The Significance of the New Pope

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The selection of a new pope, Francis I, has focused the world on the struggles and splendor of one its greatest institutions. It is not necessary to be a Catholic to appreciate the history and importance of a church with roots in the ancient history and adherents across the planet. The health of the Catholic Church is inseparable from the health of global Christianity.

The serious problems of the Catholic Church over the last few decades have demonstrated something that is true about every organization. When leaders set out to defend their institution at any cost, they often end up undermining their institution in short order. This is the lesson of so many political scandals—downplaying or covering up a problem always makes the problem grow worse. The same is true of a religious institution, from a local congregation to an international church. If anything, with the reputation of the Gospel at stake, the standards must be higher and the transparency greater.

Catholic leaders eventually realized this and acted decisively. The Catholic Church still has many challenges in restoring its standing, its finances and its appeal, but there are respected figures engaged each day in that effort. And one of them is the new pope.

Francis I has a reputation for personal simplicity and holiness. And over a long career, he has combined a firm adherence to theological orthodoxy with a strong sense of social justice. This is a combination familiar in Catholic doctrine, and should be more familiar in other traditions.

The Pope Francis I Twitter account was activated Sunday.

The Pope Francis I Twitter account was activated Sunday.

Much of the commentary on the new pope, at least in the media, has been on the political implications of the choice: What are the new pope’s views on globalization or market capitalism or budgetary austerity? These can be important matters. The pope will have an influential public voice.

But this type of commentary misses the real role of Christianity in the world. Christian faith—with its unavoidable focus on justice and human dignity—has public implications. But its ultimate influence is not a matter of this political doctrine or that economic theory. Christianity gains influence as it demonstrates the power of faith and transforms lives. It offers good news for men and women in every time rather than a political agenda for a given time. That kind of ideological agenda, as circumstances change, grows outdated very quickly. But the gospel is always fresh, always current. This is the paradox of true faith: Influence in the world comes mainly through faithfulness, not politics.

The best summary of this paradox comes from C.S. Lewis: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven…. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).