The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis (Massimo Faggioli) -- A Review

THE LIMINAL PAPACY OF POPE FRANCIS: Moving toward Global Catholicity. By Massimo Faggioli. Foreword by Ilia Delio. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020. Xiii + 2-5 pages.

                I’m a Protestant, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in the Roman Catholic Church or its leadership. Like many of my theological and ecumenical perspectives, I wasn't necessarily a fan of Benedict XVI. I appreciated his scholarly acumen, but not his narrowness of vision. He seemed intent on taking the church back in time, perhaps undoing the reforms of Vatican II. Then something unexpected happened. Unlike his predecessors, who died in office, in 2013 Benedict chose to resign his office. This marked the first papal resignation since the fifteenth century. That also meant that this would be the first time since the end of the Great Schism there would be more than one living Pope (even if one carried the title of emeritus he was still alive and had followers). Seven years later, Benedict still lives and carries a degree of influence in the church. Benedict’s resignation required the Cardinals to gather in Rome to elect from amongst themselves a successor. They chose the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to succeed Benedict. Bergoglio had come in second to Cardinal Ratzinger in the previous conclave, and this time he was elected Bishop of Rome.

Bergoglio’s election marked several firsts. For one thing, he was the first Jesuit ever to be elected as Pope. He was also the first Pope elected from outside Europe in more than a thousand years. He also took a name not previously used, the name Francis. Many of us assumed at the time that Bergoglio had chosen to honor the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier with this name, but the new Pope quickly made it clear that the Francis he had in mind was Francis of Assisi. This choice suggested that something new was on the horizon, perhaps a breath of fresh air. Seven years later, it appears that the choice was providential as Francis has charted a quite different path from his predecessors.

Benedict XVI still lives seven years into Francis' papacy, and the church is still digesting that reality. The Pope Emeritus still has his fans, who pine for the days of a focus on tradition and theological orthodoxy, along with a bit more pomp and circumstance. Nevertheless, the Cardinals chose Francis, not someone who followed the lead of the former Pope. Whether they knew what kind of Pope Francis would be is uncertain, but he has charted a different course. Some of this is generational. Though Francis isn’t all that much younger than Benedict, he is the first Pope to be ordained to the priesthood after the close of Vatican II. While Benedict was a participant at the Council as a young theologian, Francis wasn’t yet a priest. Because he is the first Pope to have been born, raised, and served outside the Northern Hemisphere has also colored his perspective regarding the church and its mission. Whereas Benedict focused on reclaiming Europe for the church, Francis has embraced a vision of a global church that is released to be present its various contexts. The Pope still exerts power, but the center has moved so what once was the periphery. Unlike his predecessors, he wasn't an academic, a diplomat, or a curial leader. He was and is a pastor first and foremost. That pastoral vision has been a dominant force in the way he leads a very diverse church into a global future.

I share this as a preface to my review of Massimo Faggioli's The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis. Faggioli is a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. If you place him on a spectrum within the church, he represents the portion of the church that supports the direction that Francis is taking the church. He uses the word “liminal” here to describe how Francis’ papacy represents a moment of transition in the life of the church, with Benedict still living, Francis is sitting on the threshold of the old and new. It is a point of transition between the “already” and the “not yet.” In this book, Faggioli helps us understand the journey of the Catholic church from the papacy of John XXIII to the present, seeing Francis as being in many ways a continuation of the vision of John XXIII. It is also an exploration of Francis’s development as a Christian and as a church leader. At points, Faggioli dives into intricacies Catholic politics and theology that as a Protestant I’m not acquainted with. Nevertheless, there is much to learn about the Church and its current leader as it moves into a global future.    

Faggioli begins his book by setting Francis in his historical context, including his relationship to his predecessors and Vatican II. Faggioli invites us to consider a papacy that has a global vision and one that embraces synodality. By that, Faggioli notes that Francis has led the church by involving the national bishops' conferences in the church’s decision-making process, thus bypassing to some extent the curia (church bureaucracy). What we encounter here is a Pope who wants to bring the full global expression of the church into the conversation. In doing so he has instituted reforms that not everyone appreciates. He has at least raised the possibility of having conversations about marriage, sexuality, and even ministry that seemed off-limits not that long ago. He hasn’t embraced extending the priesthood to women, but he has entertained the idea of women deacons. He has also allowed conversations to take place by ending mandatory celibacy so that at least in some parts of the world the church could ordain married priests. He also has a vision of the church that takes seriously the preferential option for the poor. As part of this, he has re-engaged with liberation theology, a movement that has deep roots in Latin America, and a theological vision that his two immediate predecessors sought to suppress. Now to say all of this is not to say that Francis is a liberal, but that he is willing to listen. 

His is also a papacy that represents a more urban focus, as he spent much of his career serving as a priest and bishop in a major city. The same is true of the church, which faces a much more diverse global context, and the reality of pluralism. As Faggioli writes: "The social and religious imagination of Francis is essentially urban, cosmopolitan, and pluralist, different from a social and religious imaginary where the city is essentially secularist, dominated by the abandonment of God. On the contrary, Francis sees the urbanization of religious life as a challenge and an opportunity for the church; Francis'ss imagination does not take place in an ethnically or culturally homogenous village or frontier to be conquered and defended from external assaults, especially from pluralism and from the secular" (pp. 178-179). Much of the book, which is not only readable but enjoyable, focuses on this globalized reality for the church. We see this in his appointments to the College of Cardinals as well as his travels. In the age of the "Strongman," Francis has rejected that vision of ministry, choosing instead to act with humility.

                I will admit that as a Protestant there are parts of the book that deal with documents and decisions that I may have heard of, but do not have a deep knowledge of. Of course, Protestants aren't the intended audience of this book. Faggioli writes as a Catholic theologian to Catholics, seeking to interpret a papacy that could radically change the direction of the church. It's uncertain as to whether Francis' successor will continue his vision or not—that will depend to some degree on whom the Cardinals select as his successor. Faggioli at least suggests that at least some Cardinals have been surprised at the direction Francis has taken the church. Nevertheless, he has appointed a majority of the Cardinals who will vote in the next papal election (and he still has time to pad that number). While we don’t know who will succeed him, what we do know is that in the past seven years the periphery is no longer peripheral.

It is increasingly clear that the future of the church is not to be found in Europe or North America, which was where Francis’ predecessors focused their attention. Benedict sought to reclaim Europe for the church. Francis, being from Latin America, doesn’t have that kind of focus. We see this, as Faggioli points out in the way he has led the church, including in his choices as Cardinals. Even though this is written from a Roman Catholic perspective, what Faggioli says about that church applies more broadly. Even in an age of growing nationalism (America First), the globalization of the church continues. Even in North America, the growth spots for the church are to be found among immigrants and persons of color. That is true in my denomination and denominations across this country. Francis, as Faggioli reminds us, has a liminal view of the church and its mission, one that sits on the threshold of the old and new. I sense that Francis has his finger on the future, and Faggioli has given us a helpful introduction to that papal vision that reveals boundaries that are much blurrier than they once were. If you want to understand Francis and the global future of the church, then The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis is a good place to start.


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