The Francis Effect: John Gehring on a Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church

The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church is an outstanding new book by John Gehring, Catholic Program Director at Faith in Public Life. The book provides an excellent overview of the key moments, debates, and consequences of Francis’ papacy, rooted in Gehring’s strong analysis and unfolding in an interesting and persuasive narrative. I highly recommend the book for everyone from those who read Francis’ daily homilies or Millennial every day to your favorite Catholic CEOs who head to the pews twice a year (Christmas and Easter Only) to non-Catholics who are fascinated by Pope Francis and interested in learning more about his papacy. It is rich in detail, but tightly written, which allows it provide great clarity and accessibility without oversimplifying. It serves as a great introduction for those who have not followed his papacy closely and a valuable resource for those who have.

The following is an interview with John Gehring on the book and Pope Francis’ papacy:

What makes Pope Francis radical?

John Gehring (JG): A journalist asked Pope Francis once if he was a “revolutionary.” The word, of course, carries a lot of baggage and elicits strong reactions so it would have been easy for him to dance around it. The pope didn’t shy away from it but said the true revolutionary is one who goes to the “roots.” The word radical comes from radix, which means the root. Francis is a radical in the same spirit as Jesus was a radical. He wants the Church to be rooted in the countercultural message of the Gospel, which is good news for the poor. Francis thinks the Church grows unhealthy and irrelevant when it becomes more about institutional maintenance and clerical privilege. He wants the Church to regain the capacity to convey what he calls the “freshness and fragrance” of the Gospel. This is the radicalism of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church. He also wants to change the root causes of inequality and poverty, which includes a critique of the ways unjust structures shape an economy of exclusion and a globalization of indifference.

What would a Francis revolution look like for the American Church?

JG: The leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States is at a crossroads. Do bishops hunker down in a defensive crouch in the face of a shifting culture or learn from Pope Francis that what attracts and inspires people is a welcoming, healing church that is not afraid to be in the streets? Those are two very different visions. Pope Francis wants us to be countercultural, but he knows the culture wars are a dead end street for the Church. He wants bishops to be pastors close to the people, not aloof princes, and he is clearly prioritizing the need for the Church to speak out more boldly on poverty, inequality, and climate change. He isn’t tossing Church doctrine out. Francis is amplifying and prioritizing traditional principles of Catholic social teaching as they relate to the rights of the poor in ways we haven’t seen in recent years from many US bishops. The Church is a slow moving ocean liner that doesn’t turn quickly, but my hope is the pope’s consistent challenge to an “economy of exclusion and inequality” that “kills”—and the urgency to act on climate change that is already hurting the poor—inspires US bishops to prioritize those issues in the public square. I think many bishops are excited about that and others are sleepwalking through the Francis era as if nothing has changed.

How does the Francis revolution challenge the left and the Democratic Party?

JG: Pope Francis—and, more broadly, the Catholic social tradition—challenges the individualism that shapes mainstream liberalism and conservatism in different ways. I think the Pope challenges the left to think more critically about how rights also come with responsibilities, how individualism and personal identity can’t be severed from community and the common good. There are also strains of liberalism and voices within the Democratic Party who reduce religion to what happens in churches on Sunday morning and fail to see that the Church’s public role in healthcare, education, and other charitable works are central to the Church’s identity and ministry. The Pope has a more expansive understanding and appreciation for the role of religion in the public square than some liberals take. Catholic progressives like myself also have to grapple with the fact that the Pope’s critique of a throwaway culture also includes a defense of life in the womb. I see Francis revitalizing the Church’s consistent ethic of life, which says our concern for the dignity of life begins with the unborn but doesn’t end there. Francis talks about the death penalty, economic justice, the protection of migrants, and stewardship of the environment as fundamental issues of life and dignity.

Do you see the well-known free market fundamentalist Catholics—the Theocons, Acton Institute, etc.—becoming increasingly antagonistic toward Pope Francis or responding in some other way to the direct challenge of Francis’ message?

JG: Free-market fundamentalists who identify as Catholics are in a tough spot to say the least. Pope Francis is preaching traditional Catholic social teaching when it comes to the limits of markets and the structural sin of inequality, but he does it with a particular punch and a vision informed by his lived experiences in the villas miserias (slums) of Buenos Aires, where the bright promise of globalization never materialized for those on the peripheries. His theology of below and of the margins challenges those who benefit from the political and economic status quo. Instead of learning from those experiences that shaped Francis and being willing to have their own economic orthodoxies challenged, I find it incredible that some on the Catholic right dismiss Francis because he is an Argentine. Paul Ryan says he doesn’t understand real capitalism, for example, because he only experienced crony capitalism in Argentina. This is patronizing and absurd. It also conveniently ignores the way in which the greed, excess, and corruption of financial titans on Wall Street didn’t practice a version of capitalism that was as pure as the driven snow, but a predatory capitalism that made them very wealthy at the expense of other people.

Is it really just a small group of right-wing bishops that have hijacked the Church’s agenda to fight the culture war here in the US? Just from examples in your book, we could probably name a dozen hardcore culture warrior bishops. It seems harder to name as many bishops who explicitly reject that approach and actively promote a whole life or “consistent ethic of solidarity” approach to faithful citizenship. Can we really say that the silent majority of bishops lean in either of those directions?

JG: Most bishops are thoughtful, prayerful people with really tough jobs. A bishop has to be a pastor, a CEO, and a politician all at the same time. I’m glad it’s not my job. With that caveat, I think the problem is bishops who relish the culture wars and say provocative and offensive things – like comparing President Obama to Hitler and Stalin – drown out the voices of their saner brother bishops in ways that erode the credibility of the Church’s public voice. At the same time, you’re right that this is not simply a “few bad apples” problem. The institutional priorities of the US Bishops’ conference in recent years have backed the Church into a corner. Religious liberty and same-sex marriage are clearly important issues the Church has a right and obligation to address clearly. But when the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign becomes the primary marker of Catholic identity in the public square something is out of kilter. I agree with Pope Francis that the church needs a “new balance,” and this kind of recalibration is needed when it comes to the priorities of the American hierarchy. There are bishops who really get this. Bishop McElroy of San Diego, for example, is consistently eloquent and urgent in his appeals for US Church leaders to recognize the way the Francis papacy requires what he calls a “transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation.”

Why does John Ryan matter and why doesn’t the average Catholic hear more about him?

JG: Nearly a century ago, Msgr. John Ryan played a major role in helping US bishops’ articulate core principles of Catholic social teaching when it came to pressing moral and political issues. He shaped the Bishops’ Program for Social Reconstruction in 1919, which advocated for major social reforms: a minimum wage, public housing for workers, labor participation in management decisions, and insurance for the elderly, unemployed, and disabled. His writing and analysis, which drew from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (the first social encyclical in church history) and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, influenced Franklin D. Roosevelt and helped provide some of the moral architecture of the New Deal. I suppose the average Catholic doesn’t hear about him because it’s often said that Catholic social teaching is the Church’s “best kept secret.” And, in general, we’re pretty historically illiterate as a culture. But we need to remember Ryan’s voice today, particularly at a time when prominent Catholics like Paul Ryan want to dismantle the kind of social supports Msgr. Ryan worked so hard to achieve.

How do you think millennials will impact American Catholicism?

JG: Pope Francis has encouraged young people and millennials to be heard, to shake things up and bring new sources of energy into the Church. Millennials I interviewed for the book made the case that they are not as caught up in the old internal fights that characterized the post-Vatican II era. That’s ancient history to them. They seem more interested in Pope Francis’ call for a missionary church that goes to the margins, a church in the streets that isn’t obsessed with internal politics. Millennials are disillusioned with institutions, religious and governmental. Pope Francis also thinks the institution of the Church (the Vatican structures etc.) can be a real problem. I think they are responding to a pope who is a reformer and who is challenging the Church to be a “field hospital.” My hope is millennials won’t just applaud Pope Francis from afar, but take that energy into parishes and other church organizations on the ground floor of Catholicism. That’s where the Francis revolution needs to happen if it’s going to be lasting.

Who was one of the most interesting people you came across in your research or interviews, and what was so captivating about them?

I was really struck by James Rodriquez. I met him in Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities in America. James spent time in jail for repeated drunk driving violations. When he came out, he vowed to get his life back on track and showed up at St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church. The pastor welcomed him but then asked him not simply to show up on Sunday, but also to become active. He started volunteering in faith-based organizing helping formerly incarcerated men and women get reintegrated back into society. This means connecting them to good job opportunities, making sure they have health care coverage etc. He’s now a part of Camden Church’s Organized for People, an affiliate of PICO, which is a national faith-based organizing network. James’ story of personal redemption is powerful but what is most powerful is the potential of faith-based organizing. We need to be fighting hard to support and strengthen things like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the US bishops’ anti-poverty campaign, which funds grassroots organizing that gets at the heart of structural injustice Pope Francis talks about all the time. This kind of organizing, which has always faced attacks from right-wing groups, is really the embodiment of what Francis means when he says he wants a church that is “bruised, hurting and dirty” because it’s “in the streets.”