on-heaven-and-earthOver at the National Catholic Reporter (call it what you may), John Allen has put out a pair of interesting reads on the latest papal developments—one introducing a new English translation of then-Bergoglio's dialogue On Heaven and Earth, and another more analytic piece likening Francis to Benedict on the topic of "overheated expectations." Both articles take for granted a sort of stratified regularity within the Church. Read together, they offer a bit of a conflicted picture of Pope Francis—and perhaps also his supposed devotees.

In reviewing On Heaven and Earth—a packed text that includes the pope's candid remarks on a variety of major issues—Allen couches Francis as a "moderate realist," that is, one

committed to classic Christian orthodoxy (clearly defending the idea of the Devil as a personal force of evil, for instance), always expressed in balanced fashion, and with a special emphasis on the poor and those at the margins of society.

This sort of moderation, continues Allen, renders Francis a "centrist" on issues of human life and sexual morality. Of course, we all know that the pope strongly opposes abortion; on the less romantic topic of end-of-life issues, however, Allen finds him a little less convinced than his predecessors:
Though [On Heaven and Earth] does not directly address the question of patients in a persistent vegetative state, [Francis's] position may be seen as in contrast with the more restrictive line from the Vatican under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. “The patient must be given everything necessary and ordinary to be able to live while there is hope for life,” he says. “Extraordinary measures, for example, the insertion of a breathing tube to give someone a few more days of life, are not obligatory.”

The same seems to be true on the hot-button of same-sex marriage, something Cardinal Bergoglio is famous for having dealt with in Argentina. According to Allen,
Francis defends the idea of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, but condemns “spiritual and pastoral harassment” of individuals and couples, and suggests that “a union of a private nature” among same-sex partners is another matter.

Allen continues his exposé of On Heaven and Earth, remarking on topics like social justice, clerical life, the Church and politics, and curial governance. It's worth reading, especially as it captures well what I take to be the informed mainstream response to Francis's papacy.

What such a perspective turns out to mean, on the other hand—and how it aligns with the pope's "moderate realist" position—remains to be seen. Unfortunately, Allen's term, coupled with such practical examples as these, implies that Benedict (and perhaps even John Paul II) were something quite different. Yet finding an easy—or even meaningful—alternative descriptor is rather tough. "Extreme realist" doesn't seem to fit the bill (it's either qualitatively better, which seems not to be Allen's intention, or some sort of Platonic leftover). Likewise, something like "moderate conservative" fails to capture much difference. There are obvious alternatives, like "unrealistic" or "impractical" that do the job. It's hard to imagine that's what Allen would mean, but perhaps so.

Alas, the second article doesn't clear up any of the murkiness. In particular, what we ought to understand as "overheated expectations" of Francis simply don't match the substance of what Bergoglio has said and done over the past few decades. (It might match Allen's appraisal of it, but even that is bound to fail in the end, and by his own construction.) The claim, in a nutshell, is that the real Pope Francis is turning out to be hardliner in Jesuit's clothing. (Read through a few of these quips, compiled by Sandro Magister, from the pope's morning Masses to get a feel.) Soon, suggests Allen, "moderates" across the board may be calling in their debts on the pontiff whom they so quickly rallied to venerate—the same fate, he tells us, that awaited Ratzinger vis-à-vis his traditionalist and inquisitorial supporters.

For anyone tempted to believe that Pope Francis is more Catholic than the last pope, Allen aims to dispel the doubt. Likewise, those who believe the pope ought to represent and defend unabashedly the core of the Catholic faith are caused to wonder just whether that's even possible. Conflicted perspectives on Francis's papacy and "policy" leanings turn out to make the apostolic ministry appear as something completely untenable, and wholly irreconcilable with a world of changing particulars. It's the sort of end that befits dyed-in-the-wool party members in rapidly changing political climates; not Vicars of Christ in a fallen yet very real world.

Denying that the pope is truly the latter is the "informed mainstream" interpretation par excellence. And Allen, precisely because of his care not to overcommit one way or another, falls exactly in line with it. The practical impossibility of the papal office is confirmed—a more eloquent case against the papacy than even the best Reformers could ever have imagined.

Behold, the silly situations we create when we speak of popes as politicians.

Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.