"For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't, none will suffice." Something like this could work as a motto for the Franciscan papacy—not on behalf of the Bishop of Rome, of course, but of those struggling to keep up.

There is another saying, though, that I like much better. Goethe wrote in Maximen und Reflexionen, that Der Wolf im Schafspelz ist weniger gefährlich als das Schaf in irgendeinem Pelze, wo man es für mehr als ein Schöps nimmt. In English, "A wolf in sheep's clothing is less dangerous than a sheep in any skin, whereby it is taken to be something more than a lamb."

Pope Francis's latest interview with Eugenio Scalfari stirs a curious perspective on the approach that Francis takes in proclaiming the Gospel and, more controversially, the moral truths of the Christian faith. Sandro Magister, writing for L'espresso, indicates that it's no surprise "that the Enlightenment-style atheist Scalfari should have written that he 'perfectly shares' [the] words of Bergoglio on conscience." Magister continues:

There is nothing in this program of the pontificate that could turn out to be unacceptable to the dominant secular opinion. Even the judgment that John Paul II and Benedict XVI did “very little” in opening to the modern spirit is in line with this opinion. The secret of the popularity of Francis is in the generosity with which he concedes to the expectations of “modern culture” and in the shrewdness with which he dodges that which could become a sign of contradiction.

The take-away from Magister's article is that Pope Francis "decisively separates himself from his predecessors." In a word, Francis is the beacon of modernity in a dark night for the Church, which has so far utterly rejected the prevailing "culture" and its attendant "progress."

pope-francis-thinkingThere is reason to believe, however, that far from being an evangelist of modernity, Francis is precisely one of its greatest critics. And that by wooing its strongest proponents, Francis is knee deep in a campaign to root out errors, identified by previous popes, at their core.

A friend recently reminded me of two key ideas in the La Repubblica interview, which sum up this "anti-modern" view of Francis. In the opening moments of his conversation with Scalfari, the pontiff asked, Si può vivere schiacciati dal presente?—"Is it possible to live trampled down by the present?" Senza memoria del passato e senza desiderio di proiettarsi nel futuro—"Without memory of the past and without a desire to project into the future?" To these rhetorical devices Francis quickly responded "No!" There is no authentic human experience of merely the present—the "just now" (modo in Latin). Humanity, and by extension Christianity, transcends the moment. Christianity is, in this sense, fundamentally anti-modern.

Of course, Christianity is also the great sieve of half-truths. Modernity cannot be cast out in toto. Francis urges at various times that Christians have an obligation to remain open to the modern. Yet being receptive to the present and exalting it as normative are entirely different things. The latter produces a host of contemptible effects—e.g., indifferentism or emotivism on the moral level, naturalism or rationalism on the theoretical. While the pope has and will likely continue to speak of an openness to modernity, it is fairly obvious that he isn't speaking of something programatic; rather, simply the basic human requirement to live one's life conscious of the world around him.

If Magister is correct that Scalfari's Enlightenment-style atheism motivates an affirmation of Francis on conscience, then it is the same influence of Enlightenment that precludes a fair treatment of the pope's greater purpose—namely, to defend the Christian vocation from mere intellectualism. To prop up ideas apart from real objects is a hallmark of Locke's program in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. And it's well known that belief in God, for Kant, boils down to a practical judgement regarding the rational antinomy that an absolutely necessary being either does or doesn't exist. Neither of these positions, or their corollaries, make any space for a reflection on being "trampled down by the present" or projecting oneself into the future.

The application, here, of Goethe's dictum, then, is doubly interesting. It is easy to imagine that Scalfari and many like him consider Francis to be acting as a sheep in wolf's clothing—that is, as somehow covertly presenting the 'authentic' Gospel (i.e., one that accords with principles of secular humanism) in a way more or less matched to the minimal criteria for Christian orthodoxy. Scalfari signs off on his interview by saying, "If the Church becomes like [Francis] and becomes what he wants it to be, it will be an epochal change." There's an indication that Scalfari considers himself to be on the inside of this job, keenly aware of what's unfolding, of how it must and shall occur.

But what if Francis is simply a lamb? What if his actions and words are nothing more than faithful and obedient discipleship—nothing more than heeding the call of the Shepherd to preach the Gospel, to "set the world on fire," to convert sinners? What if the Vicar of Christ really believes that he must decrease so that Christ may increase? What if the most modern pope the world has ever seen is—in those very same statements and actions that embolden Enlightenment-style thinkers to begin signaling victory against the Church—what if that pope is actually a radical and mortal enemy of Modernity?

What could be more gefährlich, more 'dangerous' than that?

Andrew M. Haines is the editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.