Lifestyle & Belief

Pope Francis: True humility or a humble brag?

To understand a religion, you have to first understand that religion is not one thing.

There is no model religion that is kept in some secret vault that religious scholars, leaders or everyday believers can access in order to compare it against some religious text, belief or practice. Religion is big and messy, complicated by histories and who gets to tell them, texts whose interpreted meaning spirals far out of the control of the original authors, and practices whose purposes often go unquestioned by those who “just” pray this way or that way and always have.

To simplify the big and messy thing called Catholicism, let us just talk about one major split: between the official church leaders charged with safeguarding its teaching and the estimated 1.2 billion everyday believers around the world.

By a strange accident of history, we can now talk about that split within Catholicism by referring to a major papal document, written for the first time in recent history by two living popes.

The recently published Lumen Fidei ("Light of Faith") is signed by Pope Francis but is largely the work of his living successor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. While the official line of the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church) is that there is a clear continuity between these two popes, for many Catholic believers the two offer very different versions of the relationship between Vatican leaders and the faithful.

For Benedict XVI loyalists, his papacy was a return to a narrower, more conservative and liturgically exact Catholicism that would stand up to the juggernaut of Western secularism and relativism.

For his detractors, it was a return to a Catholicism that wanted to push left-wing believers outside the fold, as he did with many proponents of Latin American liberation theologian while moving towards the restoration of those excommunicated right-wing Catholics in the Society of St. Pius X. 

Many Catholics alienated by Benedict's leadership style were hopeful about the election of Francis. There was something symbolically important in his eschewing of the fancy dress associated with the liturgical regalia Benedict XVI loved so much. Benedict's fancy capes and red shoes have been replaced with Francis’ largely unadorned papal white robes. Francis speaks plainly and off-the-cuff rather than the stuffy, professorial tone of the more academic Benedict.

Both popes have expressed criticism of “unbridled capitalism” (Catholic social teaching has always advocated a middle way between Soviet-style socialism and unfettered free markets), but when Pope Francis delivers his criticism he does so with constant mention to the poor, often times who actually sit before him.

Francis has even gone so far as to skip out on upscale cultural events he was scheduled to attend, sending clear signals to others in the church leadership.

But does Francis' papacy signal a real humility that will open up a space for different kinds of Catholics to practice? Or is this but a ‘humble brag’ designed to temper Benedict's alienating effects while continuing much the same top-down leadership?

And does the recent encyclical, Light of Faith, suggest an answer to this question? It is signed by Francis, but clearly bears the fingerprints of Benedict XVI with his obsession of fighting against the phantom of cultural relativism and establishing the Catholic tradition as the only bulwark for protecting the “Truth” with a capital T.

Of course, this is a particular — institutional — Catholic tradition, not the one of Latina women living in poverty and drawing water from wells far from home to care for their family.

And it is not the Catholicism of workers whose personhood is constantly judged more by the monetary value their labor represents than the divine spark within them. This is the Catholicism of a select group of middle- and upper-class Europeans, more concerned with the status of their culture rather than with the lives of individuals and communities.

Francis made waves with conservative elements of the Catholic Church when on the Holy Thursday before Easter he washed the feet of two teenage female prisoners, breaking with the tradition of only washing men's feet in memory of Christ's washing of his disciples’ feet. But there was an added twist, for while one of the women was an Italian Catholic, the other was a Serbian Muslim.

A woman whose religious status in Europe has become that of "internal enemy" to European culture, an enemy status familiar from the times of rampant Jewish persecution. While some may be surprised to see European Muslims in the 2010s compared to European Jews in the 1930s, we see today in France, Germany and Britain increasing numbers of the majority non-Muslim population see Muslims as a threat to their cultural identity.

Recent polls in France and England suggest that a majority feel this threat, accompanied by an increasing number of attacks on mosques and Islamic cultural centers, as well as individuals, which often go unreported in the news.

Washing her feet was a beautiful act, clearly signaling a very different approach to Catholicism and Europe.

We don't yet have Francis' true words in a papal document, as Lumen Fidei is clearly still part of Benedict's papacy. So Francis is still marked by this split, willing to sign his name where Benedict's was clearly meant to be, but also lowering himself before two women imprisoned in Italy, a Muslim and a Catholic, to wash their feet.

The question now is, will Francis write an official document in their name, signing it for the hundreds of millions who cannot write such documents or will he only speak off the cuff for them, without changing institutional power?


Anthony Paul Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at La Salle University in Philadelphia.