Today’s Church Needs a Renaissance Pope

Right now, the Church needs proud leaders devoted to preserving civilization and inspiring excellence. What it doesn’t need are pusillanimous demagogues committed to seeking approval.

After much conferencing, accompanying, and dialoging, the much-anticipated Synod on Synodality eventually concluded. As one Catholic commentator put it, the synod and the commentary surrounding it was an “apostolic nothingburger.”

As if to reinforce this bureaucratic nothingness, Pope Francis penned a new motu proprio soon after the synod that calls for a “paradigm shift” in studying theology. What is this shift exactly? Evidently, theology should move away from stuffy abstractions and move toward the lived experiences of people today—or some such idea

It is anyone’s guess how any of this will address the problems confronting the Catholic Church today. In so many ways, the secular and religious worlds are on fire, and Pope Francis and his fellow bishops are fiddling with useless synods and writing exhortations and reports that no one wants to read. Well, no one except perhaps a certain concerned bishop from Tyler who was subsequently dismissed for blatantly political reasons.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)
In so many ways, the secular and religious worlds are on fire, and Pope Francis and his fellow bishops are fiddling with useless synods and writing exhortations and reports that no one wants to read.Tweet This

Sadly, this has all become so predictable. Today’s leaders, starting with Pope Francis, promise to revitalize their institution and reform society with progressive policies and “getting back to basics,” yet they end up being corrupt, out-of-touch mediocrities who vainly try to manage the decline they helped to create. Their only skill is generating so much tedium and confusion that they effectively protect themselves from any serious criticism—it’s surprisingly difficult to fight nothingburgers. 

Still, as tempting as it might be to yawn at the news of yet another synod, motu proprio, or “off-the-cuff remark” during Francis’ pontificate, Catholics should consider what these things are doing to the Christian community at large. Taken altogether, this utter vacuity has done more collective harm than any of the Vatican’s scandals or sympathies with leftist radicalism. 

Right now, the Church needs proud leaders devoted to preserving civilization and inspiring excellence. What it doesn’t need are pusillanimous demagogues committed to seeking approval, accommodating the marginalized, and insulating themselves from reality. As for grand displays of personal virtue and piety, these are secondary to the need for competence and confidence.

This is one of the main arguments that writer and editor H.W. Crocker makes in his phenomenal history, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church. While Christ and His saints form the foundation of Christianity, it is the bold yet flawed disciples who account for the Church’s growth and vitality. While the Church needed men like St. Athanasius and St. Jerome to hold strong against heresy and conserve and clarify Christian doctrine, it also needed emperors like Constantine and Justinian who were not afraid to get dirty to keep their people on the right path.

This assessment especially applies to the Renaissance popes, whom Crocker generally defends as cultivated men who ably confronted the many challenges of their day. Even though modern Christians malign these popes for their (often exaggerated) venality, impiety, and general turpitude, these men happened to be expert diplomats, generals, managers, and administrators who conducted military campaigns, negotiated alliances, held court, oversaw the creation of holy orders, dispatched missionaries to the New World, commissioned artwork, organized social programs, and supervised the rebuilding of Rome—all while trying to survive the tumult of Italian politics of that time. There’s a reason why the notorious political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli was the perfect candidate to serve as the advisor to two of the Renaissance popes, Leo X and Clement VII, and even based his masterpiece The Prince on Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI. 

With a few exceptions, the less effective Renaissance popes were the pious ones plucked from the monastery who naturally resisted the worldliness of the job. Due to their lack of foresight and uncompromising stances, Crocker explains how these morally upright popes frequently struggled with keeping the peace, inspiring their flocks, and maintaining general order. Despite his admirable asceticism and purity of heart, Pope Eugene IV had a bad habit of infuriating world leaders, losing wars, and organizing councils no one cared about (sound familiar?). By contrast, more worldly popes, like Callistus III or Alexander VI, could boast of restoring Rome, reconciling warring kingdoms, winning battles, patronizing the world’s greatest artists—along with siring several illegitimate yet accomplished children (as noted above).

All this matters because the Church today is in a very similar position as the Church five centuries ago. Much like the breakup of Christendom in Europe, today’s Christians are witnessing the breakup of the American-led liberal world order. New sects and religions, mainly of the secular neo-pagan variety, are threatening Western culture. Even the internet has acted like a kind of printing press, offering a platform to dissident voices as well as a powerful propaganda tool for authoritarian regimes. What Crocker says of the Renaissance can easily be applied to the 21st century: “the frenzy of chaos and culture, murder and majesty.”

Like before, this kind of world calls for a formidable pope who embodies the best of civilization and has the capacity to understand the current moment and respond to it accordingly. In recent decades, Catholics have been blessed with such popes in Francis’ predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Both men were intellectual geniuses who respectively took on the “Culture of Death” and “Dictatorship of Relativism.” At no point did they cave to these forces by dumbing down the Faith, pandering to secular activists, or endlessly apologizing for their existence. They fought the mediocrity of their opponents by simply being better than them and encouraging their fellow Christians to do the same. 

True, their personal holiness helped in their success, but their personal excellence was essential in holding the Catholic Church together and making it a force for good in the world. By contrast, the confusion, fragmentation, insecurity, and general silliness that now characterizes Christianity in the modern world will be Francis’ legacy and his alone. 

If the Synod on Synodality has done anything (admittedly, a big “if”), it’s shown that the Church and the world need more talented people at the top. Otherwise, Christianity will continue to fade and society will collapse into mediocrity and chaos. Even if Christians can take solace in Christ’s promise that His Church will survive it all until the end of days, this is no reason that they should give up fighting for what is true, beautiful, and good.

[Image: Pope Clement VII by Sebastiano del Piombo]

Author

  • Auguste Meyrat

    Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher and department chair in north Texas. He has a BA in Arts and Humanities from University of Texas at Dallas and an MA in Humanities from the University of Dallas.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...