Today’s guest blogger is Mike Aquilina, author or editor of more than 40 books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. This excerpt is taken from his book Good Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons to be published by Servant Books in October 2013.
Immediately the media began rattling off the long list of firsts.
He was the first pope named Francis.
He was the first pope from the Western Hemisphere.
He was the first Jesuit pope.
He was the first pope from any religious order for almost 200 years.
He was the first pope from outside Europe since the 700s.
The media emphasized, too, how Francis had broken with tradition—often very recent “tradition,” as when he refused to ride in a special car but insisted on taking the bus with the other cardinals. His very name was “precedent-shattering,” because no pope had ever used it before.
Then came the analysis, which usually boiled down to whether Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina, was “conservative” or “liberal.”
He was deeply conservative, many liberals complained: he opposed abortion and same-sex marriages. He was a radical liberal, some conservatives grumbled: he was always talking about the rights of the poor and the sins of the powerful.
The truth was that both sides were right. When it came to doctrine, the new pope was radically conservative and radically liberal. In other words, he was Catholic.
Catholic doctrine is radically conservative because it doesn’t change. The world swings wildly from one fashionable idea to another, and then back again. But Christian doctrine is just true. Our understanding of it grows over time, but nothing in the fundamental doctrine changes.
And Catholic doctrine is radically liberal because it teaches what Christ taught—that our duty is to the poor and forsaken, that the Christian has a duty to be poor in spirit, that the proud will be humbled. It makes no compromises with the rich and powerful.
In other words, what the media were reporting, as if it were a baffling new thing, was that the new pope was completely orthodox in Catholic doctrine. No wonder we heard rumblings of discontent from the right and the left! A pope who completely pleased one side or the other wouldn’t be doing his job.
And that’s the comfort of the papacy. No matter how much things change, the teachings of Christ are safe. We cheer the new pope even before we know his name, not because he’s a good man, but because he’s the pope—because he represents our guarantee that all the teachings of the Church will be true.
You can’t look at the history of the Church without being convinced that the special gift of the papacy is a real force in history. And that’s why whenever we hear those words, “Habemus papam,” it really is a great joy.