Writing in Al Jazeera America, a Ph.D. student in “religion and critical thought” at Brown University recently declared 2014 “the year of Pope Francis.” Her sentiment is shared by other writers. What made her article interesting was the “pull quote” featured in its layout. Oversize type made the point that “Pope Francis’ approval ratings remain stellar, with 67 percent of U.S. Catholics rating him favorably and only 13 percent unfavorably.” The citation was based on a study of 1,016 adults nationwide by the Florida-based Saint Leo University Polling Institute, and its own web page suggests that papal favorability ratings are, if anything, higher than the number reported in the Al Jazeera piece. Data from the referenced study suggests that Pope Francis actually enjoys an 88 percent favorability rating among U.S. Catholics.
Both figures are startlingly high. In fact, the range between 67 and 88 frames a vista that politicians have been drooling over since at least the time of Pontius Pilate. Imagine showing Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush approval numbers like those! Dead people and cartoon characters would have to look elsewhere for amusement than at polling places if the political machines in our more corrupt cities offered favorite candidates a legitimate choice between “strong majority” and “landslide” election outcomes.
High favorability ratings for any pope scare those of us who worry about the implications of poll-driven pontificates. It’s not a class presidency for which Jorge Mario Bergolio is now responsible. With an eye toward the warning that Saint Luke offered in his sixth chapter (“Woe to you when all speak well of you”), and notwithstanding the medieval practice of canonization by acclamation, the fact that Elton John, for example, thinks Pope Francis should be declared a saint “right now” is part of the problem.
Memo to Sir Elton and those who agree with him: Pope Francis has inspired some people and aggrieved others. Neither group is currently in any position to accept a definitive judgment about his spiritual legacy.
It is also worth noting that when U.S. Catholics are polled about Catholic doctrine, fewer than 88 percent of us say we believe that the bread and wine used at Mass are transformed in a real but mysterious way into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Non-Catholics do not have to affirm that proposition, but it is foundational for Catholic faith. My argument here is that if more Catholics approve papal performance than understand the doctrine of their own Church, then applause from the pews seems a lot like the “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about generations ago.
Lots of people appreciate Pope Francis because he preaches mercy and rattles the bureaucrats who work for him, but the same could be said for any CEO who understands humility. Other CEOs simply rephrase “mercy” as “customer service.”
Meanwhile, it’s not just contributors to Al Jazeera who still seem overwrought about the prospects for Catholic change. The Hill published a story on December 31 headlined “Pope Francis drives a wedge between Catholic Church, GOP.” The piece used “conservative” and “Republican” interchangeably (problem one), while identifying wedge issues as policy choices having to do with income inequality, climate change, and efforts to sweeten the U.S. relationship with Cuba. If Pope Francis has drawn the ire of Republicans, the story implied, it is because the economic policies with which he seems to sympathize are mostly Democrat policies.
That is a deliberately partisan oversimplification aided and abetted by some things U.S. bishops have said about proposed immigration reforms. To its credit, the story also acknowledged that Democratic support for abortion on demand remains deeply problematic from a Catholic point of view. Nevertheless, if it is wrong to identify the Church with the Republican Party, then it is equally wrong to identify the Church with the Democrat Party.
Whether by temperament or by cultural tolerance for ambiguity, Pope Francis has the disconcerting habit of making it easy for axe-grinding columnists to think of him as a nonjudgmental humanist, albeit one who takes Jesus and Satan more seriously than they usually do.
People in the business of shaping public opinion seem to regard this pope as more of a teddy bear than a shepherd or a sheepdog, except when it suits their purposes, as with the Huffington Post feature on “5 of the Harshest Things Pope Francis Has Said to Vatican Curia.” (A forensic look at the editorial judgment there is easy if you’ve read HuffPo for a while. Think “Go, pope! You rock! Plus your diatribe made excellent copy in translation, and we do not like the people working for you, although we do not know them.”)
Ordinary Catholics who understand why the teddy bear metaphor never fits have been forced to lean on each other in ways not required during 34 years with John Paul II and then Benedict XVI at the helm. That is not a plea for pity, but an acknowledgement of this pope’s markedly different leadership style. Raymond Cardinal Burke and (NYT columnist) Ross Douthat have said much the same thing. Both men understand — Burke from the inside, you might say — that theology and hospitality nudge the faithful into prayers for the pope at every Mass. We pray for the pope because he has a tough job, and because praying is a way of extending the mercy that has been extended to us. “Pay it Forward,” meet “Pray it Forward.” Those are positive reasons.
There are negative reasons to pray for Pope Francis, also, and by “negative” I mean “defensive” rather than “bad.” Spiritual battle requires both weapons and armor, offense and defense. While the pope’s alleged fondness for debate does not make him heterodox, off-the-cuff remarks that he could make with relative impunity as a bishop in Buenos Aires sometimes create confusion or scandal when broadcast worldwide to the delight of people who’ve made careers out of ignoring the Church.
The pope’s “Who am I to judge?” comment to reporters with him on a plane flight in 2013 was almost nowhere conveyed in context. More recent speculation over whether pets go to heaven also met with unthinking enthusiasm. As religion reporter John Allen has noted, we live now “in a media environment in which everything the pope says and does is a sensation.” In other words, the media does not do “nuance” well. It probably never did, but the stakes are higher now. For that and for the danger posed by his distressingly high approval ratings, Pope Francis also needs all the spiritual support he can get.