understand Pope Francis — his purpose, his program and its potential pitfalls —
it’s useful to think about what’s been happening to New York City’s Jews.
the 1950s on, New York’s Jewish population declined, amid suburbanization and
assimilation. But over the last 10 years, the numbers began to rise again,
climbing 10 percent between 2002 and 2011.
this growth was almost all among Orthodox Jews. The city’s Reform and
Conservative populations continued to drop, as did Jewish religious observance
result, New York’s Jewish community is increasingly polarized, with more Jews
at the most traditional end of the theological spectrum, more Jews entirely
detached from the institutions of their ancestral faith — and ever-fewer
observant Jews anywhere in the middle. What’s happened in New York is happening
nationally: a recent Pew study found a similar pattern of growth among the
Orthodox and a similar waning of religious practice and affiliation in the rest
of the American Jewish population.
not just a Jewish story. It’s been the story of religion in the West for over
40 years. The most traditional groups have been relatively resilient. The more
liberal, modernizing bodies have lost membership, money, morale. And the
culture as a whole has become steadily more disengaged from organized faith.
There is still a religious middle today, but it isn’t institutionally
Judeo-Christian in the way it was in 1945. Instead, it’s defined by
nondenominational ministries, “spiritual but not religious” pieties and ancient
heresies reinvented as self-help.
late, this process of polarization has carried an air of inevitability. You can
hew to a traditional faith in late modernity, it has seemed, only to the extent
that you separate yourself from the American and Western mainstream. There is
no middle ground, no center that holds for long, and the attempt to find one
quickly leads to accommodation, drift and dissolution.
this is where Pope Francis comes in, because so much of the excitement around
his pontificate is a response to his obvious desire to reject these
alternatives — self-segregation or surrender — in favor of an almost-frantic
engagement with the lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world.
idea of such engagement — of a “new evangelization,” a “new springtime” for
Christianity — is hardly a novel one for the Vatican. But Francis’s style and
substance are pitched much more aggressively to a world that often tuned out
his predecessors. His deliberate demystification of the papacy, his digressive
interviews with outlets secular and religious, his calls for experimentation
within the church and his softer tone on the issues — abortion, gay marriage —
where traditional religion and the culture are in sharpest conflict: these are
not doctrinal changes, but they are clear strategic shifts.
Allen Jr., one of the keenest observers of the Vatican, has called Francis a
“pope for the Catholic middle,” positioned somewhere between the church’s
rigorists and the progressives who pine to Episcopalianize the faith.
significance of this positioning goes beyond Catholicism. In words and
gestures, Francis seems to be determined to recreate, or regain, the kind of
center that has failed to hold in every major Western faith.
he has at least gained the world’s attention. The question is whether that
attention will translate into real interest in the pope’s underlying religious
message or whether the culture will simply claim him for its own — finally, a pope who doesn’t harsh our buzz!
— without being inspired to actually consider Christianity anew.
uncertain reaction to Francis from many conservative Catholics, you can see the
fear that the second possibility is more likely. Their anxiety is not that the
new pope is about to radically change church teaching, since part of being a
conservative Catholic is believing that such a change can’t happen. Rather,
they fear that the center he’s trying to seize will crumble beneath him,
because the chasm between the culture and orthodox faith is simply too immense.
they worry as well that we have seen something like his strategy attempted
before, when the church’s 1970s-era emphasis on social justice, liturgical
improvisation and casual-cool style had disappointing results: not a rich
engagement with modern culture but a surrender to that culture’s “Me Decade”
manifestations — producing tacky liturgy, ugly churches, Jonathan Livingston
Seagull theology and ultimately empty pews.
test of his approach will ultimately be a practical one. Will the church grow
or stagnate under his leadership? Will his style just win casual admirers, or
will it gain converts, inspire vocations, create saints? Will it actually
change the world, or just give the worldly another excuse to close their ears
to the church’s moral message?
fruits we will know — but not for some time yet.