Like you, I have been bewildered by many of the actions of Pope Francis, though perhaps like many of you, we have patiently set down our objections and remained faithful to the Ark of St. Peter, much as Cardinal Newman counsels us to trust the Church of Christ implicitly in his treatise The Idea of a University.
Of course, we view the Church through all sorts of media, and this viewpoint is no exception. To complicate matters more slightly, there are political liberals and political conservatives, paid agitators, people who make a living tearing things down and building them back up. all sorts of actors who have plagued the Body of Christ no differently today than at Golgotha.
If the Catholic Church is a hospital for sinners rather than a museum of saints, the question is what precisely is Francis is trying to cure within our Church? Are we in the middle of a paradigm shift that will radically alter Church teaching, or are we seeing the same sort of scandals that have plagued every pope meld with a hyperpartisan media cycle?
Neo-Thomism and the American Experiment
In the eyes of the Church, the American experiment is still precisely this — an experiment. For the vast majority of its history, the Holy See was both a temporal power as well as a spiritual and diplomatic one. It was only until the 1929 Lateran Treaty's renunciation of temporal power and the 1965 Second Vatican Council's commitment to religious freedom — just over 50 years — that the Vatican finds itself no longer a prisoner but rather as a first among equals within the diplomatic corps.
Thus the Vatican's new role in the world is even more raw and new than America's role in the world, both powers finding themselves slightly uncomfortable in the transition. It is not a coincidence that both the United States and the Vatican have seen this occur during the Cold War era, where the United States as a rising world power lacked a diplomatic corps while the Vatican itself had a diplomatic corps — but no real power.
Thus the patricians of the FDR era came to an understanding with the Vatican through an arrangement crafted by Cardinal Spellman of New York, a man whose rise to position co-incided with Eugenio Pacelli's rise to the papal throne.
Catholics in America enjoy a certain privilege as a bridge between the United States as a world power and the Vatican as a diplomatic power. American Catholics fuel much of the Vatican's charitable work, offer bureaucratic assistance, and forge powerful alliances with other world aid organizations to exercise soft power in places where the United States typically cannot (Haitian relief, for example).
Yet for Catholics in America, this understanding is cemented by another arrangement, one effected by Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th century. That battle to push back against the Protestantizing tendencies of an Irish-led Catholic hierarchy in the United States culminated in the Americanist controversy, one where Catholic intellectual life was extinguished for the better part of a century while Rome sent a tidal wave of theologians and philosophers to impose what Leo's official medium on how Catholics should see the world: Thomism.
Except it really wasn't Thomism, but rather, a form of neo-Thomism that became popular during the first half of the 20th century, one that was very heavy on rules and memorizing catechism rather than focusing on some of the softer sides of the Catholic Faith: charity, joy, love. It is with no small degree of irony that many liberation theologians, once the neo-Thomists could no longer see Christ in their rubric, collapsed into a different set of rules -- secular Marxism.
Where Francis Is Heading
As a Jesuit, Pope Francis is no Thomist, but rather he borrows a great deal from the Molinist tradition reflecting the works of Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina. Enter Pope Francis who, rather than an innovator, is attempting to kill three birds with one stone: ending the neo-Thomistic reliance on rules, forging unity with the Eastern Orthodox, and pushing back against the threat of postmodernism.
First and foremost, Francis picks up on the themes of his predecessor — Pope Benedict XVI — in condemning two errors: gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism. In the former, we hear the echoes of those who claim to be "spiritual but not religious" and the like; in the latter we hear the rules and rubric of those who claim the Catholic Faith but instead exhibit their Calvinist roots. There are no clearly defined battle lines here, but merely a cautionary tale about what Catholicism is and what it is not.
Second, there is a slender thread where the conversation about "deaconesses" and "second marriages" and "synodality" all make sense when put under one light. In each instance, we see traditions that are adopted by the Eastern Orthodox, whose unity Pope John Paul II so earnestly held in his desire to breathe with both lungs. Of course, there are serious theological implications that clearly, emphatically, and present — in this I believe Pope Francis — deeply serious areas of disagreement where Francis is almost begging us to "be surprised by the Holy Spirit" in the search for unity over division. Certainly Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Chaput have given ample reasons as to why the approaches laid forth in Amoris Laetitia bump up against the expositions in Pope John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor. Yet these areas of divergence should be discussed in a spirit of ecumenical dialogue — the proper sort, not the syncretist sort.
Last but not least is the threat of postmodernism, something that Francis is keenly attuned towards thanks to his predilection for the work of Romano Guardini S.J. — a man extensively quoted in Francis earlier pronouncements in Evangeli Gaudium and Laudato Si. For all of Francis' ambiguity, it is remarkable how consistent and firm Francis has been regarding family and transgenderism (and how the liberal media has silently passed over such remarks). Francis can be remarkably abrupt and firm as regards to things that are, precisely because the postmodern mindset is actively seeking to transform the world according to the dictates of its own pleasure.
Part of the problem here is that Americans are coming into contact with a much broader sense of the Catholic Church, precisely because the locus of temporal power resides here in the United States. As such, a once provincial and still mission church is now exposed to the worldwide faith of 1.3 billion Catholics — few of whom have had our experience as an immigrant faith and none of whom experienced the influx of a Romanized neo-Thomistic orthodoxy in the face of its critics.
Therefore, it is no small thing to be exposed to the machinations of the European wing of the Catholic Church and not see faithful Catholics recoil in horror. After all, Rome sent us theologians and philosophers to set us straight once before — why would that perspective change?
Yet despite the confusion and the ambiguity, there is a cohesion to the work of Pope Francis that is asking us to be surprised by the Holy Spirit while remaining true to the Magisterium.
True, there are wolves in sheep's clothing who will attempt to scurry in, and there are even wolves in wolves clothing who will take advantage. But let us not be too hasty in assuming the worst. Remember that Pope Paul VI invited the worst of his critics to the table before plunking down Humanae Vitae in 1968, an encyclical responsible for kicking off and defining the JP II Generation. The Holy Spirit, after all, is full of surprises.