Pope Francis, Man of the Year? Not Yet

Dec 20, 2013 | Updated Feb 19, 2014

Within the past week or two we have seen the pope make the covers of Time, The New Yorker and The Advocate. Time and The Advocate have designated Pope Francis as their publications' "person of the year." As a progressive Roman Catholic who is active in ministry, I find it pleasant to have a pope who does not come off as the kind of spiritual batterer Benedict XVI was. It's nice not having to constantly defend my choice to be a practicing Catholic. Atheist progressive friends who have never quite understood my peculiar willingness to worship in what one or two have called "a hate group" now make laudatory remarks about Pope Francis. My fellow Roman Catholic LGBT ministry are delighted with our new pontiff. I imagine I might speak for many when I say that being a Roman Catholic is a tad easier now that our public relations has been so well-improved by Francis I. But man of the year? As Saint Augustine might say, "not yet."

Pope Francis may well be what he seems but it can not be denied that this pope is made-to-order. It is only by cutting through the "spin" that we can know how genuine Francis and the change with which he being credited actually are. A look at what was wrong with Ratzinger from a public relations standpoint reveals much. As a Catholic who has been watching and documenting the mass (so to speak) exodus of Roman Catholics church, I find taking this new pontifical upgrade at face value difficult. And facile!

Progressive Roman Catholics did not much like Joseph Ratzinger, but then again, neither did the traditionalist Roman Catholic fringe. Progressives objected to Ratzinger's anti-gay, anti-woman disposition, while ultra-conservative Catholics held against Ratzinger both his prominent role in Vatican II and his (later) failure to go far enough once he did become more conservative. Ratzinger resigned from a church that was lousy with financial and sexual scandals (I am one of those who believe we have yet to see the full impact of the Vatican sexual abuse scandal/crisis in the developing world) and possibly on the verge of an all-out schism. The situation called for a man like Francis who could keep Catholics in the pews without amending teaching, a pontiff who could avert a schism and arrest the exodus of Catholics leaving the church in disgust. It's no accident that an Italian-Latino replaced the German; a warmer-blooded pope was called for, a pope with a glint in his eye, a pontiff more charming and less conspicuously royal than Josef Ratzinger. The church hierarchs knew that if they wanted LGBT Catholics and women sickened by the Magisterium's misogyny to remain in the church, they would have to elevate a cardinal capable of stepping away from dogma and doctrine both -- but without challenging either outright. Pope Francis has been expert in finessing this.

In a December 2, 2013 piece that appeared (in translation) in National Catholic Reporter, Roman Catholic priest Hans Kung, a renowned theologian and former friend of Josef Ratzinger, included this observation in his discussion of Francis's pontificate:

And worried observers are already asking whether Pope Emeritus Ratzinger is in fact operating as a kind of "shadow Pope" behind the scenes through Müller and Georg Gänswein, [Benedict's] secretary and Prefect of the Papal Household, whom he also promoted to archbishop.

Kung reminded of us the possibility that Joseph Ratzinger who continues to reside in the Vatican, may still, to some extent, run things. This is not a preposterous notion. Ratzinger's was one of the strong voices of the Second Vatican Council. He has been in the College of Cardinals since 1977 and is one of the world's most accomplished Roman Catholic theologians. The Emeritus Pope, who has wielded immense influence in the Vatican for half-a-century, could still be calling a few of its shots.

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