The Bishop of Rome as Christian Radical

It was a brief greeting to former colleagues. But if you read Pope Francis’ April 18 letter to the Argentine bishops’ conference closely, you get a glimpse of the man, his convictions and his vision.

First, the man: Jorge Mario Bergoglio has remained very much himself, rather than adopting what some might deem the pontifical style. Any pope who can write his former colleagues in these terms—“Dear Brothers: I am sending these lines of greeting and also to excuse myself for being unable to attend due to ‘commitments assumed recently’ (sounds good?)”—is a man at home in his own skin, and one likely to remain that way.

Then, the convictions: Pope Francis believes that the Church in Latin America took a decisive step toward a new future in 2007. Then, at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, held at Aparecida in Brazil, the leaders of the Church moved far beyond the “kept” Catholicism of the past—the Catholicism that was “kept” by legal establishment or, more recently, cultural habit—and embraced a robustly evangelical Catholicism in which, as the pope wrote on April 18, “the whole of ministry (is) in a missionary key.”

The move from “kept” Catholicism to evangelical Catholicism is for everyone, the pope seems convinced. “Kept” Catholicism has no future anywhere, and not just because of aggressive secularism and other corrosive cultural acids. “Kept” Catholicism has no future because it doesn’t merit a future: or, as the pope put it to his former colleagues, “A Church that does not go out, sooner or later gets sick” in the hothouse atmosphere of its own self-absorption, which Francis has also called “self-referentiality.” When the Church is about itself, rather than the Gospel and the invitation to friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the Church betrays the Gospel and the Lord. How? The “self-referential Church” falls victim to “a kind of narcissism that leads to spiritual worldliness and to sophisticated clericalism,” which in turn are obstacles to what the bishops at Aparecida called “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

Pope Francis 2That joy, Pope Francis quickly added, is “many times united to the Cross.” But the joy that comes from the embrace of the Cross helps the ordained ministers of the Church “to be each day more fruitful, spending ourselves and unraveling ourselves in the service of the holy faithful people of God.” And if the pastors are seen to pick up the Cross and live joyfully in the embrace of the Crucified and Risen Lord, the people of the Church will find the courage to do the same: thus the entire Body of Christ becomes a powerful witness to the truth that it is in self-giving, not self-assertion, that we find happiness.

As for the pope’s vision, Francis seems willing, even eager, to lead a Church that takes risks in boldly proclaiming the Gospel. “It is true,” he wrote the bishops of Argentina, that “something can happen” to a Church that “goes out,” just as things can happen to someone who leaves the safety of home: accidents can happen. But “I wish to say to you frankly,” the pope continued, “that I prefer a thousand times an injured Church than a sick Church,” a risk-taking Church to a Church palsied by self-absorption. Thus the vision toward which this pope “from the end of the earth” is calling the entire Church: all Christ, all Gospel, all mission, all the time.

The bishop of Rome as Christian radical is going to take some getting used to. Expect serious disorientation in those ideological redoubts where the old battles over the now-superseded Church of the Counter-Reformation remain all-consuming (e.g., the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Lefebvrists). Some may find it hard to reconcile Christian radicalism with orthodoxy. But, as I argue in “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church” (Basic Books), that’s precisely what orthodoxy is: the adventure of radical conversion ordered to mission. The 266th bishop of Rome would seem to agree.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • J D

    It seems to me that “kept” Catholicism is yet another thinly-veiled swipe at Tradition. It’s as if the elderly woman saying her rosary during mass is the poster-child for what’s wrong in The Church today. The Mystical Bride of Christ’s beauty is what draws souls. Every eye is rapt by beauty multiplied exponentially by virtue. All knees bow to that Queen, to which The Queen of Heaven is the enduring source and summit.

    The aggressive, available woman, invoked by Bergoglio’s theology, thinks if it dresses like one of the many shades of Pentecostal (Pentecostal heresies have deluded many souls in Central and South America the past 50 years) women at the bar, she’ll attract more suitors.

    Mr. Weigel seems to project Bergoglio’s approach into his own thesis. The Catholic-Establishment-Right has the habit of reading into every Papal action the good it seeks. Every family knows they can love their Father without projecting a providential act of The Most High into the occasional drunken stupor or imprudent attention paid to a woman not his wife. Perhaps this occurs to insure access to clerical power, and silver pieces, that would be endangered by substantial and charitable criticism.

    Without self-examination, the Catholic deceives himself. We don’t throw parties to stir our consciences, we return to the intimate silence of a broken and contrite heart that always attracts The Most High. Courage and charity demands the reform of the reform to continue if the devastated vineyards are ever to return. These vineyards have been devastated by novelty and infidelity on the part of clerics, in the Curia and elsewhere, that Benedict hinted at, in his inaugural address, were the “wolves he might not be subject to..”

    As we seem to be returning to the innovation of the 70’s, 80’s, or worse, it might be helpful to remind people that Bobby McFerrin is not a Doctor of The Church and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy..” is not a classic tome to learn from…

  • Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum!

    AMEN….. well stated!

  • Conger M.

    I think by “Kept Catholicism” they mean a dormant faith, where we simply were instead of engaged in the world. There were examples of engaged Catholics, like Mother Theresa and Bl John Paul II, but the vast majority of laity were closet Catholics or Holiday Catholics. We’re called to be so much more, we’re called to bring souls into the Church.

    As Catholics, I think we’re constantly on the defensive from secularists, anti-Catholics, Evangelicals, the news media, and most withdraw from the fight, we just “kept” our faith instead of going on the offense for Christ. I think that’s what Pope Francis is doing now (started by JPII.) I think prior to that the Church was on auto pilot, assuming that the message was a given and needed no assistance from the faithful. The Church assumed an inherent goodness, even from our Separated brothers and sisters, that didn’t exist. We need to fight, not keep, it’s what the early Christians did and what we should do now.

  • J D

    I’m a long-suffering Buffalo Bills fan. I’d like to see my team win a Super-Bowl someday.

    I’m not under the delusion that my team can show up in the fourth quarter of next February’s game and demand to play.

    My team has been a losing one for many years. It has had bad management, poor effort, and uninspired game-plans that have wasted vast amounts of both blood and treasure.

    It wasn’t always this way and there are paradigms of past success to draw from.

    You build a good program from the ground-floor. You create a mindset. You demand that no part of your organization accept anything but victory. You make sacrifices, work harder, and use every available asset at your disposal.

    I think if Francis had called for the obliteration of “Buffalo-Bills” Catholicism he would have been better served. This would, however, have required great humility, we keep hearing about, and courage.

    Otherwise, just another losing season..

  • allen 2saint

    Pay heed, Catholics, to the very attitude that holds us back. A mention of anything LESS than cramming ourselves into our churches, moralizing and condemning “the world” is seen as a reason to shout “The sky is falling!” What more evidence do you need than the ugly, demeaning language used as a slight againt our Pentecostal separated brethren? He said no such thing about “Tradition” and you are wrong to try to drum up resentment before he has even acted, unless you wish to divide us. Let me see…whom shall I trust? A man who has dedicated his life to the Church, or some armchair theologian who can repeat the catechism but uses slander and fear mongering? I’m going to go with the kind looking man who bowed and asked me to pray for him.

  • J D

    You may do as you please, but we must embrace everything our positions imply.

    I will embrace the 1,963 years of Tradition before the novelties of the uniquely pastoral council of v-2.

    You must embrace EVERYTHING, all the devastated vineyards, that this unique experiment in Catholic theology has brought us these past 50 years, otherwise, your a hypocrite. There is nothing that’s happened in the last 50 years that was not foreseen. In fact there were many papal, saintly, and prophetic voices warning about the very same.

    With Catholic Churches closing by the thousands, where is the cramming you mention?

    Is the “world, the flesh, and the devil” no longer enemies to the ecu-maniacs of v-2?

    Pentecostalism, Montanism historically, is a heresy for which you shall burn eternally, if you die an adherent. Many martyrs died fighting Montanism. Hell is real and full, an idea foreign to most contemporary theologians today, it would seem. Why have so many mystics, even Our Lady of Fatima, shown souls hell? It was in compassion for times such as these.

    Men come to the Church for sundry reasons. It is always struck me as odd, and ironic, that The Faithful, these past 50 years, are served the tripe that the person of Peter be adored as if Christ walked the earth again.

    Yet, using the same deformed thinking, previous incarnations of Christ, prior to v-2, mean nothing or are trumped by the current budha, err, Christ. The “cosmic Christ-consciousness” gets it’s spiritist underpinnings from a modernist predisposition to the nefarious idol of evolution.

    Go read Our Lady’s words at Lasalette, Fatima, and Akita..

    Go wag your finger, if you dare, on this Mother’s Day, at her, her tears, her pleadings, and her warnings..

    Our Lady, Queen of All Patriarchs, Queen of All Apostles, Mater Dei, Ora Pro Nobis!!!

  • allen 2saint

    Hand a person a copy of the catechism, feed them paranoia, eletism and hate and presto! Look at what we have! I see this site is another gatfhering of a cabal of people who really think they know better than the men and women who lived entire lives of service, studied the entire depth and breadth of church teachings to declare the dignity of all people in Vatican 2. Instead, you still want to to spout off about heresies. Sad. By all means, jump into your time machine and live in a time and place before the Church understood it had to be in the world. One of the reasons churches are closing is people like you who aren’t content to coexist with people they disagree with, but still try to drag us back to the “anathema” times. Lucklily, you won’t be voting for a Pope and you won’t be able to influence his decisions. There are other churches for peoplle like you. You should join them, instead of polluting the UNIVERSAL CHURCH with your hate.

  • J D

    Rash judgment is very unbecoming and we should really leave the business of reading hearts to mystics, all of which were born before v-2.

    This site does God’s work. It desires to save babies, but realizes the war, if is to be won, must be fought first among the powers and principalities St. Paul mentions. Your attempted brow-beatiing and bullying of the moderators is an all too-typical tactic of the conciliar Church. We can have shamans dance in the Sanctuary at Assisi, while a statue of budha is put on top of the Tabernacle, to show our ecu-maniacal esteem of all religion, but all your effeminate enablers can do is heap burning coals upon Tradition.

    Where the attendance to “dialogue”, there?

    Why does the conciliar Church, that makes excuses for and celebrate every pagan practice and store-front invention, have no room for Tradition?

    Why this disingenuous facade? Why this pretentious sophistry of cultishly believing The Catholic Church was established in 1963?

    The conciliars have it had all their way for 50 years, but like all Obama-like liberals, keep doubling down on the same tired ideas causing the same rancid fruits.

    There is no hate here, sir. Tradition tells us that admonishing the sinner is a mandatory act of Spiritual Mercy. Cowards are mentioned first in a list of souls not entering heaven. I’m not leaving The Faith of My Fathers, nor advising anyone else to.

    The Heirarchy are not gnostic ascendant masters, but are always Peter, standing in for all Apostles, when asked repeatedly by The Lord, after his betrayal, “Peter, do you love me?..”


  • allen 2saint

    I can’t think of any time, including my parochial grammar school days, where I have heard such a hysterical, hate laced stream of insults attempting to disguise itself as something “Catholic.”

    You and your kind know better than a Vatican full of bishops and theologians who dedicated their life to the faith while you read the parish bulletin and sneer at anyone youn think is below you. I don’t think so. Their theology of a four leaf clover would be more insightful than your backward thinking. If you could post ONE coherent argument against any Vatican 2 theologian I would be astounded.

    I don’t stand admonished, especially by the likes of you.

    Why don’t you do this? Walk up to your parish priest and tell him this. Better yet, why not walk right up to the altar in the middle of mass and say it all? Tell us all how it goes.

  • NDaniels
    (See #6 )
    The reports that pope Francis supports same-sex sexual relations and thus same-sex sexual acts, as long as these same sex-sexual relationships are private, children are not involved, and these same-sex sexual relationships are not called marriage, are confirmed by pope Francis on page 117 of his book, “On Heaven and Earth”.

    The Catholic Church has always taught that every son or daughter of a human person has been created in the Image and Likeness of God, thus we can know that any act that does not respect the personal and relational inherent Dignity of the human person, is not an act of Love.

    Regardless of desire or consent, men and women are designed by God in such a way that it is impossible to engage in same-sex sexual acts without demeaning the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the human person, which is why the desire or inclination to engage in same-sex sexual acts is a disordered inclination. The True God, The God of our Salvation, desires that we overcome our disordered inclinations, so that we are not led into temptation, but rather become transformed.

  • BillinJax

    “Everything old is new again”.. Amen
    It seems our refreshingly brilliant new Pope would remind biblical scholars of the young Jew who came childlike into the Temple and began preaching to the self centered dusty elders gently arousing them from their spiritual slumber.