What will Pope Francis say?

What will Pope Francis say?

By Michael Novak in the Washington Examiner on September 23, 2015

Pope Francis seems to take a childlike delight in surprising, even shocking, the audience he speaks to, so it seems foolhardy even to presume what he might say. Let's agree, then, to be surprised. 

Still, we do know the main purpose of his visit to the United States is to speak at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It would be more than surprising if the pope did not devote a large part of his message in the United States to the dire situation of the family today. 

It is well known that Francis is the first pope ever whose life experience has shaped him to look at the world from the southernmost cone of the Americas, Argentina, which was in 1910 the 14th most productive and wealthy of the nations on earth. It now ranks 68th and is usually counted among the third-world nations. This viewpoint is fresh for the papacy. 

My brilliant and original colleague, Harvard Ph.D. and specialist in the economics of the family Catherine Pakaluk, has proposed the deepest view of Pope Francis that I have yet encountered. Professor Pakaluk suggests that Pope Francis has a steely-eyed view of the grim moral decline of the world and its tone-deafness even to the basics of the Christian faith. One imagines that inspecting the contemporary bleakness from the southernmost tip of the Americas, rather than from North America or Europe, the new pope has asked himself: If the international media give me even a minute of their attention, what is the most important thing for me to say? Surely not the secondary refinements of the Christian faith, but the most essential of all.

 This is how Pope Francis goes to the heart of the matter (in my paraphrase): The "Good News" that Christianity, learning from Judaism, reveals is that the God, whose presence nearly all human beings in history have sensed around them, is not heartless or indifferent to us. On the contrary, God comes to us with love, offering free women and free men the invitation to choose to accept his friendship. (If friendship were not freely chosen, it would not be friendship, but coercion.) God's most beautiful characteristic is that he comes to us with forgiveness and mercy. 

From that point on, almost everything else is details. But some details are important. Pope Francis seems to have learned his vision of humanism from the German theologian with an Italian name, Romano Guardini (1885-1968). Guardini saw humans as natural beings, as part of nature, as within it, but also as nature's only known conscious beings who are reflective and able to choose. Guardini did not see human beings as separate from nature, as technological products or robots, but as natural, conscious, choosing beings. The Christian faith has a higher degree of respect, even reverence, for nature than does the contemporary world, which is more in love with human contrivance. 

Thus, for Francis, questions about the environment, human ecology, human sexuality and family life are all oriented within the same framework of nature itself. Moreover, in all of nature, we human beings have a special responsibility and unique capacities for reflection and choice in each of these significant areas. 

The education of each pope begins anew when he is elected to office. For he is no longer a member of one nation only, but now of a universal community. He must learn, for example, about economics as practiced in other parts of the world beside his own. Notably, Pope John Paul II spent his youth under Nazism and then Communism and was not familiar with how life was lived under other economic and political systems. It took him a while to develop a universal vision in these arenas. Most of the Italian popes before him had similar experiences. Likewise, it would be odd if Francis were not now expanding his own view of political and economic affairs. 

Francis is distinctive among modern popes for his habits of informality, spontaneous banter, and an almost naive frankness (often needing clarification after the fact). Yet he is also a very learned man—for many years a professor of advanced philosophical and theological breadth and depth. He is a very imposing man, and of passionate temper. He is not an "Angelic Doctor," but a "very down-to-earth doctor." 

Speaking informally to journalists on his flight back to Rome from Paraguay recently, the pope joked about how fallible he is in economic matters, and he admitted that he has erred by largely ignoring the middle class while he has had much to say about the poor. 

Francis is a very human pope, and all the more worthy of honor for that. And all the closer to the rest of us.


Michael Novak is author of Writing from Left to Right and blogs at Coming Down to Earth.