Three years into his papacy, Pope Francis has clearly had a unique impact upon the Catholic Church, not to mention the world. But what his legacy will be, no one knows quite yet, for Francis — God willing, even as he approaches 80 — may still be leading the Church for some time.
What can be said, at this preliminary stage, is that Francis exhibits many strengths and weaknesses, and because of his papacy’s dual nature, the ultimate evaluation of it will depend upon which one of these tendencies prevails.
Among the Pope’s considerable strengths, according to his supporters, are his obvious and sincere devotion to Our Lord; his emphasis on sin, and the need to repent for it, through Confession; his emphasis on the mercy that awaits sinners who turn to Christ; his profound love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints; his frequent defense of traditional marriage and the family; his willingness to speak out about hell and the devil (at a time when fewer and fewer pastors do); his love for the poor and oppressed; his opposition to the pollution and destruction of God’s natural environment; his relentless fight against selfishness, greed and corruption, as well as our “throwaway culture,” which sanctions the radical evils of abortion and euthanasia.
Among his weaknesses, according to his critics, are an apparent lack of serious interest in the sacred liturgy (other than carrying out the bare essentials), especially the traditional Latin liturgy; a sometimes incomplete explanation of the Church’s strict moral teachings; an inclination to give impromptu interviews, which often turn into public relations headaches for the Holy See, which constantly needs to “clarify” what Francis says; an overly harsh assessment of capitalism (which has benefited the Church’s finances and work) combined with a naiveté about Marxism and the enormous damage it has done; an inability to understand why the Church is losing so many members to Evangelicals, especially in his home continent of Latin America; a reluctance to confront sexual sin as strongly as he confronts social injustice; his appointment of dubious prelates and theologians; his failure to discipline dissenters; and a failure to recognize that many hardened sinners are not interested in the Church’s bountiful offer of mercy, and simply want to continue in their grave sins, defying Christ’s Church — right up until the day they die.
Of course, Francis’s supporters and critics cannot be totally separated, for many faithful Catholics consider themselves both, depending on what Francis is saying and doing on any given day.
One aspect of his pontificate that raises concerns is its unpredictability: as I write, Francis is about to issue a momentous document on the Synod on the Family, but no one really knows what the often inscrutable Francis is actually going to say, though the faithful hope and pray he will re-affirm Catholic teaching without any ambiguity.
Francis often likes to say that God is “a God of surprises,” but he is also a God of sacred, immutable truths; and the expectation of endless “surprises” can lead to the perception of constant instability— or even a runaway ship without a master at the helm, as Cardinal Raymond Burke once famously said.
Going forward, it will be up to Francis how he wants his pontificate to proceed, and whether it will end in great success — or failure. Many believe Francis will build upon his strengths, learn from his mistakes, and become one of our most admirable Popes; others fear he is well-intentioned, but is out of his depth, and will leave the Church in another post-Conciliar mess.
All the faithful can do now is give him our sincerest advice, and trust that the Holy Spirit will strengthen and enable him to make the best decisions possible. The fate of countless souls surely hangs in the balance.