The Catholic Church is trying to balance, as always, two opposites: orthodoxy and reform. Orthodoxy is what the institution stands for. Reform is about realizing Catholic ideals in the ever-changing world; it does not mean changing institutional beliefs to align with the world.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the world has experienced many groundbreaking events. World War I (1914-1918), the Russian Revolution (1917), and World War II (1939-1945) are just a few examples of conflicts that affected millions of people. To this list we can add a whole host of technological innovations, as well as democratization of social and political conditions. Looked at from this perspective, it is not surprising that the Church felt the need to “open its windows” to the world. This is exactly what happened during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Interestingly, the Council itself happened on the heels of another major event – the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).
While we still debate the impact of Council today, the fact that the Church has de-centralized because of it appears to be indisputable. Catholic masses started to be worshiped in vernacular languages; priests began facing their people during mass; and most importantly, the Church embraced democracy as the preferred political system. To be sure, the acceptance of democracy was not (and is not) unconditional, but this significant change in the institutional posture of the Church is one condition that helped Catholic countries (e.g., Brazil, Chile, Poland) democratize (link).
The de-centralization of the Church empowered regions previously with no access to meaningful decision-making. However, even de-centralization has its limits. When the so-called liberation theology began fusing Catholicism with Marxism while advocating violent struggle to overcome systemic oppressions of injustice, the Vatican moved rather quickly to shut these movements down.
The pontificate of John Paul II was about many things, but perhaps none was more important than proper understanding and implementation of the reforms proposed by the Council. Pope John Paul has a reputation of an authoritarian, mainly because he objected to movements like liberation theology that used religion instrumentally. Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI was known as a dogmatic Pope; one that stresses the clarity of doctrine over its implementation in actual life. The legacy of the Council defined both Popes. While embracing what the Council stood for, they also wanted to make sure that these reforms are proceeding along the right tracks; that is tracks deeply rooted in Catholic tradition and teaching. In Catholic circles we know this as hermeneutics of continuation (as opposed to rupture).
Enter Pope Francis. Many see him as a reformer, a fresh alternative to his two predecessors (link). However, there are several problems with such interpretation. First, any hope to “update” Catholic teaching should be abandoned because the Church is internally contained (link, link) – such update would lead to schism – and because Jorge Bergoglio does not have any inclination to go in that direction. Rather than reading what other people have to say about the current Pope, I started reading his books and interviews, and change in Catholic dogma and doctrine are not on his agenda. Second, Jorge Bergoglio might be more authoritarian than John Paul II and Benedict XVI combined. People tend to forget that he became a cardinal in large part as a recognition for his efforts to tone down the impact of liberation theology in Argentina.
This brings us to the ultimate question – what is Pope Francis trying to achieve? Again, I do not think that changing of what the Church teaches is on his agenda. But he is not afraid to de-centralize. The paradox of his Papacy is that he listens and engages with others and then does what he thinks is needed. He is the kind of authoritarian that the Church needs to empower local churches that have been marginalized for too long. The Church in the West is dying, but it is booming elsewhere and Bergoglio knows it. We live in a moment that the reforms of the Council – at least according to Bergoglio – are finally proceeding along the proper tracks. It is therefore safe to once again re-shuffle centers of power in the Church. Such process is bound to bring difficulties and complications as we have already seen. The difference this time around is that the boundaries of the future reforms have been clearly demarcated by the previous two Popes. Pope Francis, therefore, will have an easier time doing what his two previous colleagues wanted to accomplish but couldn’t. In other words, his authoritarian personality might be exactly what is needed at this moment in history to further de-centralize the Church.