The problem can be put succinctly: why is Pope Francis more popular than the religion he represents?
As Mass attendance in Europe and the Americas continues to decline, Francis is nevertheless the idol of the secular media. He is, it needs to be noted, most popular among those who reject the Church’s perennial teaching. Francis plays to that increasing body of people who, whilst dubious about doctrine and contemptuous of tradition, declare themselves to be (in some ill-defined sense) ‘spiritual’.
This surge in quasi-religion is one of the puzzling phenomena of the modern world. But Francis has got the measure of it. From pick-and-mix sexuality to saving the planet, he pushes all the buttons. And in a strange reversal of Papal Infallibility, he gives the impression that he can singlehandedly change the course of the universal church by a few words in a press interview.
It would be hard to find anything in the rag-bag of modern ‘spiritual’ concerns which Francis has not embraced. He moves effortlessly from doctrinal indifferentism to global warming. And when (as is sometimes the case) he speaks the language of traditional Catholicism (Francis is notably keen on the Devil and all his works), he is misheard or unheard.
But the secret at the heart of his appeal to modish modernity, is that he is essentially lightweight. Attempts have been made by others to add gravitas to his effusions (in scholarly essays on ‘The Theology of Pope Francis’, for example); but his main attraction remains, beside the faux-Franciscan ‘simplicity’, that he is the incarnation of Catholicism Lite.