Pope Francis takes a lot of criticism for not being traditional enough, especially on Catholic Twitter. Search the hashtag #CatholicTwitter, and you will find countless tweets calling Francis everything from a liberal to an antipope to the antichrist. Much the disparagement of Francis is couched in doctrinal terms, but it often seems political and personal.
Upon his elevation to the papacy in March 2013, Jorge Bergoglio ruffled feathers when he revealed why he chose the name Francis. He declared that he longed for a “poor church for the poor.” Because this vision runs counter to the way many staunchly laissez-fare Catholics and non-Catholics see the world, and Francis found himself being lectured in the pages of American publications and on talk radio.
Four months later, Pope Francis made headlines when answering reporters’ questions while returning from World Youth Day in Brazil. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” While Francis’ did nothing more than reaffirm the position of the Catechism, his seemingly provocative announcement led to an uproar.
Criticism increased in 2015 with the release of Laudato si’, the pope’s encyclical on caring for the environment. Among other assessments, Pope Francis critiqued unfettered capitalism’s effects on the biosphere. It should not surprise anyone that a large number of people — especially conservative American Catholics — will buck at anyone suggesting that humans contribute to climate change.
One year later, opponents of Francis turned up the heat when the pontiff released the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. This document came after two episcopal synods (meetings of bishops) exploring various aspects of family life. Amoris Laetitia raised the prospect of divorced-and-remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist. This set off a firestorm of controversy and accusations in Catholic circles around the world and especially on Catholic Twitter.
In all of these cases, Pope Francis never abrogated traditional Catholic teaching. Instead, he brought a set of priorities and a tone to the papacy different than his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Both of the earlier popes spoke and wrote about the social justice, poverty, and the environment. But Francis has elevated them to the forefront of his concerns.
More importantly, he adopted a way of being pope that many people had never experienced. With combined papacies lasting nearly 35 years, John Paul and Benedict are the only popes two or more generations of Catholics (especially denizens of Twitter) remember. A host of Francis’ most vocal critics haven’t been alive that long.
Clearly, Francis is not as monarchical in his personal style or pontifical approach as his immediate predecessors. He has embraced the emphasis Vatican II placed on the synodality of bishops. Instead of making unilateral, top-down pronouncements by consulting primarily a small group of advisors from the curia, Francis has sought broad input from bishops.
Also, Francis is neither an athlete (like John Paul II) nor a professor (like Benedict), so he may not seem as cool or intellectual. Pope Francis famously rides in a Fiat, not a bulky limo. Instead of staying in the papal apartments, he resides in the modest accommodations of St. Martha’s guest house. He wears modest black shoes, foregoing the traditional handmade red papal slippers. He looks and behaves more like an common Catholic person rather than an imperial sovereign.
Just as most Catholics (and Orthodox) implicitly accept the organization of the Roman Empire as the only proper form of church governance, I think a lot of people assume a monarchical style is essential to being a pope. How can someone really be pope if they don’t behave the way we assume popes have always acted? How can anyone be pope if they don’t perform their duties like a king?
This mistake is easy to understand. After all, the pope was a literal monarch over vast landholdings for more than a thousand years.
But times have changed, and so has the papacy. The Papal States came to an end with Italian unification in 1870, and ever since then popes have slowly given up the royal trappings of the papacy. Pope Paul VI made several reforms to the papal inauguration ceremony, and he donated the papal tiara to be sold with the proceeds given to the poor. He was the last pope to wear the crown. Pope John Paul I did away with the use of the royal “we,” and John Paul II declined to be carried on the ceremonial throne (sedia gestatoria).
It’s easy to fall in love with papal pomp, pageantry, and power. Much of it is beautiful, compelling, and tempting. The art at the St. Peter’s Basilica. The liturgical ceremonies. The possibility of making infallible pronouncements.
But Pope Francis has taken St. Francis as his model. The saint from Assisi heeded Christ’s mystical call to “rebuild my Church’ precisely as a response to the gospel. St. Francis famously opened the book of the Gospels three times to discern his vocation. He read three pericopes, “Sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.” “Take nothing for your journey, not staff, knapsack, shoes, or money.” “If anyone wants to be perfect, renounce yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
St. Francis lived out his evangelical mandate by dedicating himself to serving the church in new and symbolic ways. Shocking in any age, he challenged domestic norms by renouncing his family. Francis tested societal traditions by welcoming others who sought to adopt his manner of life into a new community. He also pushed the boundaries of acceptable religious behavior by crossing the battle lines to speak with Sultan al-Kamil.
Family, friends, and foes misunderstood the visionary from Assisi. However, St. Francis remained loyal to the church. He stayed obedient to his bishop and sought papal approval for his burgeoning community. Francis performed his unusual actions in service to the church, and the church is better for it.
Like his namesake, Pope Francis understands the power of symbolic actions that communicate the gospel in service of the church — even at the risk of being misunderstood and facing harsh criticism.
Visiting refugee camps, washing the feet of prisoners, and granting interviews to atheist reporters may not seem especially papal. Changing the Catechism to condemn the death penalty may receive criticism from Catholic Twitter, but what could be more prolife?
And what could be more Franciscan than embracing a man with an incurable neurological and skin disease?
No one is above criticism, and Pope Francis has not handled every issue perfectly. And we’ll see how the abuse summit scheduled for February 2019 unfolds. I wonder, though, if his Jesuit penchant for discernment might be misunderstood as inaction.
Still, Francis has admitted errors, including mishandling the abuse crisis in Chile. Acknowledging his faults does not seem to be enough for some critics who have apparent difficulty with a pope actually confessing his personal mistakes.
One irony of today’s relentless criticisms of Francis is that few Catholics felt the liberty to complain about the previous popes’ style or priorities. That’s not to say that Catholics never critiqued John Paul II or Benedict. However, criticism of the previous two pontiffs was discouraged and often seen as an act of betrayal. In many prominent cases, critics of the popes faced official censure.
Living in an age of social media hot-takes gives anyone with a Twitter account a platform to troll the pope, including bishops and former Vatican officials. The flattening of social hierarchies paradoxically empowers those with ultramontane tendencies to relentlessly attack the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church.
Furthermore, much of the criticism against Francis feels like a proxy war by those who oppose the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Francis, like his predecessors, has affirmed the authoritative standing of the council, but Francis has made implementing the council’s reforms a priority. This is especially true in his commitment to synodality. Pope Francis has called on bishops to meet and actively participate rather than function as a Potemkin synod rubber-stamping his decrees. With a few notable exceptions, he has yielded to the decisions of national bishops’ conferences too. This commitment to Vatican II has made Francis less monarchical, and it has caused his strident antagonists to criticize him for decisions they disagree with.
Once again, there is a profound contradiction by those who oppose Pope Francis. It’s ironic that the biggest critics of Vatican II use the openness of Vatican II in hopes of returning to Vatican I, but they refuse to follow the pro-papal directives of Vatican I in relationship to the current pontiff. Catholic Twitter is filled with countless examples of those who disapprove of Vatican II so much that they use it to condemn the pope whom they feel is not being ultramontane enough.
Perhaps this is little more than an example of the cynicism of our day. Or maybe it’s a Catholic expression of the faux populism that gravitates toward authoritarianism.
Pope Francis refuses to give in to his critics. As the first pope ordained to the priesthood after Vatican II, Francis’ pontificate reflects his post-conciliar formation. Documents such as Christus Dominus, Lumen Gentium, and Presybterorum Ordinis call on priests and bishops to serve primarily as pastors, not kings. I suggest Pope Francis sees himself as a shepherd, not an emperor.
How can he be taken seriously as the servant of the servants of God if he acts like a monarch? How can he be a shepherd if he does not smell like sheep? By embracing Twitter as the modern means of communication to criticize the pope, Francis’ opponents are one step away from fully embracing Vatican II. While Francis is the first fully Vatican II pope, he certainly will not be the last.