What’s with Pope Francis?  What has been his effect on the Church?  To understand the situation we need to look at secular culture, the state of the Church, and Francis himself.

Public culture today is atheistic.  It excludes God, natural law, and higher goods; bases morality on individual preferences; and views reason as a way of simply fitting means to ends.  In this culture the goal of morality and politics is a universal social order designed to provide people with whatever they want as much and as equally as possible, in a manner that is consistent with the efficiency and stability of the system.

The people who run things today accept that ideal, at least implicitly.  It justifies their power and actions, since they claim to have the expertise needed to run a system that benefits everyone, and efficiency and stability can justify almost anything they might want to do.  And this fits the way global markets and large bureaucracies function and relate to one another.  Also, any alternative approach would appear to involve imposing a specific religious or philosophical view on the whole world, which seems oppressive and unstable, or giving up hope for a public order based on universal principles, which seems to imply anarchy, arbitrariness, a series of makeshift arrangements, or simply the rule of force.

So the current approach, geared toward efficiency and stability, appears inevitable to our rulers.  Even so, it’s radically defective.  It treats man as a neutral component of an economic machine, ignoring both his contrariness and his nature as rational, social, and spiritual.  Its rejection of human nature will eventually destroy it, just as the rejection of human nature destroyed communism, but in the meantime our rulers are inflicting enormous damage.  Already they have engendered cynicism and distrust; hastened the disintegration of family, community, and society; and fostered the disappearance of truth, reason, and honor from public life.

So it is supremely important today for the Catholic Church to maintain Her identity, independence, and coherence, and put forward an alternative to secular ways and views.  Now more than ever She should emphasize natural law, eternal (not utilitarian) principles, and the human need for tradition, local attachments, and a conception of the transcendent that is fixed and concrete enough to be usable.  Both secular human well-being and the salvation of souls require that.

Nonetheless, many in the Church would rather go with the flow of secular universalism.  It makes their lives easier, since it requires no thought, and the world—including many articulate and well-placed churchmen—thinks opposition to this foundational viewpoint is not only illiberal but bigoted and therefore un-Christian.  And in any event Catholic resistance to secular trends has been radically weakened since the Second Vatican Council by a one-sided emphasis on cooperation with secular initiatives.

The last two popes tried to restore balance to some degree, but when Francis became pope that approach gave way to an acceleration of post-Vatican II disintegration.  That turn of events had a variety of causes.  One is the power of secular trends within the Church.  Another is the thorough mediocrity of an institution that has lost its sense of distinctiveness and mission.  Still another is that the Church is a geronto cracy in which today’s elders were formed during the period shortly after the council and are still attached to the causes they have pursued throughout their careers.

Even so, the abrupt and radical nature of this reversal of approach and the unprincipled and high-handed manner in which it is being carried out can be seen as products of the Pope’s character and conduct in office.

These have a variety of sources.  Pope Francis was formed as a priest in Latin America during the Vatican II period, when the Church was breaking Her connection to the old ruling classes and seeking more popular and “progressive” alignments.  He has been sympathetic to Peronism, a complex and idiosyncratic movement that stressed nationalism, charismatic leadership, justice for the people, and cooperation among social groupings including the Church.  He acted as spiritual advisor to one of their youth movements, and seems to retain an attachment to the myth of the inspired leader who speaks directly for the people and follows his inner voice rather than settled principle or structure.  And he is a Jesuit, and thus a member of a religious order that stresses intense formation designed to develop individual discernment rather than following external rules.  (The Society is also an order that has sometimes drawn complaints regarding a habit of concealment, a tyrannical understanding of authority, a weakness for pursuing influence and power, and a willingness to blur moral lines.)

Other sources are more strictly personal.  Pope Francis doesn’t like conceptual thought, and is comfortable more with unilateral decisions, ad hoc measures, and personal relationships than with institutions.  He likes power and popularity, so he says contrary things to different audiences, telling cloistered nuns that gay marriage is from the devil and asking secular journalists “who am I to judge?”  He frequently makes use of indirection, and projects a sense that everything is in process, so nothing can be pinned down.  He feels free to “make a mess,” because of his confidence that “time is greater than space,” and “unity prevails over conflict”—phrases that imply confidence that, in the end, confusions sort themselves out.

He is guided by his sense of the situation, a sense largely based on personal experience.  That very personal approach likely explains why he was such a hands-on bishop in Buenos Aires, where he was born and which he never wanted to leave, and why he concentrated his efforts on a few neighborhoods there and rarely visited others.  This approach also seems related to his attachment to popular piety and devotions, and—since he has little sense of the limits of personal impressions as a guide—his habit of speaking out on matters such as world affairs and environmental science, about which he knows very little.

Pope Francis seems to believe that how things are is simply how they seem to him, at least upon reflection.  His subjectivism sometimes goes to extremes, leading him and his supporters to identify his sense of fitness, when it demands something questionable, with the movements of the Holy Spirit.  So he finds it only natural to tell people what to do and think, denouncing churchmen as pharisaical “doctors of the law” when they follow established principles and his immediate predecessors on questions of sacramental discipline, and also to resist them when they try to restrict what he does and abuse rather than engage them when they stand in his way.

The result is a great deal of arbitrariness and sometimes vindictiveness.  As a young man, he worked in a chemical laboratory for a woman he admired, a communist later murdered by the Argentine military.  Since then he has had warm feelings toward communists.  He has all but destroyed the somewhat traditionalist Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate on flimsy grounds, possibly—nobody is sure—because they crossed him in Buenos Aires on a matter related to his dislike of the old Latin Mass.  On the other hand, he got along well there with the deeply traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X, so he does favors for them, and apparently intends to offer them a personal prelature in the Church.

I should add that he is energetic, enterprising, devoted to his work, said to be deeply pious in many ways, and known for his austere way of living and loyalty to those he has befriended.  Also, many people find him magnetic, perhaps because of the force and confidence of his personal vision and its coherence with common aspirations.

So the Catholic Church is now headed by a man concerned more with particular goals that appeal to him personally than with doctrines, institutions, or order.  To his followers he promises long hoped for changes in the Church, while to the public he presents the image of the joyous, compassionate, and nonjudgmental spiritual leader.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he gets his way through manipulation, bullying, and obfuscation.

Not surprisingly, the results have been bad.  Those who chose him hoped he would reform the Roman Curia.  He and his coworkers seem to have gotten rid of outright financial corruption, but his habits of solitary decisionmaking and ignoring structures make him a poor choice as a reformer.  He’s reshuffled some agencies, but has apparently been concerned less with principled changes than with promoting supporters, some of doubtful character, and getting rid of people who stand in his way.

His goals in the Church at large are unclear in detail, but evidently include looser discipline and less clarity on doctrine, especially with regard to family life.  That seems the practical import of his constant talk about mercy.  In his exhortation Amoris laetitia, for example, he seems to maintain the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage but includes an ambiguous footnote that a number of bishops, cardinals, and close collaborators openly interpret to permit ignoring the doctrine when administering the sacraments.  He speaks of the Church as a field hospital, apparently meaning a place of continuing emergency where decisions need to be made on the spot.  So he also emphasizes the devolution of responsibility from Rome to the bishops.

The result has been fragmentation, with cardinals and national churches taking opposite positions on important issues previously viewed as settled, and a further loss of the Church’s ability to offer the world and Her members a distinctive vision and way of life.  That loss has been exacerbated by closer alliances with secular causes such as environmentalism and political progressivism in general.

Blurring disciplinary and doctrinal lines and growing alliance with secular causes leaves the Church ever more at the mercy of prevailing winds.  So it is no surprise that the Pope whose gestures of humility and compassion are televised globally, and who speaks of “going out to the peripheries” and “a poor Church for the poor,” is a favorite among people who care very little about Catholicism but a great deal about running the world.  He’s no threat to them and seems eager to cooperate.

Things are not going well in the Church Universal, at least from an institutional standpoint.  Much else is going on, though, and messes do get sorted out eventually.  The Church’s constitution and message have repeatedly brought Her back from near destruction, and She has Christ’s promise that in the end She will prevail.  We need to admit, though, for the sake of clearheadedness, that to all appearances Pope Francis has been disastrously bad for the Church, and therefore the world.