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In Slate, Paul Baumann on the fascination with Francis

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.

An excerpt:

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.

What do people see when they see Francis?

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?

Are we at ‘peak Pope’?

Maybe it’s not a crisis of continued supply -- just the opposite, in fact -- but the unregulated flow of Francis coverage in the mainstream media suggests some decline in production is inevitable. Doesn’t it?

Andrew Sullivan has been writing with the unrestrained giddiness he’s reserved mainly for Barack Obama -- and now there’s his inaugural “long-form” piece on the pontiff for the Deep Dish spin-off of his daily blog. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (“I am not a Catholic but there's something about this pope...”) is running a multi-part report with reader contributions. This is on top of reports about Francis celebrating his seventy-seventh birthday with four homeless people; the news about his stint as a bouncer at a Buenos Aeries nightclub; and of course his selection by Time as its person of the year, which really should have been the pinnacle but then here came The Advocate to second the honor. Which itself was followed this week by approving stories on changes to the influential Congregation for Bishops and mostly glowing coverage of the pope’s apparent comfort with public breastfeeding—a development meriting both an email blast from my parish priest and a dotCommonweal post from Mollie Wilson O’Reilly. (Then there are posts like the one you’re reading, which in covering the coverage add to the flow without necessarily getting any closer to its subject.)

James Carroll’s feature on Francis in the current New Yorker (its tagline “a radical pope’s first year” blurring the fact that it’s really only been about nine months) is both an example and a partial examination of the phenomenon. (It’s currently sitting atop the most popular list at the magazine’s website.)  Carroll covers some by-now familiar ground (the interviews and off-the-cuff remarks of last summer; Jorge Bergoglio’s actions during Argentina’s dirty war) and wanders down some thoroughly trod paths in an obligatory-feeling section on the sexual abuse scandal. But Carroll also gives proper due to the resonant field-hospital metaphor from the Spadaro interview, and he introduces a new (to me) detail from the Bergoglio biography about his “extraordinary” boss at a Buenos Aires laboratory, a “great woman” to whom Francis has said he owes “a huge amount” and who for helping victims of the junta was later dropped from a helicopter into the sea. “I loved her very much,” Francis is quoted as saying. And through an interview with former president of Ireland Mary McAleese—whom some have said Francis is considering for appointment to the College of Cardinals—Carroll gets, if briefly, into “the prospects for women under the new Pope” and curial reform.

If all of this makes the story seem a typically wide-ranging magazine feature intended for a general readership – well, it is. But then there’s the fact that it appears at all. Why, Carroll asks, has

the response to the Pope been so outsized? Catholic enthusiasm is understandable, but the globe’s? … The press is obsessed with him… . Francis is clearly a world figure, but a figure of what? Does Francis’s explicitly Christian message of a loving, merciful God survive, even in the secular age, as an inchoate symbol of the human being longing for transcendence?

The questions aren’t explicitly answered, of course, but a personal anecdote in the first part of Carroll’s long story, about a memorable audience with Pope John XXIII, is suggestive: “Lately,” Carroll writes, “the fact that I once sought transcendence in the presence of a Pope has stopped seeming naïve.”

You can read Carroll’s full article here; you can hear him talk about it on NPR’s Fresh Air here. And to bring this item full circle: Does the New Yorker cover depicting a (cartoon) Francis making a snow angel say anything more about the media response?  

Web Exclusive: The Pope & the People

Just posted to our website, William L. Portier on Francis and his "pastoral rhetoric of invitation."

Over the past two months, Pope Francis has begun to fashion from the interview/conversation form a new genre of papal pronouncement, minimally authoritative, but unprecedented in its reach. ... In the give and take of conversation, Pope Francis’s ad hoc interviews play off his interlocutors. From Skorka to Spadaro to Scalfari, he does not fear to give up full control and places himself in their hands. The in-flight interview had the highest degree of spontaneity, while Spadaro heavily edited the Jesuit interview. Amazingly, the conversation with Scalfari appears in the latter’s own redaction. Despite variations, the three papal interviews to date have much in common. The pope’s irrepressible and unaffected spiritual joy comes through each time. His interviews do not appear in Acta Apostolicae Sedis. Rather he injects them into the flow of the secular news cycle where they share its immediacy, interactivity and ephemeral nature. ...

This new genre of papal pronouncement dodges grasping handlers and bureaucrats who would brand the pope restrictively, frustrate his wishes, and control his access. Pope Francis is now an anticipated part of the news cycle. The papal news media interview takes him directly to the people, all the people.

Read the whole thing here.

Our editors, and others, on 'the interview'

Now on the website, Commonweal’s editors on what the pope’s interview reveals:

[M]uch attention has been paid to the pope’s surprising admonition that the church has been too “obsessed” with abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. As welcome as that observation is, however, the real importance of the interview is to be found in the pope’s clear-eyed evaluation of how the gospel should be preached in the modern world.

To be sure, many Catholics whole-heartedly embraced the change in tone and spirit in which the pope discussed difficult questions like abortion. Unfortunately, some deeply involved in the prolife movement have taken those remarks as a rebuke. That is an overreaction and misinterpretation of what the pope said. Obviously, Francis was objecting to the uncompromising and confrontational rhetoric of some Catholic activists. Why? Because that approach is simply not working. Worse, it is preventing the larger gospel message from being heard both within and beyond the Catholic community. With a third of all baptized Catholics abandoning the church, while those who remain are increasingly divided on ecclesial, cultural, and political questions, the pope’s diagnosis is hard to refute. Is it not time, as Francis urged, to “find a new balance” in presenting the church’s teaching to an often doubting flock and a sometimes hostile secular world?

Elsewhere, the analysis continues. R.R. Reno in First Things:

By my reading, Pope Francis was being a bit naïve and undisciplined in parts of this interview, which although reviewed by him before publication has an impromptu quality I imagine he wished to retain. This encourages a distorted reading of what he has in mind for the Church. This is a problem related, perhaps, to his Jesuit identity.

A key passage involves his image—a very helpful one—of the Church as “a field hospital after battle.” He observes that in such a circumstance we need to focus on healing as best we can. Some of the protocols and procedures fitting for a hospital operating in times of peace need to be set aside.

He then digresses into fairly extensive reflections on what the Church needs in the way of pastoral leadership in this situation: “pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.” We’re not to allow ourselves to fixate on “small things, in small-minded rules.” The Church needs to find “new roads,” “new paths,” and “to step outside itself,” something that requires “audacity and courage.”

These and other comments evoke assumptions that are very much favored by the Left, which is why the interview has been so warmly received, not only by the secular media, but also by Catholics who would like the Church to change her teachings on many issues.

At Room for Debate in the New York Times, Simone Campbell, Frances Kissling, Rod Dreher, Bill Donohue, and Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu offer their takes.

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Murmuratio About Priestly Celibacy

When the Society of Jesus gathers its representatives to elect a new boss, part of the process is several days of "murmuratio," essentially water-cooler chat about who might be a good candidate. No electioneering is allowed, but this informal dialogue among the members is an important aspect of the election.

There seems to be underway a murmuratio of another sort. Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Pope's Secretary of State has noted that celibacy is an open question: "Celibacy is not an institution but look, it is also true that you can discuss (it) because as you say this is not a dogma, a dogma of the church."

Absolutely true. And it immediately sparked sharp reaction from the right. Here's Jimmy Akin at The National Catholic Register, insisting that nothing significant was said and we should all just ignore it: "What significance does this actually have? Not much. There is, actually, nothing new here. The archbishop is correct in stating that clerical celibacy is not a dogma."

Parolin did go on in the same interview (this from John Allen at NCR,) both to shore up the tradition of priestly celibacy, but also to make this intriguing comment:

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Ignore Curial Reform—It’ll Go Away

I’m so surprised, and actually disappointed, that Desmond O’Grady’s “Can Francis Cure the Curia?”—posted to the Commonweal homepage on August 31—seems to have received little or no attention. It’s important, maybe the most important thing on the horizon for the future of the Catholic church, and thus in some sense important for all the churches. Does no one have an opinion, a concern, a perspective on what is happening in this arena?

Here’s an online petition to Cardinal O’Malley to bring up the problems with how translations are being imposed. It’s not all that well-written, but least that group sees that something could change here. I wonder if there are others who are writing, asking, seeking.

And here at Commonweal the comments box is silent. I don’t get it. Are readers here uninterested in the Curia’s reform? Don’t they see that this is directly related to how, say, bishops are chosen, policies formulated and reviewed, directions implemented? We are good at complaining about the results, but apparently we have little or no interest in how these dishes are cooked up in the kitchen.

Pope Francis can be charismatic to the hilt, but if the Curia doesn’t change we will still have the same complainers pulling strings behind the scenes and calling the shots. We’ll have the same failures of collegiality, and nothing will change in the way the Church is run: It will continue to function like a renaissance court, with palace intrigue and who has got the ear of whom—and totally without transparency.

On the homepage: Curial reform?

Now on the homepage, Desmond O'Grady on how, and whether, Pope Francis can go about reforming the Curia. Has a decisive step been taken with the appointment of Pietro Parolin as Vatican secretary of state? Read the whole story here

Featured on the homepage

Three stories now featured on our home page.

George Scialabba writes on Leszek Kolakowski and the essays collected in Is God Happy?

[Kolakowski was not] solely or even primarily a political critic; he was a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He wrote books on seventeenth-century philosophy, Bergson, Husserl, and positivism, among many others, including several on the philosophy of religion, such as The Presence of Myth, God Owes Us Nothing, Religion: If There Is No God…, and the middle section of Is God Happy?

The Enlightenment plays the same role in Kolakowski’s philosophical writings as Marxism does in his political writings. It’s where modernity went astray, where virtue took a wrong turn. Marxism distorted the quest for equality and social justice into utopian dogmatism; the Enlightenment distorted the promise of science and the rejection of superstition into relativistic rationalism. And just as Kolakowski’s positive political beliefs were hard to pin down (the closest he came was in an essay called “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”), so were his positive religious beliefs. For a long time he styled himself an “inconsistent atheist,” but near the end of his life he resolved the inconsistency by returning to the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the philosophical equivalent of “conservative-liberal-socialist” is “skeptical traditionalist.” At any rate, that’s a good description of Kolakowski’s religious/philosophical stance until his (re-) conversion. He was not (at least in his writing) a God-haunted man so much as a scourge of secularism; not so much avid to penetrate the mysteries as keen to debunk their debunkers. He does not have much comfort for afflicted believers, but he rejoices in afflicting comfortable unbelievers.

Nicholas Clifford looks at the "historical amnesia" of Catholic leaders on religious liberty:

The greater question implicitly raised by [Archbishop William] Lori, but never answered, has to do with the Catholic Church’s recent conversion to a view of religious freedom as a “fundamental right.” When and why did it happen? Here, Lori’s historical account carries us back no farther than Dignitatis humanae forty-eight years ago. Again he’s perfectly accurate when he says that “successive popes have reaffirmed the church’s commitment to this principle,” and though he rather surprisingly ignores John XXIII’s role in planting seeds, he cites John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I, in support of religious freedom. Yet isn’t this a bit like saying that ever since the Voting Rights Act—also of 1965—successive U.S. presidents have upheld the ideal of racial equality? Case closed, in short; and there’s no longer any need to delve into America’s murky past from 1789 to 1964, and to have to explain the difficult contradictions that crop up.

Or is there? And if, since 1965, “successive” popes have upheld religious freedom, what can we say about “predecessive” popes, those who earlier presided over the governance of the church and its teachings for almost two millennia? Should we simply ignore them?

Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes about Chris Christie, his debate phobia, and how his pragmatic persona plays against his aims to burnish his conservative record (for more on that last part, see this piece about the governor's veto of a sniper-rifle ban that he proposed himself) . 

Just posted: The saintly politics of Francis

Just posted on the website: E. J. Dionne Jr. comments on the announcement by Pope Francis that John Paul II and John XXIII will be canonized together:

Pope Francis is proving himself to be a genuinely holy man, a brilliant politician and a leader who knows that reform requires a keen understanding of how creating a better future demands sophisticated invocations of the past.

Nothing demonstrated all three traits better than Francis' announcement that he would make both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII saints. The obvious political analysis here is correct: On the whole, conservative Catholics will cheer swift sainthood for John Paul while progressive Catholics will welcome the news that an overly long process of elevating John to the same status had reached its culmination. One for one side, one for the other – it’s a good formula for harmony, something Catholicism needs right now....

[E]xcept among the ranks of scholars and older progressive Catholics, Vatican II is so often a dim memory. Moreover, there are conservative voices in the church that have sought to play down just how important the council was in opening Catholicism to the modern world. Pope John embraced modernity and the lessons it had to teach Catholics even as he was critical of modernity’s failings.

By lifting up John, Pope Francis is telling Catholics to embrace this legacy again -- beginning by paying attention to it. In so doing, he will reinforce comparisons already being made between himself and Pope John.

Read the whole thing here.

Featured on the homepage

We've been running some good web-exclusive content on the homepage. Just posted: "Catholics Are Different," a special package highlighting the writing of Andrew M. Greeley in Commonweal, where over the course of six decades his work appeared. And, if you haven't already, check out Nicholas P. Cafardi's piece on the apparent unwillingness of some bishops to follow their own sexual-abuse reforms. Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. examines a potentially unbreachable gap between libertarian theory and libertarian practice.

New issue, now live

Now featured on the home page, stories from our new issue

In “Beyond the Stalemate” (subscription), Peter Steinfels looks at where we are forty years after Roe:

That Americans and American Catholics remain divided over abortion is, in important ways, to our credit. But some divisions are more necessary, compelling, or expedient than others. Some are well considered and executed, others are not. Some are paralyzing and self-destructive, others point toward fruitful resolution. Forty years after Roe, it is incumbent on Catholics to reexamine their stance toward abortion and its legalization.

There is natural resistance to any such reexamination. This is a topic associated with too much pain—and often hidden pain—along with too much hypocrisy, illusion, and male betrayal. Many Catholics who are angry at church leaders or prolife activists for their harsh rhetoric, political absolutism, moral righteousness, or general attitudes toward women and sexuality simply refuse to think about the topic further. Prolife leaders, on the other hand, boost morale by seizing on any uptick in public opinion, any success in a state legislature, and every fresh summons from religious authorities as confirmation that their present course, no matter how inadequate or counterproductive, is unassailable. …

My own reexamination of the Catholic stance on abortion begins with two simple statements and then attempts to determine what conclusions and practical proposals might flow from them.

First statement: From the very earliest stages of its life, the unborn offspring of human beings constitutes an individual member of the human species deserving the same protections from harm and destruction owed to born humans.

Second statement: This conviction, taught by the Catholic Church and shared by many people, religious and non-religious, is nowhere near as obvious as many of us who hold it suppose.

David Rieff sees trouble in the calls for “humanitarian war” in Syria: 

If the conditions on the ground in Syria today, after two years of unbridled civil war, were more akin to those in Libya at the time French president Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded his NATO partners to act, or to those in Mali at the time of the recent French military intervention than they are to the conditions in Iraq or Afghanistan, then the ardor of the liberal hawks and the neoconservatives for intervention there would not seem so reckless. After all, the interventions in Libya and Mali both seemed to recapitulate the so-called humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, where the core of the debate was never whether a U.S. or NATO intervention would be successful—this, probably rightly, was taken for granted—but only whether there was really a will in Washington, Brussels, London, or Paris to intervene in a Bosnia, Rwanda, or Kosovo. But even most of those who think the United States must act in Syria concede that not only is an effective military intervention there likely to prove far more difficult than in Iraq, let alone in Mali or Kosovo; it is also by no means sure that any political result that is now imaginable will be much of an improvement over a continuation of the Assad dictatorship.

Also, Richard Alleva reviews The Great Gatsby, and E. J. Dionne Jr. remembers Fr. Andrew Greeley, the “loving pugilist.” 

More Greeley

I can't say I was a particular friend or foe of Andrew Greeley, but his death last week made me sit down and think about him. He was a man apart, yet he reminds me of the Chicago Catholic Church in which I grew up. Here is what I wrote:

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Fr. Andrew M. Greeley, R.I.P.

Andrew M. Greeley

Sad news today: Fr. Andrew Greeley, titan of the U.S. Catholic Church, has died, five years after he fell in a terrible accident that caused major brain trauma. He was eighty-five.

His family released the following statement:

Our lives have been tremendously enriched by having the presence of Fr. Andrew Greeley in our family. First and foremost as a loving uncle who was always there for us with unfailing support or with a gentle nudge, who shared with us both the little things and the big moments of family life.

But we were specially graced that this man was also an amazing priest who recently celebrated the 59th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. He served the Church all those years with a prophetic voice and with unfailing dedication, and the Church he and our parents taught us to love is a better place because of him.  Our hearts are heavy with grief, but we find hope in the promise of Heaven that our uncle spent his life proclaiming to us, his friends, his parishioners and his many fans.  He resides now with the Lord of the Dance, and that dance will go on.

The Chicago Trbune obituary recalls a quote he gave the paper in 1992 that nicely captures the man he was:

“I'm a priest, pure and simple,” Greeley told the Tribune in 1992. “The other things I do — sociological research, my newspaper columns, the novels I write — are just my way of being a priest. I decided I wanted to be one when I was a kid growing up on the West Side. I've never wavered or wanted to be anything but.”

Requiescat in pace.

I'll be updating this post with links to Greeley's Commonweal aritcles, after the jump, so check back often.

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