Rorate Caeli

"Ten years of Pope Francis: lights, shadows and glooms": Miguel Angel Quintana Paz

Miguel Ángel Quintana Paz
The Objective 

Two amusing gaffes in the Spanish media on Monday accompanied the tenth anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 26th bishop of Rome. The headline of the InfoCatólica portal read: "One hundred years since the election of Francis as Pope". On the television channel La Sexta, its announcer proclaimed that "his arrival as the first black pope at the Vatican revolutionized public opinion."

There is no need to get Freudian to see how much these two gaffes reveal about their issuers. It would seem that for a conservative media such as InfoCatólica, this pontificate is taking a long time, and hence its hesitation as to whether we have been with him for a decade or perhaps a century. On the other hand, for the progressives of La Sexta, Francis undoubtedly embodies a praiseworthy identity symbol, Wokist, as Barack Obama was in his day; perhaps it would have been exaggerated to announce him as the first non-binary or trans pontiff, so leaving him as the first black pope reveals, in the end, a certain moderation.

Beyond the missteps of one or the other, it is true that evaluating a pontificate like the current one entails no small number of difficulties. The first one I would like to point out is that there are many (both inside and outside the Church) who misunderstand what it means to be pope. And the faults lie mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 19th century, with the emergence and expansion of political ideologies, many began to consider Catholicism as just another one. And if Catholicism is an ideology, the Church is then a political party and its pope, the supreme leader. No one becomes a Bolshevik in 1917 if it is not to honor Lenin; no one becomes a British Conservative in 1875 if it is not because he likes Disraeli. The consequence of this erroneous vision of Catholicism is regrettable: just as in a political party criticism of the supreme leader is frowned upon (it so hinders its goal, access to power!), those who see Catholicism from the perspective of an ideology will also abhor any criticism of its supreme leader, the Sovereign Pontiff.

It must be said that one of the praiseworthy aspects of Francis is that he has several times combated this error. "You can criticize the pope, it is not a sin," he has repeated. Along with a warning: "I have an allergy to the chupamedias" (which is what they call sycophants in Argentina).

It is quite true, however, that love is shown by deeds and not by fine words. And, therefore, after quoting that insight of the pontiff, not only do we reassure ourselves because criticizing him as we are now going to criticize him is not sinful, but it is inevitable to mention a shadow: Francis has not always shown himself as open to criticism as he proclaims. Suffice it to recall the case of Bruno Forte, one of the leading theologians of recent decades, Italian archbishop, close collaborator of the pope... until in 2016 he had the temerity to make a joke about his Jesuit methods. He was, ipso facto, removed from any assignment, any trust, any promotion. Joking does not always amuse everyone. Neither does being criticized.

Another sign of papal allergy to criticism is the money spent by the Holy See on the second most prestigious law firm in the world, Baker & McKenzie. Was it to denounce any of the thousands of attacks against Catholic temples around the world? Was it to confront any of the slanders that are poured on the Church day after day? No, it was only to take away from one of the main Spanish religious information portals, InfoVaticana, the right to use that name. A bit like if the mayor of Madrid wanted to forbid me to call a bar in Vitigudino "Bar Madrid". Those funds fell on deaf ears: Baker & McKenzie, together with the Holy See, failed in their efforts (which, curiously, were not matched by similar complaints to other media that use the adjective "Vatican", such as the Vatican Insider portal). And we were all left with the conviction that the viciousness against this Spanish media was based only on its lack of complexes in criticizing the Supreme Pontiff, rather than on its obsession with hoarding the adjective "Vatican" for itself alone.

It is appropriate here to recall the second stumbling block that today makes it difficult to understand what a pope is. In this case, as we said, it is an obstacle inherited from the twentieth century. Before the invention of radio, television, the Internet or airplanes, the Bishop of Rome was for the immense mass of Catholics a distant figure, to be prayed for and little more. From time to time a bull or an encyclical would arrive to remind us of his existence; but it was ridiculous to pretend that you had to "like" the pope, whose face you could hardly recognize in the street; it was also absurd to aspire to comment on every homily he could give. You could be a exemplary Catholic in the Middle or Modern Ages without having any opinion of the supreme pontiff; not to mention that, as far as his worldly government was concerned, you could even fight against his troops, as Emperor Charles V and his lansquenets knew well in 1527.

That whole world has been turned upside down today. Most Catholics know the pope better than their parish priest. And, since we live in a democracy, we are induced again and again to pronounce ourselves on everything: along with our little opinions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the ozone layer and the latest Brazilian elections, we are also urged to evaluate the supreme pontiff. What's more: if possible, on each of his acts and sayings of yesterday. Parmenides and Plato would be horrified at this passion we have today for mere doxa; Harry Frankfurt has warned us that this is the source of so much charlatanism that surrounds us.

For those of us who care about the truth to be giving our opinion on every little thing about the Pope seems inane in comparison to Catholicism.

Faced with this new situation in which we are all doxophores, or bearers of opinions, many pious people believe that the definition of "Catholic" is to hold all those little ideas favored by the pope; others, that if they discredit the pope, they will also be discrediting the Church. Both groups are wrong.

Catholicism, if it is serious, is the truth. And truths are above the pope, Agamemnon or his swineherd. For almost two millennia, all kinds of reflections and arguments have been thought, written, and elaborated about the Catholic truth. If tomorrow it were discovered that Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the father of four children (the example is not far-fetched, there have been such pontiffs), this would not subtract one iota from Catholic truth (although it would subtract one iota from Bergoglio's morality). If tomorrow the pope were to get into a fight with his assistant because the latter had messed with his mother (something he already announced in 2015 that he would be capable of doing), this would not refute any truth of the Bible, of St. Justin Martyr, or of St. Bonaventure. In short, to those of us who care about the truth, as much as it weighs on the 20th century, being attentive and opining on every little thing about the pope seems inane in comparison to Catholicism. And so it must be.

Having described these two difficulties (one inherited from the 19th century, the other from the 20th) in taking stock of the current papacy, it is time to remember the other two, more evident: the first, that it is a very controversial papacy, with enthusiasts and haters of the most determined character. The second is that being pope means occupying an unusual position in the world, with so many facets that it is impossible to be competent enough to evaluate them all: spiritual leader, ecclesial leader, head of a State and its diplomacy, interpreter of tradition and Scripture, preacher on morals and customs, editor of doctrinal and pastoral texts, final judge in internal conflicts, mediator of external conflicts....

In the remainder of this article we will limit ourselves, then, to the field in which I am less ignorant: the philosophical. I do not want to give the impression that I am avoiding a global judgment of these ten years of Francis. Let me get to the point: I do not think he is the best pope in history, nor do I think he is the worst. I don't even think he is among the twenty best; nor do I think he is among the twenty worst. In fact, I think this is one of the difficulties in understanding him: given the exaggerated importance we give to our present, there is a tendency to magnify his virtues and defects just because they are the ones we are closest to. A bit like the smudge on our glasses seems bigger to us than the distant tower we make out through them. It's hard for us to be satisfied with having a mediocre daddy. But that is most likely (and statistically most likely) to be the case.

No, I do not believe that Francis has brought a "springtime to the Church", as the most flattering of his supporters proclaim (where is that springtime, in a West where the faith continues to be abandoned, a Latin America where evangelical groups continue to take away the faithful from the Church, and the faith grows in Africa or Asia mainly due to mere demography). But neither do I believe that he is a communist agent, an antipope or an envoy of the Antichrist, as the most hysterical of his detractors bawl.

I don't think Francis is a thinker of stature (his texts would have passed unnoticed had he not been appointed pope; in fact, I don't know of any scholar who exalted his works until ten years ago). But neither do I think he is an ignorant fellow (if his works are mediocre, they are so only to the extent that they are found in the same libraries in which are found giants of the stature of a Scotus Eriugena, a St. Thomas Aquinas or, to cite also pontiffs, a John Paul II or a Benedict XVI).

I do not believe that Francis has brought significant changes to the Church (beyond the reform of the Curia, which is a laudable merit of his). If after his pontificate a pope of a very different character were to arrive, there will not be much of his legacy left that could survive. He has not made any doctrinal developments that have implied particularly important turns of phrase (writing about ecology or criticizing capitalism had already been done with previous popes; saying that no one but God should judge gays or lesbians is the same idea expressed by Jesus Christ when he warned against those who dedicate themselves to condemning others). Nor, therefore, do I believe that it has altered the legacy of the faith in any terrible way.

Synods (not to mention that tongue-twister called "synod of synodality") seem to me to be a curious entertainment for parishioners and people with time to occupy themselves with ecclesial matters. But it is enough to read the documents emanating from them to see that they do not represent a great historical milestone for the Church (and when they try to do so, as in the case of the German Synodal Way, they will clash with papal authority).

At this point, perhaps the reader is pondering that, more than Pope Francis himself, it is the author of these lines who is playing at being somewhat temperate here. Perhaps the last paragraphs that follow, which are, as promised, the most closely related to the philosophy of this article, will disprove him.

There is a matter, which to some will seem only guild-related, in which my criticism of Pope Francis is clear. A philosophical matter. A matter in which Francis fails utterly in acting as a counterpoint to today's world.

I am thinking of post-truth. Let us begin by clarifying the meaning of this word, which many misunderstand. "Post-truth" is not a new name for lifelong lies; nor is it a term for the proliferation of falsehoods and deceptions everywhere. Rather, "post-truth" alludes to something that, unfortunately, is becoming increasingly familiar to us: this time when almost no one cares what is true or false, because the difference between the two is no longer of interest to us. Instead of what is true, we want to know what "those of my tribe" or "the leader of my group" stand for: our epistemologies, as David Roberts detected, have become tribal. It seems to us even "pretentious" to aspire to know the truth without further ado.

A post-truth world is a world where a politician (let's say the President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez) can tell us something today and tomorrow the opposite. Or worse: both when he says the former and when he says the (contradictory) latter, he will be applauded by the same faithful. Because they are just that, faithful to the leader, not to the difference between lie and truth.

A post-truth world is a place where talk is rife, quackery abounds: if I don't care about the difference between true and false, it's so easy to perorate! We've already mentioned how horrified Harry Frankfurt is by it all, and how he associates it with the democratic mania for opinions on everything and everywhere.

A post-truth world is a post-Christian world: if there is no longer truth or falsehood, neither does it matter anymore what is the difference between a man, Jesus, who said he was the Truth itself, and anything else: let's start doing reiki or astral travels, or let's worship the Pachamama; it doesn't matter.

So, is Francis an effective champion against this time of post-truths? As a philosopher I am afraid that I cannot see in him a partner in such a battle (and I would like to add allies!).

It is not only that Francis speaks much, much, much more than any of his predecessors, and on any subject (mothers-in-law, viruses, mothers who give birth like "rabbits", economy...). He talks so much that, to a certain extent, it is understandable that he has inaugurated the habit of writing encyclicals in which he himself is most quoted. Now the saying goes that he who has a mouth makes a mistake. And he who has a big mouth errs much more. This extreme loquacity of Francis should already warn us of a possible disregard for the rigor of the truth alone; and, unfortunately, such a warning is evident as soon as we take a closer look.

In fact, Francis has spread astounding affirmations in theological, political and human terms.

In theological terms: that the Virgin was not born holy, that the multiplication of the loaves and fishes by Jesus was not a miracle, that there is no need to proselytize, that most marriages are null and void, that to be a saint is to live your faith, "whatever it is," "with coherence" (I know many faiths that it would be better for people not to live with coherence, to tell the truth!)...

In political terms: to express oneself first against the sale of arms to Ukraine, then in favor of it, without recognizing this change of idea or contradiction; to be full of nice words towards the leaders of oppressive countries (like Cuba), but to be much harsher with those of democratic countries (like the USA)...

In human terms: to say that speaking ill of others is "terrorism" (it would be better not to trivialize such a serious term); to call Saint Teresa "old woman" (yes, it is an appellative that does not sound the same in Argentina as in Spain, but even so, perhaps it is an excessive colloquialism even there); making fun of Cardinal Burke because, after not wanting to take the Covid-19 vaccine, he got infected...

All these controversial statements by Francis have certainly given rise to the emergence of a rather curious, even comical, type of Catholic: the papal linguistic-hermeneutic lawyer. In fact, given that among the thousands of papal talks many of us detect again and again astonishing things, the linguistic-hermeneutic lawyer always emerges in social networks or face to face. He is the one who comes to clarify that we have not really understood anything (but he has). The one who reproaches us for misinterpreting the pope (for he always interprets him well). The one who argues that the pope is right in everything he says (we, however, when we detect these strange things -- we are either too dumb or too wicked, but we are never right).

All in all, I fear that not even the most skilled of these linguistic-hermeneutic lawyers will be able to save some of the pope's most astounding contradictions. Take the most recent one, for example: this past March 8, he took the opportunity to join the feminist tide of the day and declared that it was necessary to "offer equal opportunities to men and women in all contexts."

It is impossible that in pronouncing these words, the pope did not remember that there is a context, very close to him -- namely, that of the Catholic clergy -- where men have an opportunity of access that women do not. He did not care. Any speaker who is rigorous about the truth would have made a clarification in this regard (at least explaining this exception) or even something simpler: modestly avoiding the syntagma "in all contexts," which the pope nevertheless added (out of carelessness? to look good on that 8-M? a mixture of motives?). This addition makes, however, the contradiction between what the pope really defends and what the pope affirms to be more evident. In times of post-truth, some of us seek rigor, some seek to honor the truth, the whole truth, and only the truth, when speaking. To flee from contradictions. The pope, on the other hand, prefers to join the contemporary drift of laxity.

It is nothing too serious: from the time Marxism arose until its anti-Christian character was denounced, some time also passed; from the time any heresy arises until it is denounced, years or decades also tend to pass. Perhaps the problem lies in the impatience of some of us, who can no longer tolerate this climate in which nothing is true or false anymore, and everything depends -- for things to be accepted or not -- on how powerful the speaker is.

But, whether with this pope or with another future pope, one thing is certain: post-truth is a problem of our time that must be tackled as a matter of urgency. And these last ten years have not helped those of us who believe that such a battle must be fought.

Miguel Angel Quintana Paz is academic director and professor at the Instituto Superior de Sociología, Economía y Política (ISSEP) in Madrid. This article first appeared in Spanish here.