Many celebrate Francis’s fresh approach. Last year, both Democratic presidential front-runners — Jewish Bernie Sanders and Methodist Hillary Clinton — praised the Pope for promoting humankind’s moral responsibility for the dispossessed. But Catholic conservatives like Stephen K. Bannon have accused the pope of using religion to push partisan agendas.
And both Francis’s theological approach and his own spiritual trajectory have raised eyebrows. He recently revealed how consultations with a Jewish psychoanalyst helped him confront personal anguish and allowed him to engage in spiritual dialogue across religious boundaries. He shows abiding respect for different belief systems and methodologies, even those frowned upon by his papal predecessors.
With his new political and theological approach, Pope Francis is doing something truly revolutionary — he is reshaping the fundamental identity of Catholicism in the 21st century. From the beginning of its institutional history in the 4th century A.D., the Catholic Church has defined itself as the “one true Church,” to the exclusion of all other paths to salvation. The quest to bring every human being under the dominion of the church has remained fundamental, though realities of power politics have always prevented the church from actually embracing the whole human race.
But the pope’s open-minded acceptance of the legitimacy of other roads to God represents more than grudging acceptance of an increasingly diverse and secular reality. It heralds a fundamental shift in the church’s aspirations. As he uses his bully pulpit to promote mutual understanding and acceptance, Francis is trading the aspirations to universality that have guided the church since its institutional beginnings for a looser agenda based on the “care of creation.”
Historically, Catholics have worked to bring all of humanity into the fold, sometimes with words, sometimes with crusades. But even though Francis is striving to expand his church’s appeal to broader constituencies around the world, he seems bent on turning away from Catholic aspirations to dominion. As Francis remodels the church for the modern world, he might end up undermining Catholicism’s claim to a unique brand of authority.
Long before a recognizable Catholic Church developed, evangelists helped found communities of Christians across the vast Roman Empire. To its inhabitants, the Roman political system seemed to unite humankind under a common culture and a shared “pagan” civic religion. Thus, because the Empire appeared “universal,” it helped Romans — including early Christians — think big.
And they did. The very name “Catholic” comes from the Greek katholikos, “universal” or more literally “throughout/over the whole,” and in the first centuries after Christ, Christians translated the “universalism” of the Roman Empire into the mission of their new church. A church that could be considered Catholic in any meaningful sense would have been inconceivable without a “universal” empire as a model.
But it took three centuries and the conversion of an emperor for this sense of Christian universalism to develop. Only when the 4th-century Emperor Constantine halted his predecessors’ persecutions and converted to Christianity could the religion transform from one option in the empire’s “marketplace” of religions — still a minority creed — to the religion of the empire. By welcoming clergy into his court, supporting bishops’ authority in imperial cities, and convening ecumenical councils, Constantine engendered dreams of a church encompassing humanity.
Doctrinal and political factions soon sought imperial support to suppress rival Christian blocs. Augustine — a wrangler in the Church of Roman North Africa and one of Catholicism’s founding theorists — labored for decades to harness the empire’s coercive power against antagonists, and his generation shaped a Catholic Church willing to use force to achieve universal sway.
When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the church lost access to the hard power of the imperial government. And yet the universal mission remained. Even more insistently than they had while they shared the leadership of Christendom with emperors, popes demanded reverent obedience from all of humanity.
The church presented itself as an empire of God — all encompassing and supreme as no worldly political system could ever hope to become. In 1302, in one of the strongest statements of papal supremacy in history, Boniface VIII claimed that even kings should yield to popes and that “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
The church has never achieved worldwide dominion, but recent centuries have presented greater challenges to Catholic supremacy than ever before. The 16th-century Protestant Reformation forced popes to admit the existence of Christian identities, and even Christian states, outside the Catholic umbrella. But despite these challenges, universality has remained central to Catholic ideology, and the church’s leaders have worked to spread their dominion across as much of Christendom as they can.
Aspirations to Catholic universalism have persisted into the 21st century even in the face of growing secularism. A 2007 statement approved by Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI reaffirmed that Protestant communities “cannot be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense” because they lack bishops in the apostolic line and that Orthodox churches “lack something in their condition” (since they are not in communion with the church led by Peter’s successor). However, in a nod to real-world conditions, it did admit that the universal dominion “proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter” might never be “fully realized in history.”
But Pope Francis is doing more than bowing to the reality that a universal “Catholic” ideal may never materialize on Earth. He is abandoning the very idea that it could or should exist. By sanctioning alternate paths to salvation, and prioritizing the good of the world over the exclusive good of his church, he is removing the historic universality, the “catholicity,” from Catholicism.
The church may benefit and even grow as a result of Francis’s revolutionary attitude, but the idea of Catholicism as the “one true church” might be a casualty of his appealing stance. With their claims to universalism gone, Catholics may face uncomfortable questions about what makes their church more than another denomination among many and about what gives popes a unique right to lead the community of believers.
Challenges to the pope’s authority have already emerged within the church itself, as Francis acolytes clash with Bannon and the ultraconservatives. By calling into question the very traditional doctrine that gives him his special authority, Francis has opened the door to questions about his right to change the church’s path.
The pope’s attitude has expanded the appeal of the Catholic Church throughout the world, but the church’s position in the Christian moral hierarchy is increasingly unclear. A Catholic Church ruled by a pope in Rome might still be able to provide a moral axis for Christians around the world, but by letting go of Catholicism’s foundational aspirations to dominion — by officially acknowledging other legitimate paths to God — the pope may forfeit the church’s claim to unique centrality.