Today is the beginning of Year Three of the Pope Francis era, as the pontiff completes two full years in office since his surprise election in March 2013. Although the Vatican says there are no festivities planned aside from giving most employees the day off, that hasn’t stopped the rest of the world from taking stock of the spiritual tsunami this maverick pope has become.
One almost strains to find the right adjective: “Eventful,” “tumultuous,” and “momentous” all suggest themselves, but somehow each seems inadequate to fully capture the drama of the last 24 months.
From Francis’s dream of a “poor Church for the poor,” to his decision to launch two summits of Catholic bishops to debate issues such as Communion for the divorced and remarried and outreach to same-sex couples, to soundbites such as why Catholics don’t have to breed “like rabbits,” this is a pope who generates shockwaves almost as often as he holds audiences and says Mass.
If there’s one thing that should be crystal clear by now, it’s that Francis is a pope of surprises. Attempts to predict what he might do or say next are almost comical, given the long list of unforeseen twists and turns he’s already produced.
Despite that obvious risk, Year Three of his reign shapes up as a potential make-or-break moment, a point at which the narrative about this pope could be recast and conclusions could be drawn about whether his reform is for real.
Herewith, then, are five predictions for Year Three of the Pope Francis experiment. Given this pope’s penchant for the unforeseen, none may play out as anticipated, but at least they provide a sense of what’s at stake.
1. A liberal backlash
So far it’s been assumed that the major resistance to Pope Francis inside the Catholic Church comes from conservatives. American Cardinal Raymond Burke comes straight out of a Hollywood central casting office as a champion of that traditionalist opposition.
God knows that 10 minutes online is enough to find plenty of acerbic commentary about the pope in the conservative Catholic blogosphere, featuring terms such as “heretical,” “disastrous” and “schismatic.”
Yet there’s also reason to be skeptical about whether that vitriol has much traction at the grassroots.
Earlier this month, the Pew Forum released the results of its latest survey of American Catholic opinion about Pope Francis. The headline was that he’s basically as popular as Pope John Paul II at his peak, but the truly interesting nugget comes when American Catholics are asked to identify themselves politically.
Francis has an 89 percent approval rating among Catholic Republicans, almost identical to his 90 percent mark among Democrats. Among self-described “conservatives” he gets a 94 percent thumbs-up, which is actually seven points higher than his 87 percent approval among Catholics who call themselves “moderates/liberals.”
Perhaps what the conservatives have figured out is that Francis may be all about compassion and mercy in implementation of doctrine, but he’s hardly Che Guevara in a cassock. If there’s a “Francis revolution” underway, it appears to be more about the pastoral application of teaching rather than revisions to it.
As the dust settles, the Catholic Church is still saying “no” to women priests, gay marriage, and contraception, even if it’s trending softer in terms of how those positions are communicated and enforced. It’s an agenda that plays well with moderates, but leaves many liberals disappointed.
Last year saw pointed criticism of Francis from left-leaning Catholics, including his rhetoric on women and lack of follow-through on pledges to promote greater female roles in the Church, as well as his repeated criticism of efforts to “redefine” the family.
For progressives who spent the last 24 months hoping that Francis was preparing the way for a doctrinal re-set, this may be the year in which his “Roman Spring” starts to look like all sizzle and no steak.
2. A rock star in America
Francis will visit the United States in September for the first time both as pope and in his life, traveling to Washington, DC; New York, and Philadelphia. Word out of Rome is that the pontiff is nervous about the trip, working the phones with his Jesuit contacts to get up to speed about what he can expect.
In the abstract, one understands the concern. Aside from the fact that the pope’s English isn’t great, in some ways the United States is a tough room for Francis to play.
No other Catholic culture on earth has such an extensive infrastructure dedicated to defending the free-market capitalism he excoriates. His positions on immigration and the environment are divisive here, his stands on hotspots such as Syria and Ukraine are sometimes viewed with skepticism by the American foreign policy establishment, and few other countries have been scarred as deeply by the child sexual abuse scandals where the pontiff’s efforts are still seen as significantly incomplete.
Nonetheless, the smart money is that Francis will rock the house.
For one thing, Francis has already proven himself to be every bit the magnet for humanity that John Paul II was once upon a time. He drew 3 million people to Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach in 2013, rivaling the turnout for a 1994 New Year’s concert by Rod Stewart, and in Manila in January, he drew 6 million in the teeth of a typhoon.
Crowds in the States will be large and enthusiastic, setting a positive vibe.
Further, the American media have invested such mammoth resources in styling Pope Francis as a populist hero that it would take a calamity of essentially inconceivable dimensions to force them to take a different tack.
All that is in addition to the root fact that unlike most quarters of Western Europe, America at the grassroots remains an intensely religious society in which religious leaders still enjoy basic respect.
As far as the pope’s English is concerned, yes, it’s limited, but that hasn’t stopped him from garnering a 70 percent approval rating here even among non-Catholics, with only 15 percent finding anything negative to say. Republicans and Democrats, black and white, old and young, all are basically united in their affection.
In other words, the deck is already stacked to make the pope’s American debut a hit.
3. The Dark Green Pope
Benedict XVI was dubbed the “Green Pope” for his environmental teaching and example, which included installing solar panels atop a Vatican audience hall and signing an agreement to make the Vatican Europe’s first carbon-neutral state by replanting a stretch of a Hungarian forest.
This may be the year in which Francis emerges as what environmental wonks would call the “Dark Green” pope, meaning a figure who intensifies the Church’s commitment to the cause by linking it to the corrosive effects of consumerism and runaway global capitalism.
Sometime over the summer, Francis will release an encyclical letter on creation, marking the first time a pope has devoted the most elaborate sort of teaching document to environmental themes. Given Francis’ core concerns, it’s highly likely he will note that the impact of environmental damage and natural disasters falls disproportionately upon the poor, and will link ecological sensitivity to broader questions of justice.
Francis has also said that he wants the encyclical to be out early enough to influence the discussions at a United Nations summit on climate change in Paris in December, urging that body to make “courageous choices.”
Before Francis arrived on the scene, American political theorist Jeremy Rifkin had forecast that issues such as GMOs and climate change were dissolving the old left/right divisions, creating a new “bio-politics” in which defenders of nature on the left and defenders of human life on the right would find themselves allies, standing against a 21st-century form of hyper-industrialism that sees everything, including nature and organic life, as a commodity.
This may be the year in which Pope Francis makes Rifkin’s prediction come true.
4. A Humanae Vitae moment that won’t be
When Francis decided to hold two synods of bishops on the family, he wasn’t thinking primarily about the vexed question of whether Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church ought to be able to receive Communion. His vision was much broader, beginning with how the Church can better support struggling families around the world.
Nonetheless, the question of the divorced and remarried has become the most hot-button question of all in the synod process, and for many it’s a litmus test of whether Francis’ commitment to reform has any teeth.
The second of those synods will take place in October, and here’s a prediction-within-a-prediction: The bishops will be every bit as divided this time on the divorce and remarriage issue as they were a year ago. The $64,000 question thus is not what the pope is likely to hear, but what he’ll do once he’s heard it.
Some observers believe that if Francis doesn’t allow divorced and remarried Catholics to come back to Communion, it will be Humanae Vitae all over again. That was Pope Paul VI’s controversial 1968 encyclical upholding the traditional ban on birth control, which frustrated expectations of change and soured opinion on the pope in many quarters.
At the moment, forecasts about what Francis will do seem premature. Even if he says no, however, there are three good reasons why we probably won’t be looking at another Humanae Vitae moment.
First, the introduction of widespread artificial contraception represented a massive cultural earthquake well outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church, forming the heart of the sexual revolution. By contrast, the question of whether divorced and remarried believers can receive Communion is insider Catholic baseball, unlikely to generate the same external reaction.
Second, Paul VI never had the good press Francis has amassed during his first two years. That reservoir of political capital should help him ride out any blowback.
Third, Francis has signaled his personal support for greater flexibility for the divorced and remarried in multiple ways. If he pulls back, many will be inclined to read it as the pope trying to be collegial, meaning respecting the need for consensus, rather than imposing his own will. That’s a quality in authority figures that plays well on the liberal wing of the Church, which otherwise would be most inclined to be upset over a negative verdict.
For sure, a great deal is at stake in whatever decision Francis makes in the wake of the synod, and he’ll encounter stiff criticism no matter what he does. A watershed on the order of Humanae Vitae, however, probably isn’t in the cards.
5. The Pope of the Persecuted
Francis clearly has revitalized the political and diplomatic capacity of the Vatican and the papacy, symbolized by the role he played in ending Cold War tensions between the United States and Cuba.
To date, we’re still waiting for the signature geopolitical issue of the early phase of his papacy to come into view. With John Paul II, the last great activist pope on the global stage, it was the struggle against European Communism. Circumstances may be be conspiring to supply an answer for Francis today in the form of mounting anti-Christian violence.
With the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, the militancy of Boko Haram in parts of Africa, and an overall global environment in which Christians have become the world’s most oppressed religious body, this may be the year in which Francis emerges as the Pope of the Persecuted.
Already Francis has made the sacrifice of the new martyrs a staple of his rhetoric, and he also talks repeatedly about an “ecumenism of blood” that unites all Christians today. He’s offered a cautious yellow light for anti-ISIS military action, calling it “legitimate” to stop an unjust aggressor.
In a piece for the online edition of Time this week, Francis Rooney, former US ambassador to the Holy See, argues that the Vatican under Pope Francis is best suited to deploy “soft power” against religious extremism, especially its Islamic variant.
Rooney argues that Francis could promote “a broad community of nations … to create a supportable, ‘just’ force against Islamic extremists,” and to encourage “Muslim states and leaders themselves … to devise theological and philosophical constructions to bring Islam at large into accord with the modern world.”
One moment in which such an effort may come into view will be in December, when Francis visits the Central African Republic. It’s a country in crisis since 2013, scarred by widespread sectarian violence that often breaks down along Muslim/Christian lines.
It’s also a place where Christians haven’t been just victims but also perpetrators, with Christian militias killing Muslims, burning their homes, and stealing their cattle, a reality that will allow Francis to speak on behalf of all victims of religious violence and to denounce extremism no matter its source.
For the first pope named Francis, the opportunity to become the world’s preeminent apostle of religious peace may seem like nothing short of divine providence.