The Papacy is only as good as the person in it, at best. With the accession of the new pope and his first few dazzling gestures and appearances, the prevailing tone of Catholicism has quickened, with adherents daring to think new thoughts and regard the future more hopefully, sensing the power of a new point of view to create openings.
Whether the church on the ground can keep up with the change, Pope Francis has begun clearing paths for a global communion of followers. His response to their desire for inspiration has been direct and almost disconcertingly unmediated. There’s no question that Catholicism has entered a new era.
Francis’s stellar début marks the emergence of a charismatic leader. Weber famously defined charismatic authority as “resting on [a] devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and to the normative patterns or order he reveals or ordains.” In short, charisma exists where followers acknowledge it to. A rare in-dwelling quality, charisma is the genuine form of a sort of appeal that American politicians desperately try to acquire with the aid of polling, statistics, and consultants. In Catholic believers’ spontaneous and enthusiastic response to Francis, we see a faith in leadership largely absent from American democracy.
Charisma, however wondrous, is problematic. In Francis’s case, it remains first to be seen whether his acts and leadership justify the adulation he is receiving. For now, we see mainly the strength of the laity’s pent-up desire to repose trust in a virtuous leader. Second, as Francis’s time in the Papacy lengthens, we shall see whether his charismatic authority is powerful enough to wreak change in a vast yet morally compromised global bureaucracy. Or will his charisma be muted as he attempts to reinvigorate a hierarchy so routinized and entrenched?