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From The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis, by Garry Wills, out this month from Viking. Wills holds the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Chair at Emory and is the author of many books, including What Jesus Meant and Nixon Agonistes.

Pope Francis heartens some Catholics but frightens others, for the same reason: the prospect of change. The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in Western civilization. Surely the secret to its longevity is its ability to defy and outlast the many breaks and discontinuities of the past twenty centuries. From that vantage point, a changing Church is simply not the Catholic Church. Immutability must be built into its DNA.

It helps, if you wish to hold such a view, not to know much history. Since one begins from the certitude that the Church was always what it has become, you simply have to extrapolate backward from what we have now. We have priests, so we must have always had them — though they never show up in the Gospels. We have popes, so they must have been there, too — they were just hiding for several centuries. We have transubstantiation, so we did not have to wait for the thirteenth century to tell us what that is. The beauty of the Church is its marble permanence. Change would be its death warrant.

Early on, I was given a different view of the Church. G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man was published nine years before I was born, and it took me another sixteen years to catch up with it — but when I did I was intrigued by a chapter called “The Five Deaths of the Faith.” For Chesterton, the story of the Church’s long life was not a tale of certainty formed early and never altered. It was a story of hairbreadth escapes, as the Church kept dying of old age, or of inanition, or from external causes. Corruption should have killed it, or the Roman Empire, or the Renaissance, or Galileo, or Darwin, or Freud. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

This was not because the Church simply defied change. In fact, it often changed with the age — became Roman during the Roman Empire, shedding its Middle Eastern roots and adopting a Latin structure; became a supermonarchy in the age of monarchs; became superascetic in the age of Stoic contempt for the body; became misogynistic during the various patriarchies; became anti-Semitic when the world despised Jews. But when each age died of old age, the Church somehow didn’t.

Instead of reading history backward, from the Church’s current form to a fictive immutability in the past, Chesterton led me to read history forward, from the early evidences and from the different guises the Church had to adopt in order to survive. That is not only a more interesting story, but a more exciting one — of narrow escapes and improbable swerves.

Far from being the enemy of Catholicism, change is its means of respiration, its way of breathing in and breathing out. Even before Pope Francis, the Second Vatican Council, in the Sixties, had found evidence in the Church’s sources that “the Church” did not always mean what some of its defenders insisted it must mean. That meaning is implicit in usages like “the Church teaches” or “you must obey the Church.” For some, “the Church” is the Vatican, the papacy, the magisterium, the Church’s teaching authority. But that apparatus was not there at the beginning. Another usage of “Church” was older, broader, and better attested in the sources. Vatican II returned to that meaning when it proclaimed that the Church is “the people of God,” which includes all those who believe in, follow, and love Jesus.

This people first organized itself under the guidance of the spirit imparted at Pentecost. It chose its own leaders, it tested authority, it rejected attempts by outside authorities to dictate to it from above. It had various leaders, who played off against one another — James in Jerusalem, Peter in Antioch, Paul in Corinth. Its councils voted on doctrine through representatives (bishops) who were themselves elected by the people. In the nineteenth century, the magisterium was so far from this understanding of the Church that the theologian John Henry Newman was silenced for claiming that the laity had some role in forming doctrine, and that the Church could undergo some change (under the rubric of “development”).

Hanging on to set ways stifles creativity. Pope Francis describes the condition:

Whenever we Christians are enclosed in our groups, our movements, our parishes, in our little worlds, we remain closed, and the same thing happens to us that happens to anything closed: when a room is closed, it begins to get dank. If a person is closed up in that room, he or she becomes ill!

To say that change has often shaken the Church does not mean that change is always an easy process. And we should not expect it to come from any one man, even the pope. The papacy is not a prophetic office. People may be lodging too much hope in the name Cardinal Bergoglio took for himself. No other pope has taken that name, probably for good reasons. Francis of Assisi was notoriously not a good administrator — prophets never are. The religious order he founded rushed off in all directions, splintered, and quarreled, while — in broader and lasting ways — the whole church was aerated and exalted by his example.

Though Pope Francis has changed much about the style and presentation of the papacy, conservatives keep telling themselves that he has not changed dogma, while liberals say that his stylistic changes have left much they disapprove of in place. He has, for instance, canonized the authoritarian John Paul II, and he has retained Benedict XVI’s favored disciplinary instrument, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But Francis has something no other pope has dealt with — a predecessor not only living but living on the same premises with him.

The pope has said that to be truly Christian one must be a revolutionary, as Jesus was. “In this day and age, unless Christians are revolutionaries, they are not Christians.” But the man at the center cannot rebel against himself. The pope’s office requires him to care for continuity and minimize disruption. Though Francis can renounce the more ostentatious flourishes of the papacy, he cannot knock out the props from under the throne he sits on. Prophets levitate; popes rarely do. Francis cannot simply draw up the ladder by which he climbed.

Though Church reform is a matter Francis cannot avoid, he says that the Gospel energy for that reform must look outward, to the other tasks — to care for the suffering of the poor, of immigrants, of sexual victims of all kinds — whose neglect has drained the Church’s power to carry out its commission from Jesus. Reforms that appear hard become almost incidental when energy is generated and expended on these missions. As pope, he has placed constant emphasis on going out to the periphery, the margins, the frontiers, as well as on his desire for Catholics to join with other Christian churches. Though it may seem at first as if he is just taking on more tasks, more external missions to go along with the internal reforms, he says that getting the Church’s priorities straight will help with all these efforts. That is why he criticized the endless and repetitive harping on abortion and contraception.

It is a huge undertaking. If the pope is not a prophet, he does need to be something of an acrobat. He has multiple tasks that no one can perform alone, which is why he calls on others to support and pray for him. These are tasks the whole Church must take up — tasks for the people of God. He has made the Church as the people of God a leitmotif in his pronouncements. A pope who believes in that Church will not try to change it all by himself — which is the best way to change it.

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