The popular narrative about a pope reflects their context and is drawn to contrasts; what the popes say is actually pretty consistent. While people are going gaga about all the “new” stuff Pope Francis is saying, both supporters and opponents are missing the point that most of his predecessors have said many of the same things. Even and especially the ones that they think he’s a contrasting figure to.
Quick caveat emptor. I’m not really a Catholic scholar. If you haven’t read the “About” page, I studied Catholic social thought in graduate school more than 20 years ago, then left to go live life, and found in Pope Francis a reason to plug back into that part of me. But I was just a grad student – unpublished, not a career academic. – and I have a big blind spot in Pope Benedict XVI, whose entire reign came while I was doing other things.
That said, it’s been invigorating to see a pope so capture the attention of the public, and especially the popular media, for saying and doing a lot of things that his predecessors did. I take most of that to be his personal charisma, which rivals that of Saint John Paul II and Saint John XXIII. I take some of it to be his seeming mission to defy stereotypes of a pope as elitist, which Saint John XXIII did as well. And, I have to say, he benefits from following a pope in Benedict who was widely and unfairly perceived as uninspiring. On core dogmatic theology, Benedict may be the most thoughtful pope since…well, since before 1891, when I started paying attention. But for a variety of reasons, he was not embraced by the public like either his predecessor or successor was.
The self-deprecating humor and willingness to shake up the status quo? I’ve argued before that he follows in the footsteps of Saint John XXIII, just more than 50 years ago. After his trip to South America this past week, he will likely be called a revolutionary Marxist, for saying the same things that Blessed Pope Paul VI said in the late ’60s and early ’70s. His manic schedule of globetrotting? His connecting with the masses? Saint John Paul II did that too.
But the core thing that irks conservative Americans – the thing that prompted hosts on the Catholic talk radio station I tuned in to after his encyclical’s release to say “I guess if you call yourself a conservative Catholic, you have to ask the hard question of which is it – conservative or Catholic” – is his focus on the preferential option for the poor, the need for solidarity among all of us for those who have it the hardest economically, and his critique of the limits of capitalism and the secondary nature of the right to private property? They all said that. Preferential option for the poor is a term coined by John Paul II. Solidarity with the weakest among us? Also John Paul II. The universal destination of property? Leo XIII, in the first papal encyclical, drawing on the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas. While pope’s have rightly spoken consistently against totalitarianism and communism, they have done so consistently while pointing to the limits of unfettered capitalism. Their accents varied. Their message did not.