Everyone seems to agree that Pope Francis is a unique figure. We’re told he is humble. He’s the “cool pope,” unlike his predecessor Benedict. He is “earthy” and creative in his insults. Some Catholics, even my friends, think he is uniquely pastoral and personable. Others, like myself, find him uniquely opaque and exasperating.

That lack of clarity is partially attributable to Francis' fascination with politics.  After the United States agreed to restore relations with Cuba, a deal that included the involvement of the pontiff himself, the Vatican’s secretary of state emphasized Francis’ ambitions for making the Holy See a bigger player in international diplomacy.

But it goes deeper than that. Politics and political metaphors shape his view of the world.

Francis’ most recent comments in Manila affirming the church’s ban on artificial contraception, as well as his later comment that Catholics are under no obligation to reproduce “like rabbits,” were shaped by a political frame. You might even say his view is distorted by politics.

Before his now infamous “rabbits” comment, Francis described the effort to legitimate the use of artificial contraception in the Philippines as “ideological colonization.” It reminded careful listeners of John Paul II’s phrase “contraceptive imperialism,” used to describe the way NGOs and other aid organizations premised aid on the acceptance and promotion of condoms or birth control pills.

In his interview, Francis said:

[Pope] Paul VI’s rejection [of contraception] was not just in reference to individual cases: he told confessors to be understanding and merciful. He was looking at a universal neo-Malthusianism which was calling on world powers to control birth rates: births in Italy dropped to less than 1 percent and the same in Spain. [Vatican Insider]

In Manila, the pope used similar language:

Just as our peoples, at a certain moment of their history, were mature enough to say "no" to all forms of political colonization, so too in our families we need to be very wise, very shrewd, very strong, in order to say "no" to all attempts at an ideological colonization of our families. [Vatican Insider]

As history, this is an expansive reading of events. Of course there were disciples of Malthus warning of overpopulation in the 1960s. But internally, Paul VI was faced with a panel of experts that he himself had convened, who asked if he could find some way to lift the ban, couching it in the same pro-family, pro-responsibility, “under limited circumstances” rhetoric that accompanied a repeal of the contraception ban in the Anglican Church at the Lambeth conference in 1931. Pope Paul’s response in the encyclical Humane Vitae was not particularly political. Rather, it affirmed that he and the church had no right to change the laws of God, then dwelled on the beauty and consolations of that teaching, and the possible consequences of not following it.

For a man who issues such colorful and memorable putdowns, it's an odd tic of Francis' to retreat into political formulas to describe what the church once understood in terms of personal sin. Francis seems less horrified by mortal sin than by Americanization. I’m sure he would clarify, if it were put to him that way. But it reveals an instinct.

Retreating into politics is comfortable for Jesuits of a certain age. Reducing or transmuting Christian liturgy, theology, and scripture into politically ideological terms (or saying that these artifacts of the faith can only be understood in such terms) is not unique to Francis or even the modern period. It has roots going back six centuries. 

Francis’ determination to “make a mess,” his loquacity, and political instincts have a disorienting effect. They exacerbate the fact that the modern papacy has become as much a media institution as an ecclesiastical one. It gives the impression that the Christian religion is a series of policies, many of which the pope has the power to change. It gives aid to those confused theologians who think the historic dogmas and doctrines of the church are merely historically accidental “emphases” on this or that aspect of the gospel. Revised doctrines could presumably give a different but still legitimate emphasis on the same. So why not let this popular pope do just that?

In these same recent interviews, Pope Francis referenced a 1903 novel by Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World, which he has brought up before. Benson’s work is possibly the first ever dystopian novel. It’s about a Catholic apocalypse, treasured by some traditional Catholics. It’s the story of the anti-Christ taking power and restoring all peace to Europe through a universal dictatorship, which eventually sets out to exterminate the remnants of the church after a new, misguided Gunpowder Plot.

The protagonist eventually becomes a pope of an underground church. He mostly lives alone and in secret in the Middle East, offering the Mass and governing the remnant church through secret private messages sent out to individual bishops.

It is fascinating that Pope Francis keeps recommending this book to people, precisely because that fictive papacy is the very opposite of his: unpopular, feared, hated, and marginalized. It is entirely transfixed with Masses done in private, to please God and to reconcile the world to him. He faithfully recites the words handed onto him. He prays, and encourages.

It would be possible for a pope to imitate that example today from a Vatican palace. The pope would give only small private audiences, and trust other cardinals to give sermons at his public liturgies. His words would still govern and appoint, but from behind closed doors. But he would (and should) avoid Pope Benedict’s practice of publishing books while pope. He would extinguish Francis’ habit of extemporaneous speech. It would be a truly humble papacy, where politics is avoided, and where the personality of the occupant does not presage some reform. A servant of the servants.

One can hope.