Over at the New York Review of Books, progressive Catholic icon and public intellectual extraordinaire Garry Wills has written a a terrific blog post about the politics of canonization in the Catholic Church — i.e., the process by which the Church declares someone a saint. In it, Wills includes some fascinating history and analysis, such as this, about the much-misunderstood concept of “papal infallibility”:

Modern popes have been chary of invoking the suspect “charism,” or divine gift, of infallibility, a power Pius IX [who reined from 1846 to 1878] wrested from his captive Vatican Council. It is a power used only once in the technical sense, in Pius XII’s 1950 definition of a non-controversial doctrine (Mary’s assumption into heaven). But, in place of infallibility, recent popes have found many ways of describing their acts as almost-infallible, irreversible, universal. That is where the canonization process comes in so handily. It gives the pope a kind of back-door infallibility. He says definitively that a person is in heaven, and can work miracles, and worked particular ones (or, for John XXIII, a single one).

Wills’ main argument is that the Vatican’s recent canonization of Pope John Paul II is extremely ill-advised, largely because John Paul “presided over the church during its worldwide pedophile scandal.” Wills asks, rather brutally but, I think, completely fairly, “Who can think that a saint in heaven ever protected a predatory priest?” Indeed.

However, perhaps the most fascinating nugget buried in Wills’ post is this:

it is a bit sad to see Pope Francis, who has been doing wonderful things in his short time at the Vatican, play the old game of self-certification at the top of a saint-making factory.

Earlier this year, when Pope Benedict announced his retirement, Wills sounded completely pessimistic that a new pope would usher in any sort of positive change. But he appears to have changed his tune, at least to some extent. In the post, Wills doesn’t go into detail about the “wonderful” things he thinks Francis has been doing. I assume Wills will be writing about the new pope at length in the not-too-distant future. At any rate, I agree with him that thus far, in limited but nonetheless significant ways, Francis’s papacy has been a pleasant surprise for Catholic progressives.

For example, Pope Francis’s reign thus far contrasts very favorably indeed with those of his immediate predecessors, Benedict and John Paul. He’s shunned much of the luxurious lifestyle and pomp and ceremony that Benedict, for one, flaunted. Francis has daringly broken with tradition in other ways, as well. For example, on Holy Thursday, when he washed the feet of prisoners (an annual ritual), he included women prisoners in the ceremony. No previous pope ever did this and some argued Francis’s actions violated Church law.

Francis is also using less Latin in masses, which is freaking out traditionalists. He made comments about atheists that were widely seen as a welcome gesture of tolerance. And like his predecessors, Francis sounds very progressive indeed when it comes to economic issues. He has critiqued capitalism, attacked “the cult of money,” and called for reforming the financial system. He has called for the Church to help the poor, including poor immigrants. He has condemned “slave labor” in Bangladesh and human trafficking across the globe.

A friend who is a progressive Catholic and savvy about Vatican politics says he thinks Francis is a good man, and is intent on reforming the notoriously corrupt Curia (the Vatican bureaucracy). If he could do that, that would be a hugely positive — not to mention historic — step.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Francis is still 100% supportive of traditional Church doctrine about the role of women, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and married priests. Most troublingly, he has reaffirmed Pope Benedict’s crackdown on an American nuns’ group that is one of the most progressive institutional forces in the Catholic Church.

To the surprise of no one, the Catholic Church, alas, continues to be a mostly deeply reactionary institution. Francis has taken a number of positive steps but he hasn’t shown any John XXIII-type indications that he’s open to fundamentally changing things. What’s he has said and done so far amount to mostly symbolic gestures of the sort that can easily be reversed by the next pope. Still, thus far he’s a been a significant improvement over what we’ve seen lately. That’s not nothing, and I can’t help but wonder — and hope — if he might be laying the groundwork for more sweeping changes. I look forward to reading further thoughts from Garry Wills about this.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee