Views on the Vatican
Pope Francis continually makes headlines for his progressive approach to ruling. Since being elected in 2013, many have taken issue with a number of changes he’s made, like opting not to live in the papal apartments and his thoughts on the gay community, contraception and, as he showed this month, the environment.
But to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills, change is necessary.
Wills has written a number of bestsellers on the Catholic Church, including “Why I Am Catholic” and “Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition.”
In his latest book, “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis,” the Chicago-based journalist and historian touts Francis as the best man to take the church into a new era.
Contrary to popular belief, he says, the Catholic Church is one with change in its DNA.
You wrote that “Pope Francis heartens some Catholics and frightens others.” How so?
The authorities are always fixed and defensive about how they’ve committed themselves, whereas the faithful often just walk away from what the authorities are saying. We Catholics pay no attention to the pope when he’s not in touch with us. This pope threatens people because he seems to be in touch with ordinary people.
What do you think separates Pope Francis from those that came before him?
He’s been breaking down the barriers that separated authority. He doesn’t live in the palace. He doesn’t dress like a supreme authority. He calls himself “bishop of Rome” rather than “pope” whenever he can. He seems to be more a voice for the poor than for the established authorities.
How would you describe Pope Francis’ legacy thus far compared with the history of church leadership?
It’s kind of a continual tension rather than a single dramatic moment.
The previous popes had a litmus test for being a bishop or archbishop or a cardinal. You couldn’t disagree with papal teaching on contraceptives, abortion, married priests, women priests, so they all subscribed to that. But a lot of times the Catholic people realize that what the pope is saying is not in touch with their beliefs. On contraception, for instance, 80 to 90% of Catholics, in every poll, practice contraception. The priests know that and are against that. The bishops know, but they have had to convince those in Rome that they are still adhering to that teaching in order for their careers to advance.
The last two popes were really good at ignoring what was going on at the actual believer level, enclosing themselves in a little bubble of ritual reassurance that authority never changes, can’t change and never even contemplates changing. This pope has been different.
Much of the book outlines the history of the church. Why did you choose to explain its history as a way to endorse Pope Francis as a conduit to the future?
Because of the myth that has spread among Catholics and non-Catholics that all the things that are in the church now were always there. The government mechanisms of the church have undergone drastic changes over and over, but people are succumbing to the myth that it never happened. It’s very important to point out the simple fact that this myth of a changeless church has no basis in history or reason or the Gospel.
What is it that makes Pope Francis or this time and place particularly ripe for change in the Catholic Church?
The papacy has progressively been getting more out of touch with the lives of the faithful and that has sped up under the last two popes.
Countless studies report that younger generations are less religious. Does the church need to welcome change to remain relevant?
Definitely. It’s the so-called mainline religions that are declining. The evangelical is not, and there is something very evangelical about this pope. Evangelicals, they stress community, not having a hierarchy, the dignity of all individuals and the importance of the experience of Jesus. Pope Francis [was well received] among evangelicals in Argentina and continued it after. If the success of evangelicals around the world is any indicator, then he is taking the church into a really fruitful era.
What do you hope people take away from reading your book?
I wake up every morning wanting to be surprised because God is a God of surprises. That’s the message I would like to impart. Prepare to be surprised and accept the surprises when they come.
AUTHOR GARRY WILLS is optimistic in “Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis.”