Après Francis

Après Francis

We are – as you may recall and as we sometimes forget – in the forecasting business here.  We make predictions, or at least we’re supposed to.  So, here’s one: the world is about to get really, really messed up.

Now, we know that’s a pretty vague and largely evergreen prediction.  The world is always on the verge of getting really, really messed up.  So, let us explain.

Longtime readers may recall that for many years, we considered the Catholic Church the last “bulwark” against moral relativism and anti-realist philosophy and culture.  For example, just over a decade ago, we put it this way:

The Catholic Church, for all its problems – which have been legion over the last few decades – remains one of the few remaining bulwarks in the West against the abandonment of universal truth and the acceptance of general moral emptiness….The West cannot hope to survive, much less to thrive, if it does not recall and embrace those values that made it the most dominant and most important civilization in the history of mankind; the civilization that consciously and intentionally embraced the inherent and intrinsic value of all men and women, even those from outside the dominant “in-group.”  This, more than anything, is Western Civilization’s unique and irreplaceable gift to mankind, and the Church has been its perpetual guardian.

More recently, we’ve been frustrated by the Church and its leadership, questioning their dedication to and ability to maintain this immeasurably important role.  Again, for example, we wrote the following roughly six years ago:

For years, we have written about the Catholic Church and its importance as the “true north” of Western Civilization, the one institution that not only helped create the West but withstood its most difficult times.  But now we’re done.  For the time being, at least, we have lost faith in Church’s ability to stand as the bulwark of Western Civilization.  While much of the world gears up to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s ascendance to the throne of Peter, we’re wondering just how much more of this papacy the Church and the world can take….

Pope Francis is, by almost any measure, a kind, merciful, and caring man whose personal instincts are charitable and generous.  He has not been plagued by even a whiff of scandal, and he delivers a much-needed message of anti-materialism at a time when material matters dominate our lives.  Unfortunately, he is also an incredibly naïve and incredibly stubborn man whose miseducation in matters of temporal importance is both palpable and potentially perilous.

Clearly, we were torn on the Francis Papacy then and are even more so now.  We don’t necessarily object to him being a socialist – although he is.  We don’t necessarily object to him being a cultural leftist – although he is.  Mostly, we object that these things cause him to be obsessed with temporal, earthly matters rather than the survival of the Church and the salvation of the Church militant.  It is one thing to be concerned with proper human stewardship of the environment, for example.  It is something else altogether to make that a focal point of one’s papacy.

Unsurprisingly, we are not the only ones to struggle with Pope Francis’s leadership of the Church, as Newsweek recently detailed:

Pope Francis is facing growing dissent among members of the Catholic Church over recent decisions that opponents portray as contrary to traditional church doctrine.

The most controversial has been the publication of a document in December by a Vatican bishop, with the pope’s approval, mooting the “possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples.” While the document stressed that it did not change the church’s stance on homosexuality, it brought a joint letter from Catholic clergy and scholars calling on others to disregard it….

[O]ther controversies surrounding Francis primarily concern the church’s teachings and could be viewed as an attempt to keep the church relevant in a changing world. While the number of Catholics worldwide has more than tripled in the past century, the proportion of Catholics compared with the total global population has decreased slightly in that time.

In August last year, the pontiff called out the “backwardness” of some Catholic conservatives in the United States, arguing that they had replaced faith with political ideology.

The article goes on to cite a number of “experts” – none of whom are actual Catholic theologians or canon lawyers – who suggest that this “growing dissent” is serious but not too serious.

“The Catholic Church, precisely, is not a schismatic church,” [sociologist Michele] Dillon said, adding that it has always had diversity. “To me, the talk of schisms is really attention-grabbing, and, in my assessment, it’s very un-Catholic to even have that thought.”

[Evangelical theology professor Darrell] Bock agreed, saying, “The Catholic Church is structured in a very traditional and historical way, and I just don’t see it getting to the point of an absolute break of any kind. What you’ll get is just that sound of protesting voices in the internal dialogue within the church. This has been going on for a long time.”

Despite our dubiousness about their credentials, we agree with these experts – for now.  The Catholic Church is NOT a schismatic church.  Well…until it is.

So, here’s our prediction: the burgeoning Catholic turmoil will remain muted and marginal – as long as Pope Francis is alive.  After that, Heaven only knows what will happen.

As we say, Francis is a good man.  And the College of Cardinals was, presumably, moved by the Holy Spirit to elevate him to the papacy.  It is exceptionally unlikely that anyone of any significance in the Church will make a serious attempt to undermine him or his authority.  The “revolution” against the Pope – as Newsweek terms it – is, in reality, not a revolution and never will be.

That said, the Pope is 87 years old and is known to be struggling with his health.  He is already older than his two immediate predecessors, both of whom seemed ancient and one of whom resigned six weeks short of his 86th birthday.  Francis has said that he has no intention of resigning and following Pope Benedict into “emeritus” status.  But he is not Methuselah, and therefore will, at some point in the relatively near future, no longer be Pope.

At that point, the currently muted and marginal matters of “revolution” and schism will no longer remain muted and marginal.  Those who oppose Francis’s social/temporal agenda – mostly in North America and Africa – will vigorously oppose his replacement with someone who shares his social focus.  Meanwhile, those who support Francis’s agenda – mostly in Europe and South America – will just as vigorously oppose his replacement with a social “revanchist,” a theological conservative in the mold of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  The Church will, in short, be at risk of cleaving itself in two over the general question of social “modernization” and the specific question of the next Pope.

Even if one faction can consolidate power quickly and secure the papacy for an ally, the other faction will likely dissent animatedly, the new Pope lacking Francis’s tenure and considerable affability.  And if, by some miracle, a consensus, middle-of-the-roader should emerge as the new Pope, it is likely that the angry dissent will merely be delayed rather than defused.

Given the views we expressed ten years ago (and for many years prior), we don’t like being in a position of opposition to the head of the Catholic Church.  Given the views we expressed six years ago (and ever since) we like even less being in the position of seeing Pope Francis as the lynchpin in the fortunes of Western Civilization, the man who is, despite himself, holding it all together.

And yet…here we are.

Après Francis, le deluge.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.