We've posted two new stories to the website.
First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.
Read the whole thing here.
Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:
…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.
Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?
Read the whole editorial here.
E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:
“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”
This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”
Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.
Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:
How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?
More broadly and just as important:
What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology if a pope says this?
Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is among the most intelligent and fair-minded commentators on Catholic issues writing today. I often disagree with him, but even when I do I tend to share his reservations about how far the sort of church reform called for by some “progressive” Catholics can go before it damages something essential in Catholicism’s DNA. The problem, of course, is determining what is essential and what isn’t. The history of Catholicism can be quite surprising in that regard, as Frank Oakley’s article in our ninetieth anniversary issue demonstrated (“Authoritative & Ignored”).
Less compelling is Douthat’s tendency to wave the bloody shirt of schism when struggling to come to grips with a pope who is clearly not as punctilious when it comes to doctrine and discipline as were his immediate predecessors. Douthat has a long article in The Atlantic, “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” that rehearses many of the arguments he has made on his blog and occasionally in his columns about the dangers of “a kind of progressive ultramontanism.” Unfortunately, beyond a brief indictment of Garry Wills, when it comes to the errant views of Catholic progressives Douthat does not name names. Wills’s views are fairly unrepresentative, even idiosyncratic, as Douthat himself concedes. But what most progressives share with Wills, Douthat insists, is a belief “that Catholicism will always somehow remain Catholicism no matter how many once-essential-seeming things are altered or abandoned.” Worse, “progressives” think “a revolution from above can carry all before it.”
I have made the acquaintance of many so-called liberal Catholics, and a desire to strengthen Rome’s hand for any reason has never been high on their wish list. Indeed, for most liberal Catholics a revolution from above would not be a liberal solution at all. I have, however, heard many conservative Catholics say something about the need for “a revolution from above” when waxing on about how the steely witness of John Paul II and Benedict righted the church’s sinking ship. George Weigel, for one, won’t stop proclaiming the resounding success of that revolution.
Still, Douthat is right to ask hard questions about what in the church can change and what cannot.Read more
That’s one of the responses to the unexpected news today that the Vatican has ended its three-year oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Quoted in an AP story, Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey, “called the announcement a complete vindication of the sisters' group and American nuns in general. ‘Anything coming out of the Vatican this morning is nothing other than a fig leaf because they can't say “oops” in Latin.’”
David Gibson at RNS calls the end of the “controversial investigation of American nuns” a “face-saving compromise that allows Pope Francis to close the book on one of the more troubled episodes that he inherited from his predecessor, Benedict XVI.”
Josh McElwee at NCR characterized the announcement as a “curt and unexpected end” and quoted from LCWR president Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sharon Holland’s statement “that the oversight process brought the sisters and the Vatican to ‘deeper understandings of one another's experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the Church and the people it serves. … We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.’” And from Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Vatican doctrinal congregation: “[H]is congregation is ‘confident that LCWR has made clear its mission to support its member Institutes by fostering a vision of religious life that is centered on the Person of Jesus Christ and is rooted in the Tradition of the Church.’”
Fr. James Martin in a Facebook post: “The LCWR agreed to implement some changes, mainly regarding speakers and liturgies at its annual conventions. But overall, the operations of the LCWR remains intact …. In the end there is one thing to say to the Catholic women who have worked so hard in the Lord's vineyard: Thank you, sisters.”
It's a tough day for people who think sisters should be seen (in full habits) and not heard. #LCWR
— Mollie W. O'Reilly (@MollieOReilly) April 16, 2015
LCWR investigation by CDF is over! officers will meet Pope Francis- Alleluia!
— Mary Ann Hinsdale (@MaryAnnHinsdale) April 16, 2015
— Tom Fox (@NCRTomFox) April 16, 2015
In an interview with La Croix this week (English translation here), Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested a new area of work for the Holy Office: theological architecture. The cardinal was asked how he viewed his role under Pope Francis, especially given that Benedict XVI was a theologian. "The arrival of a theologian like Benedict XVI in the chair of St. Peter was no doubt an exception," Müller replied. "But John XXIII was not a professional theologian. Pope Francis is also more pastoral and our mission at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to provide the theological structure of a pontificate." If that's how the cardinal views his role, that might explain why he's given more interviews than any of his predecessors, according to Andrea Tornielli at La Stampa.Read more
Last week Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian prelate and President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, gave a lecture at St. Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth. He titled it “Integral ecology and the horizon of hope: concern for the poor and for creation in the ministry of Pope Francis."
But he might well have titled it, An outline of the Pope’s forthcoming encyclical.
Vatican expert and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh called the lecture “a curtain-raiser” from “the man whose council wrote the first draft.”
The lecture’s overall themes and key phrases resound with the language Pope Francis has used since day one of his pontificate. But more importantly, it signals both how scripture will be interpreted anew against the backdrop of ecological degradation and how Francis’s teaching on “integral ecology” builds on the magisterium of the previous two popes.
The phrase “integral ecology” seems primed to become the encyclical’s central idea. Turkson describes it as “the key to addressing the inter-related issues of human ecology, development and the natural environment.”Read more
In the new issue of the New York Review of Books, church historian and sometime Commonweal contributor Eamon Duffy has an excellent review-essay on three books about Pope Francis. I don’t think anything Duffy writes will come as news to most Commonweal readers, but he does cover a lot of territory with his usual nuanced approach to Catholic issues, in his customary elegant prose.
Duffy is perhaps best known for Saints and Sinners, a comprehensive but accessible history of the papacy. He made his academic reputation with The Stripping of the Altars, a study of pre-Reformation Catholicism in England, a book that changed our understanding of the often misunderstood upheavals of that period by documenting the popularity and vitality of traditional Catholic practice and belief. A favorite Duffy book of mine is Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition, a collection of essays that strikes the right balance between the inevitability of change in the church and the even greater need to rely on the resources of the tradition to guide those developments. “Faithfulness to that tradition is not a matter of uncritical obedience to authority; it is a shared labor of learning, in which we work together to draw new and surprising growth from the old soil,” he wrote. Tradition is “the trace of a complex shared life, rather than a clear-cut compendium of answers.”
In his NYRB piece, Duffy emphasizes the fact that Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after the Second Vatican Council. He does not pine for some allegedly lost, golden age when the church claimed to be a perfect society. Francis’s “commitment to conciliar values is instinctive, strong, and different in kind from that of either of his immediate predecessors,” Duffy writes.
I think that gets at what is perhaps the most obvious nature of the change in tone and focus coming from the Vatican, and that instinctive commitment to the council goes hand in hand with Francis’s determination to encourage debate among the bishops and his sure-to-be-contested push to return real decision-making authority to the local church. Duffy also notes how different Francis’s idea of priesthood is from “the exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates.” He cautions that, although those in the pews are cheering on these developments, many of those ordained during the past thirty-five years are likely to have a difficult time adjusting to Francis’s often blunt critique of clericalism. Divisions within the church are deep and not easily bridged.Read more
“I want to assure everyone,” Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano wrote in 2008, “that I have never hidden or protected anyone convicted of any crime.” The bishop was attempting to quell the outcry of Catholics in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, over his decision to invite an accused priest and his followers—the Society of St. John—to establish themselves in his diocese. “My track record in these cases is very clear,” Livieres continued. “Just as I have not hesitated to convict the guilty, neither will I punish an innocent victim of slander.” The victim, according to Livieres, was Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, an Argentine native who has been followed by allegations of sexual misconduct across three countries over three decades.
That troubling history, readily available to anyone with an internet connection, made it difficult for many Ciudad del Este Catholics to take their bishop at his word. So in 2009 they mounted a campaign against him, enlisting the support of other Paraguayan bishops and priests, who took the case to Pope Benedict XVI. But, unbeknownst to them, Livieres claimed to have the support of Benedict—in part because of their shared fondness for the Latin Mass. Livieres’s critics would not receive a satisfying response to their complaints until Benedict retired—and Pope Francis was elected.
Livieres was installed as bishop of Ciudad del Este in 2004. Before he even arrived, Livieres—a member of the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei—caused consternation among the bishops, priests, and laypeople of Paraguay. The bishops were surprised by John Paul II’s decision to appoint Livieres because his name was not on the terna—the list of three names recommended by the local bishops conference. Soon after Livieres took over in Ciudad del Este, more than one hundred fifty clerics wrote to Pope Benedict XVI to protest the bishop’s “renewal of church discipline” and “new pastoral guidelines,” as Livieres would later put it. But Benedict did not respond, according to an account Livieres wrote in 2014. Instead, Benedict told him to “form a new clergy,” according to the bishop. He took that advice, and established his own seminary. That failed to go over with other bishops, who wanted to know what was wrong with the main seminary in Asunción.
Livieres also clashed with his fellow bishops over the candidacy of former bishop Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez, who ran for president of Paraguay in 2008—and won. Lugo had ties to the liberation-theology movement, which Livieres long opposed. But Livieres also criticized Lugo for fathering children before he left the episcopate—and his brother bishops for remaining “silent” about it. During a radio interview, the archbishop of Asunción, Pastor Cuquejo Verga, publicly called for the Vatican to investigate Livieres. In a follow-up interview, Livieres rebuffed Cuquejo’s suggestion, and called him a homosexual.Read more
In November 2003, Joseph Martino attended his first meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after succeeding James Timlin as bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania. During the weeks following his October 1 installation Mass, Martino had been briefed on the scandal Timlin brought to the diocese in 1997 when he allowed the Society of St. John, a band of traditionalist clerics looking for a home, to set up shop in Scranton. As Martino walked down the aisle of the USCCB convention hall, flanked by nearly all the nation’s bishops, he turned to his auxiliary bishop, John Dougherty, and said, “I think we need to suppress that group.”
But Dougherty wasn’t convinced. Canonically suppressing the Society of St. John, he worried, might put Martino “in the position of attempting to undo an administrative act of his predecessor,” he wrote to a canon lawyer in early 2003. The “administrative act” Dougherty had in mind was Bishop Timlin’s decision to approve the Society of St. John as a “public association of the faithful,” which afforded the group certain rights under canon law—including the right to appeal to the Vatican.
Timlin’s “Decree of the Erection of the Society of St. John” was issued just a year after he met the group, then led by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity—a native of Argentina. In the spring of 1997, Urrutigoity and his followers were ousted from the Society of St. Pius X—a schismatic organization that rejects the reforms of Vatican II—after it was discovered that they planned to establish a more spiritually rigorous group within the SSPX. Urrutigoity convinced Bishop Timlin that SSJ priests and deacons wanted to return to the Catholic Church in order to promote the old Latin Mass. Timlin was known as a friend to those who preferred the pre-Vatican II liturgy. Urrutigoity claimed that his fondest hope was to establish a seminary, a liberal-arts college, and a Catholic village. None of that would come to pass, as the Society’s efforts became mired in allegations of financial and sexual misfeasance.
Without running background checks on SSJ members, Bishop Timlin secured their reconciliation with Rome and made them priests of the Diocese of Scranton. But a year later, in 1999, Timlin learned that Urrutigoity had been accused of fondling a seminarian before arriving in Scranton. Urrutigoity denied the allegation. Even though three diocesan investigators told the bishop they found the accusation “credible,” Timlin did not sanction Urrutigoity. Later, when Society members were accused of sharing their beds with, and providing alcohol to, high-school boys, Urrutigoity promised that nothing immoral had transpired. Timlin just told SSJ members to stop such practices. The bishop did not discipline any SSJs until 2002, when a federal lawsuit alleged that Fr. Eric Ensey, a member of the Society of St. John, had sexually assaulted the plaintiff—and that Urrutigoity had fondled the young man while he slept. Timlin suspended the priests. Both of them denied the accusations under oath, and the lawsuit settled in 2005 for nearly half a million dollars. (Ensey, Urrutigoity, and Timlin could not be reached for comment.)
The canonical cover Timlin helped to provide for the Society of St. John would make it difficult for his successor to discipline the group. Adding to that difficulty was a letter of support for the SSJ that Timlin wrote in 2007, which found its way to the Vatican. Timlin’s efforts on behalf of the SSJs may have helped pave the way for their reappearance after Martino finally suppressed them in 2004. Ten years after Martino issued that decree, Urrutigoity would be named second in command of the Diocese of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. Last September, amid public outcry over the promotion of Urrutigoity, Pope Francis removed Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, the man who reestablished the SSJ in South America, where several members still reside.Read more
John Doe had had enough. Enough see-sawing between career paths. Enough retail work. Enough physical labor. Enough aches from such work. Enough pain pills. Enough drinking. Enough wanting to die. Enough denial. He had had enough. So he went through detox, received therapy following his suicide attempts. And now that his head was clear, he was ready to talk.
The first person John told he had been sexually assaulted by priests was his girlfriend, according to his sworn testimony. The second person he told was a friend. Following his suicide attempts, John disclosed the allegations to his counselors. And in late 2001, a few months after he left recovery—before he talked to his parents—John told another person he’d been molested by clerics: Jeffrey Bond. He may have been shocked by John’s claims, but it’s unlikely that he was surprised.
In April 2000, Bond had been hired by Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity to establish the College of St. Justin Martyr. Three years earlier, Urrutigoity—originally from Argentina—approached Bishop James Timlin of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to see about setting up a community of clerics devoted to restoring liturgical traditionalism to the Catholic Church. In addition to the college, Urrutigoity told Timlin, now retired, that he hoped to build a seminary and an entire town for traditionalist Catholics. Urrutigoity and his associates, who would call themselves the Society of St. John, had come calling because they had just been ousted from the schismatic Society of St. Pius X—which rejects the reforms of Vatican II. Leaders of the SSPX were not happy about Urrutigoity’s plan to organize a new, more spiritually rigorous group within SSPX. Bishop Bernard Fellay, head of the SSPX, was also concerned about Urrutigoity’s “strange, abnormal” influence over seminarians and other priests, according to a letter he later sent Timlin.
Misconduct allegations would follow Urrutigoity from Argentina to the United States, and eventually to Paraguay, where as early as 2012 he would be promoted to vicar general by the bishop of Ciudad del Este, Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano. Pope Francis removed Livieres last September.
In Bishop Timlin, long fond of the Latin Mass, Urrutigoity found a sympathetic ear. He told the bishop that his group wanted to return to the Roman Catholic fold. Timlin forwarded their request to the Vatican. After it was promptly approved, the SSJs were allowed to reside at St. Gregory’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys run by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a traditionalist group that exclusively celebrates the Latin Mass but remains in full communion with Rome. Urrutigoity would later testify that the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter had invited his group to St. Gregory's. It would be a temporary arrangement, until the SSJs moved to property they would purchase in Shohola, Pennsylvania, in late 1999. But in the meantime, St. Gregory’s got new chaplains and religion teachers; the SSJs got a home base from which to plan their Catholic college, seminary, and village; and Bishop Timlin got another group of priests who were devoted to the Latin Mass. Timlin didn’t realize it at the time, but by allowing the SSJs to establish themselves in Scranton he had invited the greatest scandal his diocese had ever known.Read more
Late this afternoon the Holy See announced two unrelated bits of news: First, the laicized former nuncio to the Dominican Republic, Jozef Wesolowski, has been placed under house arrest in the Vatican City State as he stands indicted for sexually abusing minors. Wesolowski was recalled to Rome in June after the allegations surfaced. Following a canonical proceeding, he was swiftly returned to the lay state. But questions remained about whether he would face civil justice--both in the country where he allegedly abused children and in his native Poland. Following an August report in the New York Times, the Vatican announced that it was open to extraditing Wesolowski, but hasn't said for sure whether extradition was imminent. Today's statement did not do much to clarify matters. But it does suggest that confining Wesolowski was ordered by Pope Francis.
Second, the Vatican and the schismatic Society of St. Pius X are trying to get back together again. According to the Holy See, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, met today with SSPX head Bishop Bernard Fellay. Talks between the Vatican and the SSPX broke down in 2012, after Fellay refused to sign a doctrinal agreement drafted by the Holy See. Reconciling with the SSPX had long been a top priority of Benedict XVI. Today's Vatican statement doesn't say much--just that Mueller and Fellay met for two hours, that they discussed "various doctrinal problems," and that they agreed to proceed "gradually" and "over a reasonable period of time" with the goal of "full reconciliation." God keeps opening doors for the SSPX, but it doesn't seem like its leaders are all that interested in walking through any of them.
..Mexican Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel announced that after a 14 year church-ordered suspension of the rite, indigenous deacons would again be ordained in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas—where the local church serves a largely Maya population....As a result of the dismissal of sympathetic hierarchs and the dismantling of progressive wings of the institution conducted in a climate of suspicion, liberation theology came to be understood as a failed vision, while the Vatican continued to pronounce it a false one. Before a gathering of Brazilian bishops in December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared liberation theology “deceitful.” After almost three decades of systematic Vatican suppression, liberation theology appeared to be dying.When Francis welcomed [liberation theology founder] Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican last year, it appeared no more than a simple gesture of respect for the beloved and aging patriarch of liberation theology. But Pope Francis’ revitalization of the diaconal ministry in Chiapas indicates a deeper level of support.
Almost fifty years ago, the conciliar document Nostra aetate removed a cancer from the heart of Christianity. Its central section, on Jews and Judaism, overturned centuries of faulty interpretation regarding the main "teaching of contempt" for Jews that was part of Christian culture, doctrine, and liturgy.
Surgery is one thing; rehabilitation another. The first is relatively quick and anesthetized; what follows is more challenging, sometimes painful, and often a test of perseverance and endurance.
So as the Pope prepares for the Holy Land, how healthy is the Jewish-Christian relationship? And how is Israel preparing for the Pope?Read more
Last week Matthew Boudway and I spoke with Cardinal Walter Kasper here in New York. We covered a lot of ground over the course of an hour. Naturally, some territory was left unexplored, but here's a sample of our conversation, which we just posted to the homepage.
Commonweal: In your book Mercy, you argue that mercy is basic to God’s nature. How is mercy key to understanding God?
Cardinal Walter Kasper: The doctrine on God was arrived at by ontological understanding—God is absolute being and so on, which is not wrong. But the biblical understanding is much deeper and more personal. God’s relation to Moses in the Burning Bush is not “I am,” but “I am with you. I am for you. I am going with you.” In this context, mercy is already very fundamental in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is not an angry God but a merciful God, if you read the Psalms. This ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy.
CWL: You also note that mercy and justice cannot be finally established here on earth, and that whoever has tried to create heaven on earth has instead created hell on earth. You say that this is true of ecclesiastical perfectionists too—those who conceive of the church as a club for the pure. How dominant is that view among church leadership today?
Kasper: There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility. John Paul II offered his mea culpas—for the teaching office of the church, and also for other behaviors. I have the impression that this is very important for Pope Francis. He does not like the people in the church who are only condemning others.
When it comes to the CDF’s criticisms of some theologians, there was not always due process. That’s evident, and here we must change our measures. This is also a problem when it comes to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people, which is now under consideration in preparation for the Synod of Bishops this autumn. On the other hand, we have positive signs of mercy within the church. We have the saints, Mother Teresa—there are many Mother Teresas. This is also a reality of the church.
So it has come to this. We are now debating the doctrinal authority of papal tweets and phone calls.
As David Gibson reports, the latest controversy in papal communication was a three-word tweet in Latin--Iniquitas radix malorum--that has been translated into English as “inequality is the root of social evil.” This followed only days after the dustup over the pope’s phone call to a divorced and remarried woman where he allegedly encouraged her to receive communion.
Younger Catholics may find this hard to believe, but there once was a time when the vast majority of Catholics did not hang on every word spoken or written by a pope. Admittedly, this was a relatively short period covering only the first 1,800 years or so of the Church’s existence, so it is understandable how some may have missed it.
During the first millennia and a half of Christian history, popes did not commit themselves to paper (at least not paper that was mean to be widely disseminated) very often. It sometimes surprises people to learn, for example, that the bishops of Rome played only a marginal role in the great 4th century councils that gave us the Nicene Creed. In the Middle Ages, doctrinal disputes were more likely to be settled by the faculty of the University of Paris than by Rome.
This is not to say that the papal office was unimportant. Far from it. Popes such as Leo I, Gregory VII, and Innocent III had an enormous impact on both the Church’s inner life and the society and politics of their age. But the popes shared the stage, as it were, with equally towering figures such as the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Benedict of Nursia, and, of course, Francis of Assisi.Read more
If you read only one piece on the one-year anniversary of Francis’s papacy, make it “The Public Pope,” by Commonweal editor Paul Baumann, which is featured today at Slate.
Whatever people think Pope Francis is offering, he is no magician; he can’t alter the course of secular history or bridge the church’s deepening ideological divisions simply by asserting what in truth are the papacy’s rather anemic powers. In this light, the inordinate attention paid to the papacy, while perhaps good for business, is not good for the church. Why not? Because it encourages the illusion that what ails the church can be cured by one man, especially by a new man. In truth no pope possesses that kind of power, thank God. The very first pope, let us recall, was a man of legendary weakness, denying his Lord three times before the cock crowed. And the most recent pope, Benedict XVI—a man of towering intellect and inspiring, if fusty, piety—retired from the ring, overmastered by palace intrigue within the Vatican. John Paul II, to be sure, was a media superstar and arguably played a historic role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet even he could not effectively confront the most critical challenge facing his church, the clergy sexual-abuse scandals.
The truth is that the more the world flatters the Catholic Church by fixating on the papacy—and the more the internal Catholic conversation is monopolized by speculation about the intentions of one man—the less likely it is that the church will succeed in moving beyond the confusions and conflicts that have preoccupied it since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium; it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope. Lacking such equilibrium and self-possession, the church cannot find its true voice. But to find this voice, Catholics will have to turn not to Rome but toward one another, which is where both the problems and the solutions lie.
Read it all here, then come back here to discuss.
The question posed in that headline is a paraphrase of one used by James Carroll in a new interview in which he discusses how Pope Francis is effecting a potentially “radical” change in how the Church is viewed by the world. “What do people see when they see you?,” according to Carroll, is the question Francis has, at least figuratively, put to his fellow clerics in seeking to emphasize simplicity and draw attention to the plight of the poor – and in the process do some much-needed image improvement at the institutional level.
Is it working? And are the pictures, images, and accounts of this papacy perhaps more carefully crafted and less spontaneous than they seem?
The answer to the first question, at least according to Carroll, is yes—mainly. There are tangible innovations like the survey on family life being conducted in advance of the synod this coming fall, which in asking for information on issues like contraception and divorce and remarriage “signals a shift already underway” in the way power may be exercised. There are the less tangible qualities attaching to the man himself—whose capturing of the world’s attention, Carroll says, can be explained by the fact that he “represents an ancient human need, an ancient human longing for symbols and signs of the mysterious experience we all have of life on this planet.” The only thing marring this picture is Francis’s response to the sexual abuse scandal, which Carroll describes as a disappointment and quantifies as “all too little.”
The answer to the second question is also yes, says Mary E. Hunt in a piece at Religion Dispatches titled “The Trouble With Francis: Three Things That Worry Me.” Things one and two are what she sees as the immutable hierarchical structure of the church and the status of women and gay people. Thing three is what, in an otherwise unsurprising critique, caught my attention: “the remarkable, even enviable public relations success, not to say coup, that the papacy of Pope Francis represents.”
I am not suggesting that there is no substance to Francis’ agenda, that change does not underlie it. Conservatives would not be so hot under their collective collars if that were not the case. But I am cognizant of the very powerful public relations machine that has turned an ecclesial ocean liner on a dime, transformed an all but written-off patriarchy into one of the most inviting, benevolent monarchies the world has seen in modern times….
Surely some of the “credit” for this PR blitz goes to former Fox News and Time writer, Opus Dei member and Midwestern Catholic, Greg Burke. He became senior communications advisor to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in June 2012, well before the new pope took over. Mr. Burke is commonly associated with moving the papacy toward a more hip, social-media savvy approach to getting out its word. It works. Papal tweets are new. But more important than 140 characters at a time are the remarkable visuals, photo ops that don’t quit, moving gestures of a humble, caring man projected for the world to see and imitate. Only a craven critic would pass over these as trivial.
David Gibson wrote here about Burke and Pope Benedict’s then-new Twitter account just over a year ago, noting the early growing pains and concluding that “there’s no better communications strategy than having a good product to sell.” How much has changed since then? Many would say there’s a better product to sell. How much is a communications strategy helping in selling it? And how much faith should be placed in, or attention paid to, images like the one in this post? What are we seeing when we see this pope?
In a year that saw a papal resignation (and consequent conclave) and the public embrace of the new pope, it's not surprising that among our most-read articles and blog posts of 2013 are items on these stories, such as our exclusive interview with Francis. But readers also responded to stories on same-sex marriage, public-education reform, and the relationship among work, material necessities, and "the good life." Below are the top ten stories from Commonweal and blog posts from dotCommonweal this year. As this is simply a data-generated tally, are there other stories and posts from 2013 not represented here that are nonetheless worth a mention? Any particular favorites - or further thoughts?
“The Things We Share,” Joseph Bottum
“Less Please: Capitalism & the Good Life,” Gary Gutting
“Beyond the Stalemate: Forty Years after Roe,” Peter Steinfels
“Reform of the Reform,” Jackson Lears
“Regime Change: Benedict & His Successor,” William L. Portier
“Historical Amnesia: When Catholic Leaders Misread the Past,” Nicholas Clifford
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“NYT’s ironic fact-check error,” Michael Peppard
“Archdiocese of Wobegon,” Grant Gallicho
“Washing feet,” Rita Ferrone
“Apostolic Nuncio to USCCB: Be pastoral, not ideological,” Grant Gallicho
“Interregnum report, March 6,” Dominic Preziosi
“The conclave bird: a distinctively Roman omen,” Michael Peppard
“When ‘allegedly prolife’ groups attack,” Grant Gallicho
“Pontifex legibus solutus?” Joseph A. Komonchak
It's hard to believe that question is still being debated, isn't it? For over 100 years, the definitive answer is No. Pope after pope after pope, right up to Benedict XVI, has explained this in the most magisterial ways.
But perhaps it has taken Pope Francis's singular history, style, and gift for communication to break through the noise of American-style capitalism. Or perhaps the underbelly of globalization has finally come to light, through a combination of the explosion of financial capital, the worldwide recession, and the opportunities afforded by the Information Age for learning about the distant effects of almost-unregulated markets.
Whatever the reason, Pope Francis is getting through. He is obviously not a Marxist or socialist. But he is leveling strong critiques of the current state of global capitalism -- as it is actually being employed. And to my mind, one of the best interpreters of his message (especially for those reading from the right-wing) has been Michael Gerson.Read more
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