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The Best We Can Hope For

The contrast in reactions to the Pope's recent comments on sexuality and abortion is interesting.  On the left -- especially the secular left -- there is this feeling that Francis is the second coming of John XXIII:  a pope that non-Catholics can feel good about.  On the right, however, there seems to be widespread quiescence.  I have not observed a kind of freak-out that some have expected from Catholic conservatives.  

How can we explain this aymmetry?  I think one thing we are seeing here are the fruits of the Pope's experience during the Argentine dirty war.  This is a man who managed, somehow, to come through an extremely polarized situation with the respect of many on both the right and the left, including several prominent liberation theologians.  This strikes me as only possible for someone who is a true master at quietly building consensus.   

It seems to me that the move he is making -- saying that the Church has become too preoccupied with abortion and gay marriage and contraception without saying that those teachings are in any need of revision -- is quite literally the only thing he could do without angering one or the other side of the debates on those issues.  

On the left, we are so worn down from the battles of the past 30 years, so tired of being told day in and day out that we cannot in good conscience support progressive politicians, so tired of seeing Catholic politicians denied communion for supporting abortion rights while Catholic politicians who support gutting food stamps get a pass, that the promise of a new conversation is like the lifting of an enormous burden.  And the Pope's statement that the Church has developed an unhealthy obssession with these issues sounds like an affirmation of many of the things we have been saying for years.  Sure, many of us would like to see a change in doctrine, but not being constantly cudgeled with existing doctrine is a great start, and probably the best we can hope for.

On the right, they are no doubt taking solace from the fact that, even as the Pope has criticized the hierarchy's uneven sense of priorities, he has reiterated his support for the substantive teachings underlying them.  And since Catholics on the right are more focused on authoritative doctrine to begin with, this failure to change teachings is more significant to them than it is to Catholics on the left.  

My assessment might be premature.  As I said last week in my post on Catholics and Evangelicals together, sometimes, the Catholic right seems far more interested in forging conservative political alliances than in doctrinal orthodoxy (at least on doctrine not related to sexuality).  So a right-wring freakout may still be in the cards, especially if the Pope continues on his present course.  We'll have to wait and see.  For now, however, the new tone he is striking is politically astute in its ability to win over the left without losing the right.

Saying that the Pope's move has been canny is not the same as saying it is insincere.  Notwithstanding my early (and ultimately, I think, unfounded) concerns about his actions during the Argentine dirty war, I have become increasingly impressed by the new Pope's genuine sense of humility and holiness.  There's a humanity in him that reminds me of the best parish priests I have ever known.  (Sadly, few of them are still priests, but that is a topic for another post.)  If the Pope is a man who is interested in revolutionizing the Church, I see few signs of it.  Instead, he seems to me to be someone who above all else wants to bridge divisions, both within the Church and between Catholics and others.  As we've seen with our current president, the search for consensus is not a strategy for radical change.  But, under the circumstances, I think it's the best we could have hoped for.  I for one am grateful for the change.

I don't think conservative Catholics will give up on their crusade to convince Catholic progressives that their position is not tenable and that issues like abortion and gay marriage trump all others.  But if, in the future, they don't have the apparent backing of the hierarchy, their arguments will be far easier to disregard.  

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The fact that anybody can still take seriously words like left/right and progressive/conservatine is an unending source of wonder to me. The Pope is moving on a completely different coordinate axis: witnessing the novelty of Christ to the world. Anybody who puts his/her faith in "progressive politicians" or "changing doctrines" has thoroughly, dramatically, disastrously missed the point.

Onviously, my previous comment holds if one replaces "progressive" by "conservative"

Your comment almost proves my point perfectly.  Anyway, do you think those categories have no substantive meaning at all?  Do you think the different reactions I'm describing do not in fact exist or, if they do, that some other more useful category explains them?  

 

 “Nobody should try to use the words of the pope to minimize the urgent need to preach and teach about abortion,” said the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, who said he spoke Thursday about the “priority of the abortion issue” at a Vatican conference.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/world/europe/pope-bluntly-faults-churc...

Today, Pope Francis addressed a gathering of Catholic gynecologists. He told them that, as a matter of "reason and science", that life in all its "phases" is always "sacred." He called abortion a product of a "widespread mentality of profit." He said that every aborted child is "unjustly condemned" and has the "face of the Lord." These remarks are reported NCR and also by RSN -

http://www.catholicnews.com/da...

On the right, however, there seems to be widespread quiescence. 

 

There is great pain expressed in the reader comments (currently 275 of them) to Fr. Z's two posts in which he tries to convince his readers that Francis hasn't said anything new:

 

http://wdtprs.com/blog/2013/09/first-thoughts-about-the-francis-interview/

 

http://wdtprs.com/blog/2013/09/pope-francis-comments-on-homosexuality-in...

Thanks John, Frank, and Gerelyn for these links. John -- it will be interesting to see how those reactions evolve.  There seems to be a concerted effort by conservative thought-leaders to put a happy face on this.  My guess is that rank and file conservative Catholics are reacting more to the elation on the left in the secular media than to the words themselves.  That is, they may be very open to being convinced otherwise.  Only time will tell, I think.  It's unusual for me to feel hopeful about anything relating to the Church, but I do think this new tone has the potential to soften some of these divisions.  We'll see.

 

Francis is basically relating the gospel:  

     "THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED. 

We can all agree for justice for all.

The Rorate Coeli blog has closed comments, which had exploded since they started covering the pontificate of Francis as he appears to them: an opponent to traditionalism. Because the comments are now closed, we can't tell what people would have said about this most recent interview. But the reaction to earlier statements -- such as Francis speaking against "triumphalism" -- was very, uh, pronounced, and the editors there assured us that they have been working round the clock to weed out the crazies. So I would say a conservative / traditionalist reaction is well underway.

Quite a few conservative commenters are trying to spin this as "nothing new" of course, which is damage control plus a little denial. The sad part for anyone who has watched these debates over time is that Pope Francis speaks out of the thought world of the Second Vatican Council, which so many have tried to stamp out in recent years that we've practically forgotten what it sounds like!

"There is great pain expressed in the reader comments (currently 275 of them) to Fr. Z's two posts in which he tries to convince his readers that Francis hasn't said anything new:"

Is not Fr. Z. realizing now that he is on the wrong side of the future Church?  Is he not aware that his previous posts over the years have provoked and affirmed the people whose comments are now epressing suchpain?

"The sad part for anyone who has watched these debates over time is that Pope Francis speaks out of the thought world of the Second Vatican Council, which so many have tried to stamp out in recent years that we've practically forgotten what it sounds like!

Interesting that Pope Francis is the only pope since Vatican II who did not participate in it.

Also, may we expect now that those who have been castigated during the papacy of JPII and BVI will find a place in the Church as Congar, Murray, et al did at Vatican II?

Loved Fr. Z's link to Benedict (as usual) in referencing the Council of the Media and the Council of the Fathers.  His minimization is that the media has taken this interview and spun a narrative.

Of course, it is a media conspiracy....and yet:

- why, Fr. Z himself is part of the council of the media (since he appears to know little about the council of the fathers)

- this interview was organized and done by the combined efforts of the worldwide Jesuit publications - in their own way, they are part of the media.  duh??

So, just like the abuse scandal - we are back to reducing everything to the big bad media - yep, kill the messengers.

Would also suggest that Benedict's talk in which he referenced these two *labels* was a farewell statement...his decision to retire speaks more emphatically then this farewell address.  His retirement resonated with most catholics; his farewell address - forgotten as it fades into the mists of history; buried some day deep in the Vatican Library.

 

If my phone rings and it's Pope Francis calling, I'll suggest he order the American bishops to quit giving financial support to the Catholic League.  

It's about time William Donohue got a real job; being a professional victim doesn't count, even though he's certainly arranged for it to pay well.

Cardianl Dolan has a very short statement  saying the pope's interview is all good.  Perhaps conservative leaders like him simply know what side their bread is buttered on?

http://blog.archny.org/index.php/statement-on-the-pope-francis-recent-in...

Rita,

What are the things that conservatives are in denial about?   

 

"Quite a few conservative commenters are trying to spin this as "nothing new" of course, which is damage control plus a little denial. The sad part for anyone who has watched these debates over time is that Pope Francis speaks out of the thought world of the Second Vatican Council, which so many have tried to stamp out in recent years that we've practically forgotten what it sounds like!'
 

Rita:

Indeed.  Francis, who rarely speaks in absolutes, also says that Vatican II is "absolutely irreversible".  Pooer trads.  They actually have my sympathy.  This must be very, very difficult for them.

Helen --

I"ll believe that the whole Church has changed when people like Fr.Reese, S.J., Jason Berry, and Sr. Johnson are actually honored by Rome.  Until then, I'll have my reservations.

"Pope Francis speaks out of the thought world of the Second Vatican Counci... .l"

Interesting that he is the only pope since Vatican II who did not attend the council.

Maybe some of the people who have been so marginalized and criticized by these last two papacies will be vindicated as were Congar, Murray, et al at Vatican II.

[ANOTHER BOMBSHELL:  TOTALLY TANGENTIAL -- FOR YOU POLITICAL JUNKIES:  Bill Clinton just said on CNN that he has "no idea" whether or not Hillary will run for president.  He looked sincere and very sad.  I wonder if she's well.  Hmmmmmmmmm.]

@Ann Olivier Well, there's Gutierrez -- that's a nice start.

Like any pope, this one is greatly constrained by all the pronouncements of his predecessors. Fallible people can acknowledge that their ancestors were wrong about things like slavery or a male-only franchise. They can change their beliefs and their teachings as time and experience bring new understandings. Popes like Francis must find ways to carry forward most of what has gone before while recommending to the Church a new tone, a new emphasis, and to some extent a new practice.

Teachings that have not been declared "too" formally, or that are now seen to be entirely beyond the pale, can be explicitly repudiated. The "Jews killed Christ" libel, for example. Others may simply be allowed to fall into semi-silence. Pubescent Johnny probably hears less often than he would have sixty years ago about the pains of eternal fire that await him for casting an interested eye upon Tiffany. If asked today, even many Catholics might say that limbo is a dance. And I hope that I will never read another news story that says the ban on contraception is a "core teaching of the Church," as if the Incarnation and the Resurrection were afterthoughts. 

So this gentle nudging of the Church by Francis will have its effect even if no doctrines change. But it will be gradual as well as reversible, and no one should expect to be entirely happy.

I get an anti-Pharisee sense from the interview: believing the right things and obeying a list of rules aren't good enough if you are hurting others.

One aspect of so-called Catholic conservativism is that it tends to be, as an article of faith, quite loyal to the pope, so I believe that factor comes into play in assessing conservative reaction to the pope.

 It is not an article of faith for Catholic conservativism that Vatican II was a bad thing; I expect that most Catholic conservatives think it's a good thing.  (Indeed another article of faith for conservatives is that their hermeneutic of Vatican II is superior to liberals' :-)).  It's difficult to think of anything that Francis has said or done that takes the church outside the borders of Vatican II.  So I think that conservative commentaries along the lines of "nothing much to see here, move along" are substantially correct.

Lastly, I agree with Carlo that this pope is taking us in entirely new trajectories in which the old conservative/liberal dichotomies may be less relevant (which is not to say that new dichotomies won't spring up! :-))

 

@ Crystal Watson:  Agreed.  I had the thought that Dolan being a good politician keeping his finger in the air must have detected a decided shift in the winds coming-off the Tiber River these days.

It will be fun to watch all these hierarch politicians twist themselves into a pretzel trying to realign themselves for this papacy.  Here in the Bay area we have heard nary a peep out of anti-gay-and-anti-same-sex-marriage-all-the-time archbishop Salvatore Cordileone - I guess he's still figuring out some way to somehow still be a gay man's judge in a Jesuit papacy?

Do you think that Dolan hasn't received any phone calls from Francesco lately?  Maybe, Dolan is worried, as in the words from the musical Camelot:  "I wonder what the king is doing tonight?"

Jim P. --

Fr. James Martin over at American thinks that there is indeed something new in the interview and it's very, very important:

" “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

"Here is something new, as far as I know.  While the phrase “thinking with the church” may be unfamiliar to some observers, it is well known by Jesuits and Catholic scholars.  In his classic text The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, lays out his famous “Rules for Thinking [or Feeling] with the Church,” an invitation for a person to incorporate himself or herself deeply into the life of the church and align himself in the most profound way with the church’s teaching.  

.  .  .  

Pope Francis, as a former Jesuit novice director and provincial, knows the Spiritual Exercises very, very well.  In our interview, the pope gives the expression, “thinking with the church” a new interpretation, and frankly one that I had never before heard.  The church, says the Pope, is the “totality of God’s people,” pastors and people together, not just the hierarchy.  So thinking with the church, he says, is not simply thinking with the hierarchy.  In this we hear echoes of the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the church not as a top-down organization, but something broader: in a beautiful phrase, the church is the “People of God.” "

Read more at:

http://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/listening-pope 

Listening to the Pope | America Magazine

In our interview, the pope gives the expression, “thinking with the church” a new interpretation, and frankly one that I had never before heard.  The church, says the Pope, is the “totality of God’s people,” pastors and people together, not just the hierarchy.  So thinking with the church, he says, is not simply thinking with the hierarchy. 

Ann - that is one of the things that made me rejoice to read.  And it's not mere Commonweal subscriber chauvinism on my part (as I also subscribe to America :-)) to note that Fr. Komonchak has been known to make a similar point in these precincts.

 

Ann Olivier quotes Fr. James Martin, SJ  “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

That is a major change for a Jesuit. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius writes:

"Thirteenth Rule: To be right in everything, we should always hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it...."

One Marc Farre of Piedmont, NY, sent this honest observation to the New York Times: "It looks as if the Catholic Church has stumbled accidentally on its own Gorbachev. I am relishing the image of the heartburn he must be giving the conservative wing that elected him."

Ah, the schadenfreude.

Seems like we've seen this picture before, the classic culture war face-off between anti-abortion Catholics, they of the 'obsession,' and anti-anti-abortion Catholics, those who find anti-abortion advocacy more troubling than abortion. 

Can't really begrudge anti-anti-abortion Catholics some gloating yesterday. If not on 'our' team, at least Francisco seemed to be dissing 'them.' But the delight may have been short-lived, as witness today's address to gynaecologists.

Anti-abortion Catholics and anti-anti-abortion Catholics have more than a little in common. There is, first of all, the penchant for collapsing contraception, abortion and gay marriage into a single grand project. Then there is the decided lack of enthusiasm for a seamless garment that urges protection of life from womb to tomb. And, of course, there is the mutual loathing.

I suspect, in the long run, Francisco will disappoint both tribes. From Bernardin's mouth to Bergoglio's ears, perhaps?

Mike McG. --

What the so-called "anti-abortion Catholics" (the ones who never stop yelling about it) don't realize is that most of the rest of us think that the "anti-abortion Catholics" grossly over-simplify the issues and mistakenly think that if you don't constantly yell about it you aren't really against it.  They are so busy yelling that they don't take the time to look at all the facts and unfairly call the rest of us "pro-abortion".  They have a lot to learn.

But we've been over those reason many times before.

Mike McG. --

What the so-called "anti-abortion Catholics" (the ones who never stop yelling about it) don't realize is that most of the rest of us think that the "anti-abortion Catholics" grossly over-simplify the issues and mistakenly think that if you don't constantly yell about it you aren't really against it.  They are so busy yelling that they don't take the time to look at all the facts and unfairly call the rest of us "pro-abortion".  They have a lot to learn.

But we've been over those reason many times before.

Right on, Ann.

The pope is against abortion - it's no surprise that he said what he did to the doctors - but he's also against the anti-abortion obsession that has gripped so many.  What's weird is how conservative Catholics made abortion, birth control, and marriage equality the litmus test for being a good Christian.

Eduardo: I am really impressed to read that you pursued your concerns about Fr. Bergoglio's actions during Argentina's dirty war to the points where you are now willing to say publicly that you now think your concerns were ultimately unfounded.

I remember your concerns, and I am impressed to read your new conclusion.

Now, Pope Francis appears to me to be trying to temper the zealotry of certain Roman Catholics who kind of specialize in reminding the world about the church's teachings regarding legalized abortion in the first trimester, the use of artificial contraception, and same-sex marriage.

In other words, Pope Francis is trying to use reason with Roman Catholic religious zealots to try to persuade them to temper their zealotry a wee bit.

Of course it remains to be seen how far he will get with his effort to temper their zealotry a wee bit.

Thus far, he has not threatened to use sanctions against them. Good for him.

So, thus far, he does not appear to be using fear to motivate them. Good for him.

Instead, he appears to be trying to use persuasion.

Good for him.

Let's hope that he follows up on this effort.

In the meantime, he does have a full plate of stuff to deal with involving the Vatican and especially the so-called Vatican bank.

 

 

 

"Pubescent Johnny probably hears less often than he would have sixty years ago about the pains of eternal fire that await him for casting an interested eye upon Tiffany."

Ah, but if he casts that interested eye on Timothy .....

Ann said:  “They are so busy yelling that they don't take the time to look at all the facts and unfairly call the rest of us "pro-abortion". They have a lot to learn.”

Obviously they hadn’t been paying attention to the one who they held in such high esteem:

"[F]acts, as history teaches, carry greater weight than pure doctrine."   Joseph Ratzinger, HIGHLIGHTS OF VATICAN II, Paulist Press/Deus Books, 1966, p. 17.

Or, to put it another way ….. 

“You can believe in facts or you can believe in doctrines: you must choose. There never was a doctrine strong enough to shift a single fact. When facts get lost, it's because someone wanted to lose the fact. And where does it get lost? In some doctrine: some set of words.”    Christopher Rushlau  9/13/2013     http://americamagazine.org/issue/murray%E2%80%99s-mistake

Here is an interesting example of what Professoer Peñalver calls an "effort by a conservative thought-leaders to put a happy face on this":

http://mediamatters.org/video/2013/09/20/watch-as-cnns-cuomo-calls-out-b...

After watching this, I'm re-thinking whether it is proper to refer to Donahue as a thought-leader.

 

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About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.