If I’m not wrong, Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there is an aggression. Depicting the Pope to be a sort of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone. A normal person.
Not everyone sleeps calmly; there is a difference between being human and being normal. There are all sorts of traps for the adored, including fastening too much on a sense of one’s own humility, piety, or helpfulness, or one’s transgressive charm. Francis, impressive as he is, still has to show that he can keep from falling into them. There is a certain grumpiness that tinges his answers, even some of the cheerful ones, which might prove to be an anchor against sanctimony. Here he is, asked to wax nostalgic about Argentina:
The truth is that I don’t have nostalgia. I would like to go and see my sister, who is sick, the last of us five [siblings]. I would like to see her, but this does not justify a trip to Argentina. I call her by phone and this is enough. I’m not thinking of going before 2016 because I was already in Latin America, in Rio. Now I must go to the Holy Land, to Asia, and then to Africa.
You just renewed your Argentinian passport…
I renewed it because it was about to expire.
Whatever Freud said, idolization is not the only form of aggression.
It is moving that Francis thinks of himself above all as a priest to parishioners. He likes answering questions about, say, end-of-life bioethics by remembering what he said standing at the hospital beds of the dying. (“In my pastoral ministry, in these cases, I have always advised palliative care.”) When he was asked about contraception, he said, “The question is not that of changing the doctrine”—which he affirmed—“but of going deeper and making pastoral [ministry] take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do.” But is it pastoral or doctrinal when, for example, American bishops fight efforts to give more women access to contraception? There are political questions attached to the papacy that cannot entirely be answered pastorally, whatever Francis might wish.
There are hints in the interview that Francis could be every bit as transformative as Catholics and non-Catholics alike hope; an upcoming synod on the state of the family will be a major test. The trick may be to value those signs for what they can lead to, and not treat Francis as a speaker of magic words. Asked whether civil unions, for example, offer “a path that the Church can understand,” he said,
Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. It is about pacts of cohabitating of various natures, of which I wouldn’t know how to list the different ways. One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.
“Of which I wouldn’t know how to list the different ways” does not exactly have the electric force of “who am I to judge”; the hopeful thing here is that the Vatican, even if it doesn’t sanction same-sex civil unions, might not fight them. The Pope seems to care about people having health insurance.
In a number of Francis’s comments since becoming Pope, there are strands of the conservative case for recognizing many sorts of families. Francis’s horror, as far as one can tell, is not a family that is held together by something other than a sacrament but one that is not together at all: “There are many separated families in which the project of common life has failed. The children suffer greatly. We must give a response.” That response should have a “pastoral depth.” He is less afraid of a divorced single mother in a Church on Sunday than of pews that are empty. He has an idea that the Church is where that woman and her children should be.
And this is also where Francis can be disappointing. Those children, to his mind, would be safe in the Church—who could think otherwise? Children were more often abused in the “family environment,” he said. In contrast, “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No other has done more. And, the Church is the only one to be attacked.” There is a lot of pain denied, and history ignored, in those few sentences. It might be wrong to ask Francis to be Superman, with X-ray vision and the wisdom of Krypton, or some other place that isn’t earthly. But there are things that shouldn’t be too dark to see. “Last March, I didn’t have a project to change the Church,” he told his interviewer. “I didn’t expect this transfer of dioceses, let’s put it that way.” He can’t be offended if he’s asked to change it now. He might even be pushed, and push back.
Photograph by Franco Origlia/Getty.