There’s a lot of fuss being made both inside and outside the Catholic Church about Pope Francis’s “simplicity” compared with Benedict XVI’s more “imperial” trappings. Why this is relevant to anybody outside that particular religious body (or even within it, for that matter) is something of a puzzle. You’d think people would have something better to do with their time, but let’s take a look at this. Somebody thought enough of this to write and article on it, so we can get a little mileage out of it ourselves.
After all, while CESJ is an interfaith organization and takes no position on the faith-based teachings of any religion or philosophy, we look to all spiritual leaders to see what guidance they can offer. That being the case, the pope, the head of the Catholic Church that claims a seventh of the world’s population as members, is deserving of attention, if nothing else.
The difference between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis is simply not the big deal a lot of people seem to think. They just have different styles. All the popes have agreed on the basics, whatever the "experts" say. In the opinion of this writer, Benedict XVI used the trappings of the office of pope very astutely to counter what he may have recognized as a certain lack of "charisma" on his part in comparison with John Paul II — a very tough act to follow.
The office takes primacy of place over the man as far as the Catholic Church is concerned — which, when we’re talking about “the pope,” is as it should be. Don’t misconstrue this statement, because Benedict XVI appears to be a very good man, but there have been some very bad men as pope (can you say, “Borgia”?). That does not, however, take anything away from the authority or dignity of the office, although it certainly damages its credibility.
Think about it. In a sense, it didn't matter who followed John Paul II, personally a very charismatic figure. Whoever it was knew he was going to look like a second banana, regardless of anything he did. The fact that Benedict did as well as he did in a very difficult position, in this writer’s opinion, demonstrates the guidance of some kind of Holy Spirit. The role of public figure (and you don’t get much more public than the pope) clearly did not come naturally to Benedict; he had to work at it.
Francis is a different critter altogether, although obviously an intellect fully the equal of Benedict XVI. Again in this writer’s opinion, Francis is faced with a very tough job: clean up the Curia and, at the same time, straighten out the philosophical mess that has been driving every pope since at least Pius IX nuts.
This philosophical mess is the fundamental shift of the natural law from its proper place based on the intellect (reason — lex ratio), to a very distorted basis on the will (faith — lex voluntas). This, according to the solidarist jurist and political scientist Heinrich Rommen, and the Aristotelian philosopher Mortimer Adler, was the basis for the rapid growth of totalitarianism and decay of the social order that characterized the 20th century, and now threatens the 21st.
Fulton Sheen obviously concurred, as this was, in essence, the subject of his first book, God and Intelligence, published in 1925 with a short introduction by G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton, in fact, seems to have been inspired by Sheen’s work to emphasize even more strongly the need to base your understanding of reality on calm reason, not the wild emotion that so many of Chesterton’s modern followers mistake for faith.
Chesterton’s St. Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” (1933) is both a warning and a guide for those who would sacrifice knowledge to opinion to gain some end. The end, however good it seems, does not justify the means.
Pius XII pointed out the dangers of putting faith before reason specifically in Humani Generis in 1950 . . . and has been carefully ignored, as was Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Pius XI (Benedict XV had that Great War thing to distract him), Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I (remember him? even in his brief pontificate he got in a few words about this problem), and, of course, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis.
Frankly (there's a pun there), Francis has one [heck] of a job to do. Fortunately, to all appearances, he seems to be the one to do it. Benedict said that the Holy Spirit inspired his abdication, and he may be right. He did what he had to do: prepare the Church and the world for Francis. Now Francis has an even harder job to do — and it's not the "same old thing," whatever the liberals and the conservatives hope or fear.