- - Sunday, July 22, 2018


By Ross Douthat

Simon & Schuster, $26, 234 pages

You have to wonder about an incoming pope whose personal motto is “Make a mess!” For those of you who didn’t know, “Hagan lo!” — which means exactly that in Spanish — is a favorite expression of the current occupant of the Throne of Saint Peter. If he hasn’t made a mess yet, Pope Francis, born Jorge Bergoglio to Argentine parents of Italian immigrant stock in 1936, has certainly made a splash.

A darling of the mostly non-Catholic — not to say non-religious — mainstream media, Pope Francis has enjoyed a predictably good press, largely reported by people who seldom set foot in church. His carefully cultivated image of simplicity and humility, whether genuine or affected, has an undeniable appeal, and his personal style seems warm and spontaneous.

But style isn’t everything, as author, columnist and Catholic convert Ross Douthat makes abundantly clear in his intelligent, incisive and insightful book on the single most influential religious leader in the world, and the future of his vast, troubled spiritual realm.

Part of the problem with Pope Francis is environmental. Most of his life — and all of his formative years — were spent in a truly abnormal setting. While a country of great beauty, charm and economic potential, the Argentina Jorge Bergoglio was born, raised and called to the priesthood in was a textbook case of societal dysfunction.

Peronist dictatorships, military juntas and corrupt oligarchies wrestled for power and quickly undid the feeble efforts of a handful of honest reformers usually without benefit of the rule of law. If, like Pope Francis, you had been raised to believe that “capitalism” was nothing more than the corrupt, repressive old order in Argentina, you might be fooled by socialism, too.

Fortunately, the Argentinian aberration was just that. Unfortunately, Pope Francis doesn’t seem to grasp the fact and has brought his locally fed misconception to his global pastoral role.

Meanwhile, although history may not always repeat itself, historical situations often do. Mr. Douthat draws an interesting parallel to today’s widening schism between Catholics committed to core values and doctrine and the currently dominant “cafeteria” brand of semi-believers who cherry pick their choice of commandments to match the worldly fashions of the moment.

It’s all happened before, as a passage he quotes from the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski illustrates. Mr. Kolakowski is describing the clash between Jansenists and Jesuits in the 17th century, but substitute a few names and details and he could be talking about today’s Catholic identity crisis.

Both Jesuits and Jansenists, he writes, “knew that they lived in a time when the norms of their world were being relentlessly and mercilessly undermined by the new civilization — in science, in customs, in philosophy and in art. Naturally enough each side within the Church perceived the other as enemies.”

On the one hand, “the Jesuits, in the eyes of their foes, had entered into friendly negotiations with the devil and thus, whatever their true intentions, let him take his place triumphantly in the temple; the very identity of the Christian Church was thereby jeopardized and open to question “

On the other hand, the Jansenists, as viewed by their compromising opponents, were “trying to make the Church into a besieged fortress, closing their eyes to reality, losing contact with the world, depriving the church of any efficient tools to convert the pagan environment, and ultimately leading Christianity to disaster.”

According to Mr. Kolakowski — and Ross Douthat seems to be pretty much in agreement with him — the sad truth was that both sides were “faced with an eternally recurring dilemma that never has a satisfactory solution: all concessions to the enemy are risky, but so is an intransigent attitude that allows no concessions.”

Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, seems to have understood this better than Francis. In a 1996 interview while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, he suggested that “maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church’s history, where Christianity will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world — that let God in.”

A Latin American Jesuit who closely observed Pope Francis when he was Jesuit superior in Argentina concluded that he was “well-trained and very capable” but surrounded by a “personality cult” which was “extremely divisive,” adding that he has “an aura of spirituality which he uses to obtain power. It will be a catastrophe for the Church to have someone like him in the Apostolic See.”

Still early days, but there are disturbing signs that, in this case at least, history just might be repeating itself.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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