Ross Douthat argues that while the Pope’s recent statement on gays doesn’t signal a massive change in doctrine, it does signal a change in tone and strategy, in a significant way. Rod Dreher adds that this likely means that Francis will be emphasizing the more liberal spirit of modern Catholicism. Is this finally the Vatican II papacy that the world has been waiting for? And if so, is that good or bad?
For magisterial Protestants this question may not be terribly important. Whether conservative or liberal, the papacy is still an office opposed to Christ. We definitely do long for a day when there’s no pope in Rome. But we at TCI are also appreciative of certain aspects of Roman Catholicism, to be sure. We like much of the old Thomist tradition, often to the chagrin of some of our crankier coreligionists. We appreciate the solid moral teaching and sophisticated casuistry of many of the popes. We even reserve the right to draw upon the more curmudgeonly 19th century pontiffs when they helpfully highlight the destructive nature of positivism and theological relativism. At the same time, we find the ecclesiology and civic theology of Vatican II much better than the older form of papalism, and we do believe that Vatican II is gesturing towards the Pauline gospel insofar as it approximates Luther and classical Protestantism. We may sometimes complain that it is inconsistent with earlier papal teaching – which it is – and thus we may also complain that it muddies the nature of Roman ecclesiology, but, at the end of the day, we would rather there be a Vatican II pope than an anti-Vatican II pope, for the peace of the city and the universal common good. The influence of Luigi Giussani is at least strategically promising.
And Protestant views of the Pope can be framed only in terms of strategy rather than ideology. For the office to be fully reformed, it would have to give up all of its temporal claims, all of its claims to direct spiritual authority, and its claim to universal ecclesiastical supremacy. Short of that, we can only hope to see limited co-belligerency. Francis’s significance for that project still remains uncertain.