The People's Pope and the Changing Face of Catholicism

About this Episode

Guests
David Brakke, Tina Sessa, Daniel Watkins

Join hosts Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins and their guests, historians David Brakke, Tina Sessa, and Daniel Watkins as they discuss Pope Francis—the “people’s pope”—and how his actions fit into the Church's traditions and its commitment to social justice. Listen and explore hundreds of years of history of a group with over a billion adherents!

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Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "The People's Pope and the Changing Face of Catholicism" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
December, 2014
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/peoples-pope-and-changing-face-catholicism?language_content_entity=en.
December, 2014

Transcript

Leticia Wiggins 

Welcome to History Talk the history podcast for everyone by Origins from Ohio State's history department. I'm Leticia Wiggins.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

and I'm Patrick Potyondy. Thanks for joining. Us nothing about the papacy of Pope Francis has been ordinary for the first time since 1415, the sitting Pope Pope Benedict the 16th, stepped down from this post and a second living Pope was chosen.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And then the excitement just kept coming and other firsts and reflecting the global reach and importance of Catholicism. The new pope is the first Jesuit to fill the job and the first pope from the southern hemisphere and the first from Latin America and the first from outside Europe for more than 1000 years. Pope Francis, the People's Pope, as he came to be called, has acted in ways that if not quite wild and crazy, have certainly stirred the pot.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Here's just some of the things he's been up to since ascending to the papacy in March of 2013.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

He's washed and kissed the feet of youth prisoners on the Holy Thursday before Easter.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

He's made public declaration saying that homosexuals, including gay couples, shouldn't be marginalized from the church, quote Pope Francis if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?

 

Leticia Wiggins 

On the climate change front, he's urged the preservation of the Amazon rainforest for both ecological reasons and because of the rights of indigenous peoples.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Perhaps in a nod to the youthful rebellious side and all of us he's even been spotted sneaking out of the Vatican in the evening, but all be at admirably, to feed the homeless.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And not only did Pope Francis once own a Harley Davidson motorcycle, he then auctioned it off for charity.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

With some 1.2 billion members, Catholics are the largest Christian group in the world. They account for nearly 17% of the world's total religious members, and Muslims, for contrast account for almost 23%.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

But what will the papacy of this unusual Pope mean for the Catholic Church? What is Francis been doing? How is he changing the Catholic Church and how should we understand the papacy of Francis in a larger history of the Catholic Church and Christianity? Stay tuned as we discuss these topics with three expert guests up next.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

I'm Tina Sessa. I'm an associate professor of history. I specialize in late antiquity, which is a period from about 200 to 800. And I work particularly on religious history and the history of the church. And I recently published a book on the history of the papacy in roughly that period.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

I'm David Brakke. I am the Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and the Department of History here at OSU. And, like Tina, I specialize in the ancient church. But here at OSU, I teach courses that cover the entire history of Christianity from its origins.

 

Dr. Daniel Watkins 

And I'm Daniel Watkins. I'm an assistant professor at the University of North Florida and former graduate of the PhD program at Ohio State. And I specialize in the history of 18th and 19th century Europe, in particular the history of the Catholic Church and even more particularly on the history of Jesuits and the society of Jesus.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

All right, well, thanks to all three of you for joining us today on History Talk. And so a lot of our listeners are very probably aware of certain workings of the Catholic Church and maybe not others. And one of our guests today David Brakke even wrote an Origins article before about how global Christianity got quote Two Popes and a Primate. So let's maybe just quickly recap how we ended up at this scenario. And so David, if you want to take us off on this first question.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

Right when I wrote about Two Pope's and a Primate, what I was addressing is that from 2011 into 2012, there was this kind of confluence where the Roman Catholic Church elected a new Pope, the Coptic Orthodox Church elected a new Pope, and the Anglican Communion got a new primate and I kind of discussed why there are these three different worldwide church organizations and they choose their leader where they do and of course, there are many more organizations than these three right, there's the  Greek Orthodox Church, but the main thing to say about the papacy, of course, is that it was shaped, I would say in terms of that story by, by first of all, a kind of separation of Christians in the fifth century, when Christians who were kind of Eastern Greek speaking and speaking other Eastern languages, and the Latin speaking church in the West started in some ways to officially go their separate ways and other ways to kind of slowly drift apart. And then of course, the Pope's number of flock that he oversees was also very much affected by events in the 16th century, when the Protestant Reformation meant that there were new groups that broke off including the Anglican Communion, which is now also a worldwide organization.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

 And that's and that's Luther and all of that.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

 So Luther, of course, started all of that, right. But, but it's important to recognize that the Roman Catholic Church, which the Pope is in charge of, is by far still the largest organization of Christians with over 1 billion adherents.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

So let's get now to Pope Francis. What is this Pope done that really stands out? And how does this fit into the larger history of the Catholic Church? And Dan we'll throw this one to you.

 

Dr. Daniel Watkins 

Right. Well, I think there are many things that that seem to be standing out with, with this Pope. And, you know, he's, in some ways a sort of media darling. Lots of news outlets like to write about him and the things he's doing. But I think the thing that strikes me and maybe this is telling because of my background, is that he is the first Jesuit to be a Pope. And I think that that background, his background as a Jesuit, and in the Society of Jesus is quite telling about the sorts of things that he's done and the sorts of things that he's he sort of looked at as, as his central projects for his papacy. And in particular, I think the important thing to remember is that the Jesuits were a missionary organization, right. They were, from their inception, a body of the church that was aimed at sort of works of mercy and works of charity, but also works of evangelization and reaching out to communities all over the world. Right and, and sort of spreading the Catholic faith. And it seems like Francis is is very sort of in touch with that, he's very in touch with the idea of the church sort of going out. In fact, he, he wrote a recent encyclical called the "Evangelii Gaudium" where he sort of has this this phrase of, he wants to call for a church which goes forth, right. A very sort of active church that that is, you know, with people where they are right meets people where they are, and shows a I think he says an endless desire to show mercy. Right. So he's a Pope that is sort of action centered, rather than I think his predecessor Benedict who was very sort of theologically centered, he was a it was a an intellectual in a lot of ways and apprenticing to be a slight contrast in that respect.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

Yeah, I would also point out that he chose the name Francis. Which, of course, is a not as a very grand gesture to the figure of Francis of Assisi, who was a reformer. And I think one of the models that Pope Francis is very deliberately embracing is that of as a reformer, particularly with respect to social justice issues, which have for a very long time been for many Catholics, what keeps them in the church, despite all the other things that have happened, it's this core commitment to questions about poverty, and, and kind of not a refusal to kill, to, you know, against the death penalty, against abortion. And I think by positioning himself with respect to Francis, he's very deliberately trying to invoke that tradition, which is long. I mean, there are many, many reformer Popes.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

To echo what both of you all are saying. I mean, people kind of say about Francis, well, he's changing the tenets of the church. And no, I mean, these emphasis, this emphasis on mission and on the poor and so on has been there all along. And certainly, when certain right-wing people in the United States have said, oh, Francis is a Marxist or communist. I mean, he's just saying Catholic social teaching that has been around for-

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

Centuries.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

Exactly.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

Centuries and centuries.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

Right. So he's so in that way. He's, what I think is happened, that's quite different is that he's talking about these things, rather than, say sex.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

I mean, exactly. Exactly. And I think he's, I think that's deliberate, too. I mean, I think there's a way in which he's trying to shift the conversation and the focus of the conversation toward aspects of the Catholic Church that many Catholics and many non-Catholics can kind of agree are positive productive goals as opposed to these other incidences that have happened in the last 50-60 years that are less positive.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Great. So this is actually an excellent transition to our next question. And so Pope Francis underscores tension, I think, between what the Vatican says, and does versus what actually happens in national and local churches. So what, to what extent is the church a centralized quote, unquote, operation? Where everyone takes marching orders from the CEO and to what extent is it not and Tina, if you want to take us off here.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

I mean, if I would just begin by saying, I think the idea of the church as a company with a chief executive officer is, is false. And I think that's a really kind of unhelpful way of understanding what the church is. It is certainly an organization. It is certainly an institution, but I don't think we should measure it with respect to how we would measure an American capitalist business. And by the way, many people do this. There are lots of books written by economists trying to make these arguments. And I think often they fall flat because they're missing a number of really key points. And one of which is kind of the premise of your question, which is there's always been a great deal of tension and decentralization to the way that the church has operated. And I think that's been both a problem, but also in some ways, it's created a whole series of possibilities for local clergy to develop their own authority in relationship to the lady. And I think that the Pope himself has always been aware that there are these local figures of authority, you have more connections to people on the ground as it were. And that's not always a problem. I mean, even if you're not in line, that's not always a problem. And I would say that the I would say that, you know, we shouldn't expect some sort of absolute coherence, there's really never been that. And sometimes that can turn out to be more of a problem than it is.

 

Dr. Daniel Watkins 

I will jump in and say that I think that there is, you know, where you might be able to find a little bit of the sort of centralizing stamp on the church, and in particular, in sort of the case of Francis is through some of his appointments. If you look at some of the people that he appoints to some of the major sort of offices of the church, you can start see a little bit of a flavor that he's trying to cultivate, at the very least is sort of leadership model that he's trying to sort of put forth. I think a really good example is the most recent appointment to the Archbishop of Chicago, a guy named Blaze Cupich, who was formerly or previously the Bishop of Spokane, and I think actually he was the director of the Pontifical College, Josephine, there in Columbus for a little bit. But anyways, he's very much sort of cut from the same cloth as Francis. He's a sort of moderate on many of the kind of theological, the, you know, pressing sort of theological issues of the day. But in a more sort of descriptive way, he kind of emphasizes the same sorts of behavior that Francis does. So for example, Francis is sort of famously taken up residence, not in the people, apartments, right, but in a sort of local place, you know, nearby, right, a more kind of humbler thing. And this has been a, a, I think a lot of people paid attention to well, the Cupich has done a similar sort of thing. The Archbishop of Chicago has this nice brick, I don't want to call it a mansion but you know, a nice brick building that the Archbishop has always resided in on the north side of Chicago and, and he tellingly just recently declared that he was going to live in the rectory of the Cathedral and instead of in this in this mansion and I you know, it might be just sort of window dressing, I don't know, but at the very least it indicates a sort of an appearance that Francis seems to want to cultivate. Right, among the leaders of the church. And so, that to me, that that's a little telling, right. I mean, that tells you a little bit at least of what Francis wants the church to be perceived as, you know, by Catholics and then essentially non-Catholics as well.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

Right. And I think to the extent that Francis's view of what the church should be, is going to stick, so to speak, he's gonna have to have a pontificate that lasts a certain period of time because, I mean, his major way of, of changing the local scene, so to speak, is to make these appointments of bishops and archbishops and right now what he has is a bunch of bishops and archbishop's that were appointed by John Paul the second and Benedict the sixteenth, many of whom don't necessarily share the same vision that he has, and so the question is whether he will be able over the long period of time to make those kinds of appointments. And that's where you're going to really see change closer to where the people are if he's able to make more appointments like he's done in Chicago over time.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

Right. And I guess I would just point out from an historical perspective, that that precise issue has always been a problem where you have very different people in charge at different levels who, who basically get their office through various, different times. And so in a way, you know, we don't, it one of the kind I think, reasons why John Paul the second was so incredibly effective in changing the church was because he was Pope for so long. And you know, unless we have another person who can be Pope for decades and decades, it just, that kind of changeover it's really not it makes it impossible to create a top down centralized church in many ways, unless you throw everybody I mean, you have to, you have to have your men at all levels. And how can you do that? If you're constantly cycling through Popes, and I should say the cycling through Popes is something again that's historical typically Popes were not in office for decades and decades and decades.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

That's right.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And so looking at and tying the past two questions together pretty well actually, we're looking at these actions of Pope Francis and wondering if they're unprecedented in a way. You kind of talked about this action centered versus theologically centered different, I guess trajectories of these Popes but to specify a bit more, is there a split maybe between those in the church who see a need to change and evolve in the modern world, and those who hold with core beliefs seen as permanent and unchanged?

 

Dr. David Brakke 

Well, yes, there is a split among people that way and the I mean, what's, I mean, obviously, Vatican too itself,  is something that I think remains. On the one hand, a kind of unfinished project. It started something that I think, has not completely, its vision of what the church should be perhaps has not been fully worked out. And on the other hand, there's been a lot of resistance to it at the same time. I mean, if you trace how the church officially in its structure and so on has responded to what we call modernity, from, say, the middle of the 19th century to the present, it's been a struggle of kind of going back and forth from Vatican one, which kind of asserted, you know, all this stuff is going around on around us, but we're going to say the Pope is the source of all truth. And you know, and then there were various events between that and the present. I mean, I think the important thing to see is that I think what Francis is kind of exposing is a change in what people think, are the core tenants and beliefs of the church. I mean, no one is talking about getting rid of the Trinity or, you know, belief in Jesus As the Son of God who died for people's sins or any of these kind of what I would call the core beliefs of the Catholic Church. I mean, what has rankled people are things like, well, maybe we'll let divorced and remarried Catholics take communion. So the question becomes, what is what are these core tenants and beliefs? And what does it mean to change on, I mean, on certain social issues, like slavery is a great example. The church has changed dramatically over the years.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Oh Fascinating.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

 So, you know, it's, yes, there's always a struggle between what is one's core identity? And what does it mean to maintain the faith despite change? And on the other hand, how does one speak to the world but that one is in and not the world that it existed, say 1200 years ago?

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

Right. And if I could just add to that, I mean, one of the big dilemmas I would assume, many Catholics are having right now is what makes them different from Protestants. Right. And, and, and one and one of the things that makes them different Protestants just to name one thing is the issue about female priests. The Catholic Church categorically rejects the possibility of women being ordained. Whereas this has been something that Protestant nominations have for a very long time accepted. But the question is if the Catholic Church starts ordaining women, is it still the Catholic Church? And I think some people would say yes, but I think a lot of people would say no.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so now, maybe, unfortunately, the podcast has to take a bit of a dark turn. And so we wanted to ask, what about all the sexual assault problems? Is this an issue that ultimately Pope Francis will be judged on? And Dan, we'd like to throw this question to you first.

 

Dr. Daniel Watkins 

Ah, you send me as a sheep to the slaughter here.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yeah, sorry about that. Someone had to be first. Yeah.

 

Dr. Daniel Watkins 

 Yeah. I don't know. I'm not sure how to respond to this. I mean, I think that obviously it's it's an issue that  remains very important to, to the church, to people's perception of the church and, and to the place of the church and a lot of just civil states as well, right, to the relationship with, you know, civil authorities and things and I think that Francis is getting some pressure for to make sort of larger statements about this. There are instances of him handling individual episodes, you know, and defrauding clergy and things who have had, you know, these accusations brought against them. I think he, you know, he's met with victims of sexual assault. And so he's tried to sort of do this and, you know, handled this this issue in various ways. If, you know, as to the question of, is this going to sort of define or judge his papacy or is this the issue that that people will judge his papacy? And I'm not sure I mean, I think this has been around for a little while now. Right? And I'm not sure if this is how we, or the media or I'm not sure who we're even talking about, but you know, it would judge the prior papacy of John Paul the Second and Benedict.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

Yeah, I mean, I would say that I think Francis is making a huge effort to not be judged by this. And I think one of the reasons why he's tilted toward this position of being this kind of reformer, social justice champion is to in some and you're right, it's very savvy with respect to the media is to actually shift the news cycle to turn it toward these other issues that Catholics can line up about and feel good about, and sort of turn us away from the issues that Catholics can't feel good about.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Judging his historians who swim in these topics every day, are Francis's action more Christ like then, that is the following more closely in the footsteps of how Christ is said to have lived his life?

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

I mean, I think two things have to be said, first of all, what does it mean to be Christ like? And I'm not being coy here. I do think that this is an issue a question that Christians have been debating amongst themselves for centuries and centuries and centuries. The other point to make is, well, how, say let's say Christ like is this kind of figure, this sort of ascetic figure whose entire worldview is oriented around helping those who are poor and disempowered? Who is anti, I mean, this is obviously one vision of Christ, other people might have a different one, who's anti-material gain. How do you then run a large organization? I mean, how do you put yourself in a position of being in power? How do you be humble and authoritative at the same time? I mean, this again, this is something that I think Christian clerics have been and monks have been struggling with for centuries, and so, I think, to what extent we will say, Francis is Christ like depends on I guess what you mean, by being Christ like, but I also think that it's in some ways it's an impossible role to fulfill for somebody who's in the job that he's in.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

 I mean, yeah, I agree. I mean, I think, I do not doubt at all that Francis as he thinks about what he should do and so on thinks things like what would Jesus do or better probably thinks, what would Jesus have me do in my situation, but it's not straightforward how to translate what, however, one thinks of the example of Christ into the kind of role that this is. I think, most Popes, I mean, I can't enter their minds, but based on various things that they say and do like choosing names, I think they often look to previous Popes actually as their primary example and historical examples of people who have gone before of what I mean certainly when Benedict chose his name, he was thinking back to St. Benedict and Benedict the 16th was like my goal right now is to bring Europe back to Christ. And so Benedict was a, you know, the saint who had originally done all this evangelization among the quote unquote pagans of Europe was that was his choice. And so I think they look to their predecessors that they consider to have been saintly to have been holy and to have been effective in doing the job as their primary role models. And I think those are the kinds of steps I think in practical terms, who do they model themselves after? I think it's the Popes that they admire and think.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

Right. I mean, Christ didn't run the church, right? I mean, there was no church. he's, he can be inspirational in terms of how he's remembered in sources like the Gospels, but ultimately, he's not running an organization and so there's going to be always a limit to how helpful he'll be as a as a model. I think David's right, intent you look toward the more obvious sort of institutional precedent as opposed to Christ.

 

Dr. Stephen Norris 

Yeah. And I would just add in I mean, I do think that it's interesting to read Francis's writings and some of the addresses he's made, because I do think that there is a there's a sort of language that he's trying to cultivate. That is one that I think it's a little more reminiscent of gospels than then sort of a Pauline epistle or something like that. Right. It's, it's, it's a little simpler. It's a little more direct language. And so I know that that's not answering the same question of are Francis's actions more Christ like, but I do, but I do think that there is a sort of similarity in language that if he's modeling himself, he's modeling himself off of the language of the Gospels more so I think, than the language of some of the others.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

And it's worth pointing out that Francis of Assisi was not a Pope. Yeah. So, on some level, there's, you know, he's looking to other types of church figures. In this case,  more of a monastic figure than he is specifically to up to a Pope, although I do think on some level it has to be the model that he embraces, and this question is who? I mean who would be his papal model? It's a good, it's a good question.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

 I know I was thinking about I mean, certainly the most recent Pope who he reminds me of would probably be John the 23rd.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

Yes.

 

Dr. Daniel Watkins 

Yes. Right.

 

Dr. David Brakke 

You know, and you know, when you look back and take the kind of long historical view of the Pope's that we kind of see as reformer Popes, what struck me is how brief most of their reigns were, you know, and I mean, most famous example has to be Adrian the 6th, right, who was elected 1522 which was, you know, just five years after Luther nailed his 95 theses, you know, and started this whole process and reformation. Then Adrian, who was Dutch came in and said, you know, the church needs to be reformed top to bottom, he was scathing, and is going to said, we have to do this. We have to do it now. And then he died the next year. And he, you know, the joke is, he's so shook up, the folks who are running the Vatican that they didn't elect another non Italian until John Paul, the second, right, that when you think of these people, John the 23rd, for example, and even think of the one month of John Paul, the first who was also a kind of media darling for that one month, he was the first Pope to not be crowned in a coronation ceremony, right. So it's, it will be interesting to see if he has an extended period. How that works out because we often see even John Paul the second, the first year or so he was a media darling. He was the skiing Pope. You know, he was a young man he skied and you know, he blah blah- and so so a lot of these kind of reforming Popes it seemed to me are these people who come in and they make a big kind of thing for kind of brief period of time and they don't have those kind of long tenures, which I think tend to expect of the person in that job for running this giant organization.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Well, and that's something our listeners can keep an eye out for in the future. So thank you to our three guests, Tina Sessa, David Brakke, and Dan Watkins for joining us today on History Talk. Thanks to you all.

 

Dr. Kristina Sessa 

Thank you

 

Dr. David Brakke 

Thank you

 

Dr. Daniel Watkins 

Thank you, a bunch.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle, our executive producer is David Staley, our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. You can find our podcasts and more at our website origins.osu.edu, on iTunes and on Soundcloud and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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