But the significance of this positioning goes beyond Catholicism. In words and gestures, Francis seems to be determined to recreate, or regain, the kind of center that has failed to hold in every major Western faith.
So far, he has at least gained the world’s attention. The question is whether that attention will translate into real interest in the pope’s underlying religious message or whether the culture will simply claim him for its own — finally, a pope who doesn’t harsh our buzz! — without being inspired to actually consider Christianity anew.
In the uncertain reaction to Francis from many conservative Catholics, you can see the fear that the second possibility is more likely. Their anxiety is not that the new pope is about to radically change church teaching, since part of being a conservative Catholic is believing that such a change can’t happen. Rather, they fear that the center he’s trying to seize will crumble beneath him, because the chasm between the culture and orthodox faith is simply too immense.
And they worry as well that we have seen something like his strategy attempted before, when the church’s 1970s-era emphasis on social justice, liturgical improvisation and casual-cool style had disappointing results: not a rich engagement with modern culture but a surrender to that culture’s “Me Decade” manifestations — producing tacky liturgy, ugly churches, Jonathan Livingston Seagull theology and ultimately empty pews.