Cleaning Up the Pope’s Mess

When Time magazine published its issue on the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, the columnist and pundit Peggy Noonan wrote the profile for her former boss, Ronald Reagan. She began by recounting Clare Boothe Luce’s quip that every president is remembered for a sentence: “He freed the slaves.” “He made the Louisiana Purchase.” Sometimes a presidency boils down, fairly or not, to a single word. Watergate. Lewinsky. Obamacare. The same parlor game applies to popes and papacies. “He called the Council.” “He changed the Mass.” “He resigned.” What will Pope Francis’s sentence be? His most famous catchphrase, “Who am I to judge?” appeared early, just months after ascending to Peter’s chair, and set a tone of openness or ambiguity (depending on one’s point of view) that would become a hallmark of his pontificate. His legacy, though, will more likely be captured by another phrase, uttered during that same trip to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. During his remarks on Copacabana beach, the Holy Father went off-script and exhorted the millions of young people there, “¡Hagan lío!”—“Make a mess!” Among the possibilities for Pope Francis’s sentence, a leading contender would have to be, “He made a mess.”

Any pope is subject to the cold eye of historical evaluation. Critics of Pope Francis have not been shy to point out what they see as his excesses and abuses. The specific mess that may well define Francis’s legacy, though, concerns the deposit of faith itself. That is, Pope Francis has made a mess of the Church’s doctrine, not just in what Catholics believe, but in how we receive and understand that revelation.

A few years into the current pontificate, I was invited to join a group of fellow doctoral students in Rome for dinner with the late Cardinal Pell. At the time he was serving as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, tasked with the unenviable job of reforming the Vatican’s finances. Someone asked the cardinal about the Holy Father, to which he replied, “Well, he sows great confusion.” It’s the type of assessment that one rarely hears from high-ranking prelates, even over casual dinners. It reassured us that our concerns were not unwarranted, that the confusion we were experiencing was indeed great and unprecedented.

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