The Once and Future Papacy
So far as we know, Pope Francis is in reasonably good health and will remain head of the Church for some time to come. A bad case of the flu earlier this year – which some feared was COVID-19, quite dangerous for an elderly man with only 1½ lungs – seems just to have marginally slowed him down.
But three books have recently appeared that – if only to get us off our obsessions with viruses, race, riots, toppling statues, and politics – deserve some attention: Russell Shaw’s Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity; Edward Pentin’s The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates; and George Weigel’s The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission. The great virtue of each of them is not to offer simple solutions or predictions. They seek more to understand the current situation and the role that the Church is going to have to play in a world that has, even more than usual, gone mad.
In a concise but rich treatment, Shaw reviews virtually the whole of twentieth-century papal history from St. Pius X through St. John Paul II. The “crisis of modernity” in his title continues into post-modernity: “In the manner typical of this era of bloodshed and turmoil, modernity did not go quietly, but unquestionably it went. Now we live in a time of transition called ‘postmodern’ – a nondescript word that fills a gap pending the emergence of a term to capture the special character of this new age, whatever that may turn out to be.”
Eight popes – and one might add Leo XIII’s earlier Thomist revival and inauguration of modern Catholic social thought – tried various ways to deal with the crisis, indeed multiple crises, not only in the world but the Church as well.