of warning about this papal idolatry. This, he said, was ‘reawakening an ancient and recurrent myth among Catholics — a dream, that is, of a return to the early Church, all poverty, brotherhood and simplicity, without hierarchical structures or canonical laws’; a dream of ‘a slimmed-down, democratic Church’ in which there would be no Vatican, no Curia, no banks or diplomats but ‘a return at last to the community of Jerusalem after the Pentecost’.
Messori quickly pointed out that the Church had never been like that; that even in its earliest days it had featured bitter struggles between factions, mutual accusations of heresy, schisms, even violence: ‘But the recurrent nostalgia, which now seems to have sprung up again, for a Church that was once egalitarian and poor, where faith was free of superstructures, not only contradicts the evidence of history but also an implacable law by which great social realities born out of “movements”, usually launched by one charismatic personality, quickly dissolve and disappear for ever unless they are transformed into hierarchical institutions, with solid and orderly structures.’
If the ‘Movement of Christ’ had not become a solid institution, Messori concluded, ‘it would have remained but a footnote in some ancient Hebrew historical text’.
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