In The Two Popes, Fernando Meirelles’s Oscar-nominated buddy movie, the Brazilian director imagines Pope Francis and his retired predecessor, Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus, sitting side by side on the sofa watching Argentina play Germany in the 2014 World Cup final. It is a moment of gentle conviviality between Jorge Bergoglio, the down-to-earth activist Jesuit from Buenos Aires and Joseph Ratzinger, the unworldly conservative theologian from Bavaria. But outside the cinema, the two popes experiment has been less of a success. The continuing, and occasionally vocal, presence of Benedict in the Vatican has made him a standard-bearer for traditionalists who are determined to see off Francis’s very different vision of the future of Catholicism.
Popes tend to both define and be defined by their age. John Paul II turned the Vatican into a powerhouse in the struggle against communism in the cold war era; Benedict became the post-9/11 pope, defender of the faith in the face of a perceived threat to from Islam as well as growing secularisation in the west. Both men were charismatic, polemical and authoritarian, and deeply suspicious of liberal reforming agendas within the church. Benedict in particular battened down the hatches in a spirit of no surrender, as the storms of secularisation and relativism blew beyond the Vatican’s gates.
To the consternation of his many critics, Francis has thrown open the windows of the Vatican and let some air in. Massimo Faggioli’s fascinating short book, The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis, tries to explain why. A prominent theologian, Faggioli portrays Francis as a pope fit for the era of globalisation and its discontents. The guiding spirit of this pontificate, he argues, is the conviction that barriers and borders across territory – and in the mind – must be reimagined. For Francis, Faggioli writes: “The border is never just a limes (in Latin, rigid frontier), but also always limen (in Latin, threshold). The liminality of Francis’s pontificate lies in his re-interpretation of the borders ... No boundary can claim to exclude ‘the other’, since the boundary, by definition, implies ‘the other’. The border by limiting, also relates.”
The language is theoretical but in the age of Trump, Putin and Orbán, when the cult of the nationalist strongman has returned with vengeance to secular politics, it describes a vision that resonates far beyond the Catholic church. As the first non-European pontiff in modern times, Francis announced himself in Rome as having come from “the end of the Earth”. Since arriving at Catholicism’s European HQ, he has devolved power away from the Vatican to national bishops’ conferences and local parishes, and made it his mission to champion the rights of the peripheral and excluded in both secular and religious life.
Where Benedict sought a fortress church, Francis hopes to see walls and fortifications of all kinds – physical, doctrinal and spiritual – come tumbling down. In dealing with the migration crisis, or the status of gay people and divorced Catholics in the church, the emphasis has been on the rights and dignity of those deemed outside the boundaries of legitimacy or respectability. Compassion and mercy, key liminal virtues, have replaced judgment and orthodoxy in a new hierarchy of values.
As the migration crisis turned into a culture war in which Christianity was mobilised on behalf of white nationalism in countries such as Italy, Hungary and Poland, Francis washed the feet of a young Muslim prisoner on Maundy Thursday, visited the island of Lampedusa to highlight the predicament of migrants perishing in the Mediterranean, and transported 12 Syrian families to the Vatican, after visiting refugee camps in Greece. Faggioli quotes Francis in Lesbos in 2016, where he told local Catholics: “Europe is the homeland of human rights and whoever set foot on European soil ought to sense this.”
Pastoral care counts for more here than doctrinal purity. Faggioli quotes Francis from his letter to bishops, Evangelii Gaudium, in which he states: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” The swift decision to move out of the splendour of the Apostolic Palace – where Popes normally reside – into a modest Roman guest house for clergy, was an early signal of intent.
The backlash from traditionalists has been furious and concerted. Arch conservatives such as the American cardinal Raymond Burke have taken the grave step of accusing the pope of being in error on matters of church teaching relating to marriage, divorce and communion. After a synod last November on the future of the Amazon, Francis was accused of encouraging idolatry and pantheism by allowing indigenous fertility figures to be exhibited in the Vatican gardens. His passionate advocacy for migrants has led critics to suggest the papacy is turning the Catholic church into a kind of NGO. Vitriolic language and open disloyalty of this kind have not been shown towards a pontiff for centuries.
As a form of response, Faggioli picks out Francis’s words during a homily delivered to cardinals in 2015: “Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalised!”
In an era of polarisation, division and culture wars, Faggioli believes this passion for those who find themselves on the wrong side of a border makes Francis’s papacy a pivotal one for the age. As walls go up around the world, and the times become increasingly fearful and insular, it is hard to disagree. Academic in style, the Liminal Papacy is not an easy read, but it is an important one.
• The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis by Massimo Faggioli is published by Orbis Books (£20.93)