Around the time Pope Francis was studying for the priesthood in the 1960s, absorbing the modernist ideas that would come to define his bewildering pontificate, the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that the Catholic Church was joining the “army of progress just when it is in total disarray.” Muggeridge found it mystifying that the Church, “having witnessed the ruinous consequences to its Protestant rivals of compounding with contemporary trends, should now seem set upon following a like course.”
“Just when the Reformation appears to be finally fizzling out, another, it seems, is incubating in Rome,” Muggeridge wrote. “Luther escapes from John Osborne’s hands into—of all places—the Vatican.”
Fifty years later, not much has changed, as the Church under Pope Francis returns to the failed formula of trendy political liberalism, heterodox flirtations, and doctrinal vagueness. Ross Douthat of the New York Times wonders what the “Francis effect” on the Church will be and proposes that sociologists of religion study dioceses that “are conducting clearer Francis-blessed experiments than others.”
They could start by looking back and studying the archdiocese of Buenos Aires under Francis. It wouldn’t take them long to conclude that his experiment in diluted Catholicism didn’t work. Vocations plunged. Shortly after Francis’s election, Vatican correspondent John Allen traveled to Buenos Aires and reported that “vocations to the priesthood have been falling in Buenos Aires on his watch, despite the fact they’re up in some other dioceses. Last year the archdiocese ordained just 12 new priests, as opposed to 40-50 per year when Bergoglio took over.”
Then as now, he flirted with heterodox overtures to the modern world, suggesting, for example, that the Church could support gay civil unions, which only served to demoralize and divide his flock. The model of “updated” Catholicism that Pope Francis proposes today for the whole Church—which amounts to a left-wing clericalism prioritizing personal political opinions over orthodoxy—left his own diocese listless.
Pundit after pundit during his visit to America gushed about his “fresh” and “new” approach to the faith. To anyone paying even cursory attention over the last five decades, there is nothing new about it. Many dioceses in the Americas and Western Europe embraced that model and now resemble secularist wastelands. Perhaps more than any other religious order, the Jesuits adopted that model after Vatican II and since then their order has been in free fall, which makes the election of Francis all the more remarkable. At the very moment the Jesuits were the most troubled, the Church elected its first Jesuit pope.
Earlier versions of what is now called the Francis effect contributed to wrecking the Jesuit order. Under it, the order went from fighting for orthodoxy to fighting against it, from otherworldly spirituality to worldly politics. Pope Francis is a fairly typical representative of trends within his order, which he was at pains to highlight during his 2013 interview with the editors of Jesuit publications. It was in that interview that he punctuated his support for the order’s aversion to doctrinal clarity, insisting that an elliptical presentation of the faith somehow constituted a “new balance” that would save the “moral edifice” of the Church from collapsing like a “house of cards.”
The comment was notable for its obliviousness to the fate of his own order, which had collapsed like a house of cards under the very ambiguity he was now pressing upon the whole Church. In the book Passionate Uncertainty, the sociologists Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi, despite their strong sympathies for the liberal direction of the Jesuit order, nevertheless concluded that its “soft-boiled” spirituality contributed to hollowing it out. Restricting their study to American Jesuits, they noted that the number of Jesuits who deserted the order outnumbered the ones who stayed. Far from energizing the order, the spirit-of-Vatican-II approach decimated it. Even liberals like Garry Wills have had to acknowledge that the new-and-improved Jesuits rapidly decayed after Vatican II.
The Church under Pope Francis increasingly resembles one of passionate uncertainty, passionate about liberal politics and uncertain about traditional teaching. It reaches out not to the future with doctrinal confidence but back to the recent past with liberal ennui, craving one more shot of the modernist drug that reduced dioceses and orders along the lines of Buenos Aires and the Jesuits to delusion and stupor.
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