The Pope's Regret, and Growth
If Pope Francis has not actually changed Church doctrine, which he has not, he has changed the nature of what he sees as the Church's mission as well as its mode of being. An outstanding essay in the New York Review of Books by Eamon Duffy traces Pope Francis' humble and spiritually open persona back to his regrets as a young Church leader in the highly unjust and dysfunctional Argentina of the 70s.
In 1973, while still in his mid-thirties, Jorge Bergoglio became provincial superior of the Jesuits of Argentina. The Argentinian hierarchy was deeply compromised by acquiescence in the savagely repressive rule of a military junta, but many Jesuits had embraced the political and theological radicalism of the 1970s. As Jesuit superior, Bergoglio avoided open confrontation with the regime, struggling to reconcile the demands of justice and compassion for those suffering atrocity with the need to preserve the order’s institutions and mission and to protect Jesuit lives.Pope Francis appears to have been deeply troubled by his behavior. Duffy continues:
His own deeply traditional piety was in any case unsympathetic to much of the social and religious experimentalism of the time. Hero-worshiped by many for his personal charisma and spiritual gifts, he was detested by others who saw him as a repressive influence, inhibiting the work of the Spirit in a time of crisis, and he was later to be accused of having betrayed politically radical Jesuits to the junta.
Bergoglio himself has acknowledged that as provincial, “I had to learn from my errors along the way, because, to tell you the truth, I made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins.” Significantly, however, he attributes those sins not to religious or political reaction, but to inexperience and failure to consult: “I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”And so today, he have a Pope much different than his predecessors in tone and emphasis. Duffy summarizes:
In a series of interviews and speeches, Francis has deplored clergy who “play Tarzan”—church leaders too confident of their own importance, moral strength, or superior insight. The best religious leaders in his view are those who leave “room for doubt.” The bad leader is “excessively normative because of his self-assurance.” The priest who “nullifies the decision-making” of his people is not a good priest, “he is a good dictator.” Bergoglio has even said that the very fact that someone thinks he has all the answers “is proof that God is not with him.” Those who look always “for disciplinarian solutions,…long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists” have “a static and inward-directed view of things,” and have turned faith into ideology. And so the experience of failure, of reaching one’s own limits, is the truest and best school of leadership. He has declared himself drawn to “the theology of failure” and a style of authority that has learned through failure to consult others, and to “travel in patience.”I think this is all quite admirable. The only quibble I have with Francis is his characterization as some of his early failures as sinful. What is the sin in failing to live up to your hopes for your best self? As Francis acknowledges, such failure is the only way to learn. And this failure is surely the source of his undeniable spiritual presence, which thrills and inspires so many people today.