Certain facts about Pope Francis are already old news. He is the first pope in more than a thousand years from outside Europe. He is the first Jesuit to become pope (Jesuits having traditionally disavowed serving as pope, and, during their 463-year history, often giving Italian popes enough agita to get officially “suppressed” by the Vatican).
We also all now know that Jorge Mario Bergoglio hails from Latin America which, like the rest of the southern hemisphere, has seen nothing like the retreat from Catholicism in Europe that his predecessor as pope tried to stem but could not.
And, by all accounts, the new pope is a humble man from humble beginnings who became an accomplished intellectual and a widely well-regarded church leader and administrator.
But, so many are now asking, is the new pope at core a “conservative,” or at heart a “liberal,” or on this or that doctrine a “reformer,” or whatnot?
Well, Pope Francis now leads a global church that preaches against abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and ordaining women as priests (“conservative”!), but also preaches against the death penalty and for labor rights, immigrants’ rights, and anti-poverty programs that redistribute wealth and combat what the catechism terms “sinful inequalities” (“liberal”!). And Pope Francis inherits an American Catholic flock in which the majority is not in sync with the bishops either on the church’s “liberal” positions or on its “conservative” positions. Indeed, most American Catholics are unfamiliar with bedrock catechetical precepts like “subsidiarity” that require citizens to be neither addicted to government nor allergic to it.
To me at least, Pope Francis seems like our day’s Pope John XXIII. But let’s be clear about Pope John XXIII, who he was, what he did, and what believing that Pope Francis might be like him actually means.
Pope John XXIII was elected pope in 1958. Like the new pope, Angelo Roncalli was viewed by most of those who knew him best as a truly pastoral priest and the soul of humility. Pope Francis, asking the “favor” of a blessing from the people assembled in St. Peter’s Square, and bowing his head low as he received it, was beautiful—and vintage Pope John XXIII.
Pope John XXIII was also a pragmatic idealist and an optimist. He publicly scolded bishops who despised modern times; he called them “prophets of gloom.” And, in 1959, he called for what became the Second Vatican Council.
The council began in 1962 and ended in 1965. Vatican II yielded three official “declarations,” four “constitutions,” and nine “decrees.” These sixteen documents of Vatican II are among the most-quoted but little-read documents in modern world history. I confess that I never read them myself until only a decade ago.
Pope John XXIII did not seek, nor did the documents produced by Vatican II authorize, anything like an all-out church “modernization” or “liberalization.” For Angelo, like Jorge Mario, was neither a “liberal” nor a “conservative.” And Roncalli, like Bergoglio, believed neither that the institutional church was entirely pure nor that it was bad beyond reform.
Rather, what Pope John XXIII thought the church needed was not wholesale change, but, instead, a thoroughgoing, intentional, and self-effacing aggiornamento, an “updating” that would make the church more genuinely Christ-like and better able to preach and practice Christ’s love among all peoples, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
The key, John XXIII believed, would be for the bishops everywhere to curtail hyper-clericalism of the sort that relegated faithful Catholic laypersons to a limbo of lesser significance as members of the “one body of Christ.”
In the third session of Vatican II, on November 21, 1964, the bishops, after much debate, and despite many changes to the text that certain powerful bishops favored, nonetheless adopted Lumen Gentium , the new “Dogmatic Constitution of the Church.”
One vital line that survived reads: “Though they differ essentially and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are none the less ordered to one another; each in its proper way shares in the one priesthood of Christ.”
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Lumen Gentium. It will be marked by a new pope who has practiced what that document preached, a people’s bishop who got around his old town on the bus.
Pope John the 23rd must be smiling.
John J. DiIulio, Jr. served as the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and is the author of “Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America’s Faith-Based Future” (University of California Press).