The future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis by Garry Wills investigates the phenomenon of Pope Francis—just how much of a reformer is he? The book searches for answers in church history, providing evidence that the church has not only survived but thrived over its long existence because of its ability to evolve with the times. Though it’s an enjoyable jaunt through Wills’ erudition, the book spends a great deal of time in the past, finding more questions than answers about the future of Francis and the church.
Wills explores fundamental shifts in the life of the Catholic church, including the rise and fall of monarchy as the predominant form of government, the coming and going of so-called natural law, and the various approaches to Confession as a fundamental requirement of the Catholic faith. In each example, Wills illustrates how the church has initially adopted or resisted the fundamental teachings on each issue and then has been able to advance over time.
Wills goes to great lengths to demonstrate how conservative influences within the church have always fought against current trends. The conservative Curia was hesitant to move past the Latin Mass and modify traditions in a way that would come to embrace the church’s diversity rather than continue to impose a strict sense of uniformity. Wills depicts a contradictory institution that struggles against, as well as accedes to, changing cultural beliefs.
An enduring conservative influence in the church is natural law, which Wills analyzes throughout the book—most effectively when dismantling the church bans on contraception and abortion and its support of male supremacy. Rather than leaving these matters to the individual conscience, the hierarchy has placed itself as the sole arbiter of what natural law means.
Francis has come to adopt a significantly more pastoral approach by turning his back to his predecessors’ political tendencies, showing a desire to work towards returning the church to the hands of the people. But a closer look reveals that the pope still has a blind spot for the women who make up a substantial portion of the body of the church. Wills concludes that the church of Francis continues to enforce the status quo and rely on natural law logic that women are not autonomous moral agents, but are instead predestined followers of the hierarchy’s policies.
While only 10 percent of US Catholic voters believe abortion should never be legal, Francis continues to toe the hard line inherited from his predecessors and the conservative benches of bishops they stacked. Wills acknowledges that Francis has been more inclusive of women within his inner circle than other popes. Certainly, Francis’ symbolic gestures, such as allowing priests to grant absolution for abortion over the space of one year, though narrow and arbitrary, give hope for a church that is more receptive to the experiences of women while sending a message to bishops across the country who have shut them out. One can only hope Pope Francis will continue to push past gestures and towards true inclusivity.
Pope Francis’ influence is almost an afterthought in a book that highlights his name in its title. Instead, Wills chooses to focus on the growing pains that the church has experienced as it has slowly given way to what—at the surface—may seem as small degrees of change, but are, in reality, significant transformations. This, the author indicates, is Francis’ legacy: to leave his fingerprints by making seemingly small yet meaningful changes to the church.
Wills’ point seems to be that the church cannot retain its remarkable ability to thrive from age to age without a constant tension in the leadership. The fact that Francis is pope right now is significant—not just because the laity need him, but also because the Curia must begin to bend to present-day concerns or the institutional Catholic church will divorce itself from reality.
It is Wills’ hope that Francis can provide the necessary friction to make the Curia more malleable to the concerns of lay Catholics. But he supposes that Francis’ ability to remain collegial with the Curia is as necessary as his appeal to factions of the church that have long felt misrepresented by a leadership they believe to be blind to the changes happening right there in the pews. To hope to truly unite the church, the pope must bring each side closer to one another.
The theory that Francis’ “reformation” papacy is a natural product of the church’s adaptive capacity is encouraging both to those who care about the legacy of the Catholic church, as well as those who seek change and have a thirst for the church to move in a more modern direction. The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis tells us that Francis’ tenure as pope can give comfort and hope to those on either side of the equation. And in that vein, this book has something for everyone.
The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis
(Viking, 2015, 288 pp)