What are you going to say about Pope Francis? I mean, what are you going to say about Pope Francis without sounding like a total chump? It's the question of the day in Catholic circles, yet one not many people appear interested to answer.
To use a familiar expression, Pope Francis has quickly become a toxic asset. His IPO—including that first lackluster stare from the loggia—was significantly undervalued; and then, of course, you couldn't buy him up fast enough. This went on for a while, undulating between snap-ups and sell-offs (I guess we're switching to derivatives), but by all accounts he was, for the better part of a year, the world's hottest celebrity commodity.
Not much has changed in the last few months. But somehow now, every time you're faced with a new article on Francis—whether favorable or not—it's likely to edge out another for the stupidest thing you've read that week. The latest trifecta of Cupich, Burke, and the synod shows this in spades.
What's made Pope Francis so toxic, anyway—if not to selling subscriptions, then at least to serious thinking about the Church and the Gospel?
To start with, there are the obvious "isms" that tend to drive any serious subject of conversation toward an intellectual gutter. These have been around forever, and were the catalysts for creating a global market for Francis in the first place. Most of them aren't inherently harmful to the Gospel inasmuch as they participate in shades of the truth; and some genuinely good perspectives have ushered from thinkers who identify mainly as conservatives, progressives, capitalists, libertarians, etc. Sam Rocha reminds us why trying to unpack the Franciscan papacy through any such lens, however, is a fool's errand. Ultimately, each crumbles in the face of the Gospel; and failing to realize this has been a first step in Francis's tumble to toxicity.
While most "isms" tend to contradict the Franciscan ethos, an equally nasty current exists in its favor: let's call it protestantism. By this I don't mean simply relishing laxity in teachings on sexuality, liturgy and the sacraments, etc., but especially an impulse to idolize a particular (reasonable) interpretation of the Gospel over and above (reasonable) moral and philosophical truths. In the latter sense, protestantism is indistinguishable from various intramural projects to vindicate the Franciscan papacy always and in every respect. (The word "evangelical" tends to show up quite a bit, too, so I'll put it down as well.) Here, certain subjects dominate: two of the most prominent include a feebly constructed narrative on being a gay Christian, and a whimsical approach to making good prudential decisions in the public square. (While I don't necessarily agree entirely with either, here are two examples of these subjects treated as they ought to be.)
If Christ is the fullness of truth, and if "isms" are fated to shadowbox, then beyond them is just Christianity simpliciter. And therein—as they say—lies the rub.
At some point, reactions to Francis were guaranteed to become toxic. This was unavoidable as far as people were willing to trade peace of mind for something sensational. (All the "isms" from progressivism to protestantism are, in the end, just types of sensationalism.) It took a while for saturation to occur, but it's safe to say that we've arrived, and that now almost nothing new—nothing sage—can be said of Francis.
On the other hand, when the haze lifts enough to make out his figure in the fray, our fascination with the pope—the man—is as strong as ever. It's the man, after all, who makes reasonable remarks like these—that "the Church answers to her Lord and her Lord remains alive"—and whose picks like Pell and Fisher go unnoticed amidst garment rending over Burke and Cupich. (In the case of Cardinal Burke, even the purportedly harmed now speaks directly in the pope's defense.)
Pope Francis isn't the best thing to happen to the Gospel in our lifetime, just as he isn't the best thing to happen to the global economy, politics, or ecumenism. He'd surely tell you that himself if you asked. He is, though—by his own admission—an example of a life lived in Christ, and of a sinner saved by a merciful God. His pontificate is a story worth retelling to our children and grandchildren, and more importantly one worth listening to carefully and with rapt attention. Not because its characters are played by the biggest stars, but because the writing is just so damn good.
A toxic Francis is a function of our un-imagination. And anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is dumping a liability.