There’s a quote attributed, probably falsely, to Mark Twain that observes, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
I suppose it is a sign that I’m getting older, because I’m starting to hear the rhymes in a lot of the current debates in the church about papal leadership.
Almost 40 years ago, a Polish pope, a man from a far country, came to Rome with a new vigor and a new attitude. He not only told us not to be afraid, he energized us with his vitality and his willingness to take on big challenges facing the church. I was one of many attracted to his self-assured vision of what some called a “Catholic restoration.”
He challenged the politically powerful in the East and helped to topple governments. He shook his finger at political clerics he judged disobedient. He was not afraid to discipline theologians. He appointed new bishops and called synods to address the major issues of the day, invariably pleasing some and outraging others.
Not everyone embraced him. Some said he was too Polish, too much a product of the church-state conflicts of his communist homeland, with an insularity that was insensitive to Western democracies. Others said he was busy appointing bishops in his own image, and they worried that the church would be irreversibly locked into what they saw as an anti-modern agenda.
Some claimed he had abandoned the Second Vatican Council, at least as they understood it. When critics challenged him in public forums, his defenders fought back. They talked about papal authority and the deference all Catholics owed the supreme pontiff and suggested his critics were disloyal and dissenters.
Fast-forward a few decades, and I start to hear the rhyme. We have another pope from a far country, Argentina. He was not a young man when he was elected, but he riveted the world with his humility, with his willingness to eschew the trappings of the office, to reach out to the poor, the disfigured, the marginalized.
He emphasizes the joy of the Christian life, and railed against sourpuss Pharisees. His use of concrete images to describe a pastoral reality has been electrifying: the shepherd who smells like the sheep, the church as field hospital.
People are drawn to his emphasis on joy and mercy, but his emphasis on pastoral concerns, while pleasing to some, worries others. He has challenged powerful forces in the church by reorganizing the Vatican, or trying to, and by appointing new bishops who are often in his mold.
He has called the synods to talk about the crisis of the family and about youth. He also has challenged the politically powerful. He has shaken his finger at Catholics who seem more interested in political influence than in helping those on the periphery.
Not everyone has embraced him. Some say he doesn’t understand the United States, that he has a Latin American bias. Others worry that he is embracing the heresies of modernity, or undermining doctrinal teaching. His defenders fight back, asking that there be more deference to papal authority, that he has the right to pursue his vision of a truly Vatican II church, and that those who attack him in public forums are disloyal and even dissenters.
Catholicism has never been without theological debate, and these debates rarely spare even popes. Those quick to criticize papal authority and decisions 30 years ago have changed places with those quick to criticize now. The rhyme may not be perfect, but a bit of humility would seem to be in order lest our own hypocrisy give greater scandal than that which we claim to protest.
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.