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Francis: The Bridge-Builder Washington Needs?

The inaugural dialogue of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, launched Tuesday night at Georgetown University (at least something was working in the nation’s capital), offered a glimpse into the Church’s future. The dialogue, entitled “The Francis Factor,” sought to begin a conversation about how Catholics can better engage and shape public life with their “whole package”… and Pope Francis was a subject for much joy and exaltation, from Cardinal Wuerl to Mark Shields to the initiative’s director, the long-time head of the USCCB’s justice and peace efforts, John Carr. The conversation, playing to a packed house, offered an opportunity not for in-depth analysis of Francis’ words, but rather for the broad question of “impact” – and in particular, what impact does he have on Catholics in public life? Six months in, it was a nice opportunity for taking stock.

What did we learn? Well, I learned that David Brooks has a better grasp of Christian theology than many Christian theologians, when he described the “glittering vice of magnanimity” as a temptation, in contrast to Christianity’s account of “inverse, ironical, paradoxical powers,” which Pope Francis better reflects. But the panel reflected a convergence on four elements:

First, Francis’ “authenticity” was praised by all. This obvious lack of pretense and elaborate “spin” offers a stark contrast to and challenge for our standard political culture. These are some of the same compliments showered on President Obama when he first appeared on the screen – and it is interesting that there is a deep hunger for figures who come across as “genuine” or “real” in an age of constructs.

Second, all participants talked A LOT about poverty and inequality. This was not simply driven by the questions – it was a sense that, in both political parties, poverty and inequality are ignored, and that part of Francis’ value is his refusal to ignore deep poverty. Moreover, the enormous resources, both intellectual and practical, of the Catholic tradition offered a lot of substance in a public square that desperately needed it. Who know, maybe another "Economic Justice for All" could arise from the American bishops...

Third, I was most pleased to find that the tone was strongly against a “good pope/bad pope” kind of setting of Francis off against his predecessors. John Carr quipped at one point, “People who want to pick fights about this are showing they are more about their own agenda, and not about listening to the Holy Father.” Kim Daniels, the spokesperson for Cardinal Dolan as the president of the USCCB, noted the Cardinal’s recent statements that John Paul showed the church’s “soul,” Benedict the church’s “mind,” and Francis the church’s “heart.” The general sense was that people were sick of the Catholic in-fighting, because they wanted to get on with the urgent business of actually being Catholic in a full way, and offering this to and for the world. Cardinal Wuerl characterized the recent papal interview by saying that Francis was presenting “one beautiful Gospel message, not separate agendas” for separate issues, and that while Francis of course was not presenting a new faith, he was presenting “a new way of doing the gospel,” a “simpler, more profound, radiant” Gospel. As Mark Shields described it, the key question for any movement is “are they seeking converts and welcoming them, or are they seeking heretics and expelling them?” It was evident that the “welcoming” of Francis was not to be an occasion for a new round of “expelling.”

Finally, several speakers picked up on the need for a challenge to “rising individualism.” Daniels noted the need for Catholics to unite against the economic individualism of the Right and the socio-cultural individualism of the Left. Another commented that the political parties had reached a kind of tacit agreement on the core of individualism, and that there was a desperate need for some force to push back against this cultural “tsunami.” This common resistance to individualism is potentially the most explosive dynamite in the Catholic toolbox. Yet it also presents the biggest challenge, for it requires us to think about how parishes and other Catholic groups can actually form and participate in subsidiary groups which not only speak against individualism, but make visible alternative choices to it.

But beyond these points, let me say how good it is when Christian dwell together in unity. What was more refreshing than anything was being at a packed house, at a reputedly “liberal” Catholic university, with a panel from diverse parts of the Church, welcomed graciously and eloquently by an excited archbishop… all of whom were buzzing and excited about what is happening in the Church, and in the papacy. This simply has not happened for a long time. John Carr ribbed his friend in the audience, Commonwealer E.J. Dionne, saying that he and E.J. have had a running dialogue over the years about which institution, the American government or the Catholic Church, is in the most trouble. With Francis, and on the day the government shut down, Carr could not resist wondering if his side (the Church) was in far less trouble, on a range of factors, “even – dare I say it, E.J.? – on bringing ‘hope and change.’” That brought the house down. And the joy of the packed house is maybe the most significant Francis factor of all.

About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008). In fall 2016, he is starting a position at the Catholic University of America.



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thanks so much for this generous report. The enthusiasm you convey is infectious (in the good sense!).

Could I ask you, however, to spell out a bit what Brooks meant by "the glittering vice of magnanimity?"

One would have thought that a little more "magnanimity" would be a helpful attribute in today's super-charged exchanges.

And what in the world does the desirable contrast position – "inverse, ironical, paradoxical powers" – mean?

I realize you may not have wanted to lengthen unduly the post. But inquiring minds want to know!

It's also interesting to note that the pope has a completely different account of what he calls "magnanimity" in his interview! Brooks was explicitly referencing Augustine, and his comments were directed toward the temptation to the ancient sense of the proper pomp and circumstance surrounding the possession of power and privilege, and the sense of dispensing such privilege (or withholding it). Basically, he meant it in the sense that Pope Francis critiques "clericalism" - and then I think Brooks was conjuring up Christ as presenting a contrasting way of exercising power, one that is "counterculural" in a paradoxical rejection of power seeking and influence trading. (It may be Reinhold Niebuhr's account of Christianity at work here.) At one point, Brooks said, "Well, Francis just looks like a Christian" - that is, what a Christian would look like inhabiting the very powerful office of the bishop of Rome.

Yes, thanks for this fine and warm report.  ("Generous" is a good word.)  It certainly seems like a hopeful moment---both because of Pope Francis' actions, and because of responses like the ones at Georgetown the other night.

If you tune in to minute 45 on the video of the panel discussion, you can get the full text of David Brooks' first remarks when he mentioned the “glittering vice of magnanimity."  To me, Brooks' insights here and later in the discussion were the most incisive of the evening.


There are so many features to talk about with reference to this unique conference. But what I like most about it is that diverse segments of the Catholic world came together in unity. (Of course we now include our separated brethren and our Jewish brothers in our world.) This was a moment for being Catholic that so many of us cherish and want to see more of.

I don't wish to steer folks away from the excitement of this event, but just want to comment that this observation:

First, Francis’ “authenticity” was praised by all. This obvious lack of pretense and elaborate “spin” offers a stark contrast to and challenge for our standard political culture. These are some of the same compliments showered on President Obama when he first appeared on the screen – and it is interesting that there is a deep hunger for figures who come across as “genuine” or “real” in an age of constructs.

... strikes me as quite insightful about the President.  I agree that his genuineness is the foundation of his appeal - at least, it is for me.



At the risk of demoting David Brooks from his new honor as "better [theologian]... than most Christian theologians," I feel it necessary to point out that use of the word "magnanimity" to mean pomp and power is bizarre, to say the least. Whatever St. Augustine's point was, that's not what magnanimity means in standard English. It means generosity. It means being great-hearted and great-spirited.

Most people would say Pope Francis is generous and wants to foster more generosity and great-spiritedness in the Church: charity, mercy, forgiveness, love. This sounds to me like yet more "spin" -- trying to change the message of Francis to make it "inverted" and "paradoxical" when actually it's pretty straightforward. 


In Augustine's time as in some circles today, magnaminity refers to a superiority of the upper classes who "generously" give to their inferiors. Augustine, (I agree with him on this) rightly condemns it as a giving tied to honors rather than selflessness. Don't worry Rita. Other than this  you are right 99 and 9/10 of the time. LOL. 

I think the qualifier "glittering" indicated sufficiently that Brooks wasn't using the word "magnanimity" in its most common contemporary sense. A lot of the stuff that early Christians would condemn as "superbia," or pride, pagans would have defended as maganimity, or nobility. Nietzsche also contrasted pagan magnanimity, or greatness of soul, with Christian humility. In any case, I think we can all agree that Pope Francis has been exceptionally magnanimous in the ordinary sense of the word.

The typical magnanimous person is the king who won a battle and who, instead of killing all his ennemies, lets them go. It means to be forgiving in a context in which one has power. It combines two ideas: power and generosity. Neither the gentle but powerless nor the powerful but vengeful man  are magnanimous. It's always a quality of character. At least, that's what it means in French, and since the English word apparently came from the Latin through the French, I assume that's also the correct meaning in English.

When was pope Francis magnanimous? When did he have a chance to take revenge on someone who had caused him some injury but decided to forgive him instead? I am not aware of it.

Oh, not to worry. The pleasure of hearing Bill Mazzella agreeing with St. Augustine has made this whole exchange worthwhile. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Bill. :) :) 

But, to follow up on Claire's comment, if you look at the background of the interview with Scalfari and the history of his political party, there are observers who regard the Pope's gracious response to him (after all he has done to promote a "godless" Italy) as beyond any reception he deserved. They might say he ought to have turned him away, or denounced him rather than embracing him and talking with him in such a way that they appear to be brothers. It was reported today in the Catholic Herald (UK) that Archbishop Fisichella, now head of the New Evangelization, once said in a lecture that he was proud not to read La Repubblica. Many blame the Radical Party, which Scalfari helped to found, with undermining Church authority, making abortion legal, and so on. 

But did Pope Francis have an interview with him in order to tell him "Your soul is in peril. You must change your ways!"? No, not at all. Here's the head of the Catholic Church--he does have power and authority. He did not use his power to condemn him.

As I remember, Machiavelli recommended the virtue of "magnanimity" to the Prince as a way of winning loyalty from his people -- the Prince must be the opposite of stingy.  Such magananimity was grounded in the Christian virtue, of course, but was to be put to profane use by the Prince.  We find echoes of that distorted meaning (giving for the sake of the good it does for the giver) in the current phrase "Lord and Lady Bountiful".  They give because they have and want only to be perceived as good themselves.  They're the opposite of people who give anonymously.

It seems to me that people who object to having anything to do with apparently serious sinners is that they don't understand the primacy of conscience.  if Jill thinks smoking is a sin and Jack doesn't, she might condemn him as a sinner because he smokes.  But smoking isn't a sin for him if he honestly think it isn't a sin -- for him it's only a mistake.  it's only a sin if you think it's a sin and choose to do it.  In other words, sin is in the intention to do evil.  No, this is NOT relativism.  It still recognies that some behavior or non-behavior is objectively evil.  But it also recognizes the subjective positive value of the primacy of conscience -- we must do what we *think* is right.  How could it be otherwise? 

Same with abortion.  If Jack (or Scarfina) thinks abortion is not a sin, then for them choosing an abortion is not a sin -- it's a terrible, terrible mistake.  And, in the immortal words, of Francis the Great, who am I to judge?

Ann:  first on the block to call him Francis the Great!

Ad multos annos.  Lets hope that he doesn't let us down even though many expectations might be too high, too early.

Jim McC. =

Bear in mind that Peter the Great also won that appellation.  It's historically quite ambiguous.  But I think there's no doubt that Pope Francis has already earned a major place in the history of the Church.  Things are not going to be the same if only because too many bishops have already been converted to the goals he has set.

i do fear, however, that he simply isn't young enough to get all the big changes done.  And he hasn't done one blessed thing about the bishops who have covered up the scandals, and if he doesn't do something major about them he is going to lose the affection and admiration of many of us.  The cover-up bishops is, I think, is his knottiest political problem because it affects some of the bishops directly and all the rest indirectly.  I suspect that he is puting off acting until he has won the loyal support of the rest of the bishops who learned not to cover-up.  But that will take a while -- years, I would think.

In the Roman Empire it was de rigueur for the rich to give. But the giving was first to the citizens of Rome rather the poor as such. If the poor happened to be citizens good for them. All the citizen benefited from the largesse of the rich. As more rich became Christians in the fourth century onward the bishops sought to remind them that they should give to the poor not citizens. Not an easy persuasive task and not always effective. Also some of the bishops might have wanted the money to come their way rather than to the poor. That has been the case throughout history in too many cases as the bishop sought out the rich. A glaring example, and there are many) was Cardinal Hayes of New York suppressing the young upstart Francis Spellman from squeeezing in on his rich clients. 

At any rate, we should really celebrate this great conference. The poor was loudly celebrated. Hopefully it will translate into deeds. A follow-up is planned for December 2.

Over at Chiesa Sandro Magister contrasts the thinking of JPII and Benedict with that of Francis.  He notes that Benedict's notion of "the primacy of conscience" is not the same as Francis'.

I think Magister is right - for Benedict conscience is primary but it's not -- it's *subject to* the  magisterium, an obvously contradictory position.  I don't find that contradiction in Francis' view.  I wonder if this topic is going to be a battleground in Francis's reign.  

Rita: you're right!

Ann 12:14: thanks for the link to Magister's article. I find his analysis of the differences between Benedict and Francis illuminating. 

I agree that Benedict's position on conscience is extreme and contradictory, but I also find your own view - "sin is in the intention to do evil.  No, this is NOT relativism.  It still recognies that some behavior or non-behavior is objectively evil.  But it also recognizes the subjective positive value of the primacy of conscience -- we must do what we *think* is right" - not entirely convincing. Sin is the act of turning away from God, of choosing what separates us from him, but with the awareness that that is the case. You are saying that if we make the wrong choice, a choice that separates us from God, but do it with the belief that it is the right thing, then we are not sinning but merely making a mistake. Conscience is just a tool to guide us in the right direction. A poorly formed conscience, like a dull knife, will not do its job and properly separate right from wrong. We must always follow our conscience by doing what we think is right, but (presumably) must also work on forming our conscience by, among other things, paying attention to the Magisterium. That's my interpretation of your words.

But I ask: in that case, why does it matter whether we are "sinning" or "making a mistake"? What matters is whether we are following Christ towards God or moving away from that path. Are you saying that when we choose to do an objective evil, if we (mistakenly) think that we are doing the right thing then it does not harden our hearts and move us away from God? I would disagree.

"Are you saying that when we choose to do an objective evil, if we (mistakenly) think that we are doing the right thing then it does not harden our hearts and move us away from God? I would disagree."

Claire --


Right.   To mistakenly choose evil does not turn us away from God.  To turn away from God requires an act of *choosing* to turn away from Him.  If we do not choose that turning away, how could that harden our heart against Him?  If, with the best of intentions, you choose to give your child a cup of water that  unbeknownst to you has a terrible toxin in it, and if your child dies, have you thereby turned away from God?  Or from your child, for that matter?  Certainly  not. 


I think your notion of conscience is good as far as it goes, but leaves some steps out of an actual moral process.things out.  Yes, conscience is a tool to guide us, telling us what would be right and wrong in the future, but it also judges ends and means and actions, telling us  in the here and now:  this is right/wrong -- I must reject the evil and choose the good.  And even as I am doing the choosing I am judging:  this is right/wrong, and I am responsible for the consequences.


A moral process is often quite complicated.  There is 1) reflection on our possible goals, 2) our judging whether or not those possible goals are good or evil,  3) then a choice of a goal or a choice of inaction, 4) our reflection on the goodness or even of possible means to the goal, 5) our choice of means to a chosen goal, 6) our agency  (actually causing something to happen) in using the means towards our goal.  The process can also be complicated for believers when sometime during that process the believers\ reflects that what he/she could choose would turn him/her away from Jesus, and sometimes the believer makes another choice:  to turn from Him or towards HIm.  


Knowledge of ends and means  as good or evil (2)  is itself is never an evil.  We *need* to know what is good and evil in order to choose what is right.   That is, the knowledge is not good or evil,   It's our *choice* of an end (3) and our implementation of he means (our agency)  to get to it (5) that are good or evil.  And the end itself is either good or evil *ontologically* (6), that is, the end itself is really, objectively good or evil apart from our choices and agency.  


Because we choose good or evil we are *responsible* for the objectification of that good or evil.  If what we do results in evil, then our wills lack a relationship to what ought to be, and that is the state of guilt, and we are responsible for the guilt.  But there can be no guilt unless we *know* that what we choose is wrong.  And when a believer adds to that process a movement to or away from the Lord, then there is added right or wrong, added virtue or sin. 


When we misunderstand the outcome of an act, we are not morally responsible for it.  To use the classic example, suppose you are hunting and see in the distant bushes something that looks to you like a deer.  You shoot , but then discover it was really a  person.  Are you a murderer?  Of course not.  You made a terrible mistake, but you didn't sin.  Objectively/ontologically your act was destructive of a human life, and that is an objective evil.  But subjectively you did not intend the outcome, so you aren't responsible morally.  You might *feel* guilt, but the feeling which the state of guilt produces is not the same thing as *being guilty*.


In sum, sin is not only a matter of the relationship of our will to Jesus.  It bears a relationship to other people and things.  An atheist sins, not because he/she choses to turn away from Jesus -- the atheist is a sinner because the atheist choses to do what is wrong (or what he/she thought was wrong).

 there can be no guilt unless we *know* that what we choose is wrong.

I agree with that. But here is a different example: what am I supposed to do with the beggars I see on the streets?  Women with young children, people ostentatiously kneeling right in the middle of the sidewalk, guys with cute little dogs, pulling at people's sentimentality, all immigrants who hardly speak any French. Each street corner is taken up by a different beggar who changes as the day progresses, in a well-planned rotation of professional beggars. The whole setup is suspect. Let's say that I decide that I will give money to charity but not to them. Let's say that I am convinced of all sorts of bad things about them. Let's say that I try to discourage that shady business by ignoring them. Let's say that I feel righteous, as a person doing her part to try to rid the city of that scourge. Let's say that I think I am doing the right thing by shunning them. Well, that may be objectively wrong, but plenty of people feel that way. What happens then? The more I ignore them, the more I get used to ignoring them, the less I see them, the more my heart hardens like the rich man in last week's gospel. Even if it's an honest mistake of my conscience, I think that it turns me away from God. Accorsing to my vocabulary, that makes it a sin. A sin without guilt, perhaps, but a sin.

And what about all the peoplen who don't go to Mass regularly because they really do not believe, in conscience, that they ought to go? It's a mistake, and it has consequences. It does, in the long run, turn them away from God. If they really thought they were doing nothing wrong, then I agree that no guilt should be imputed to them, but it is still something that distances them from God. In my vocabulary, it's a sin. 

Claire --

It looks like our problem is semantic -- we have different meanings of "sin".  I'm not including the real, the objective evil as part of the sin. 

Now that you've made me think about it, yes, sometimes I might include the outcome of the subjective parts as also being part of the process of "sin".   But the subjective parts are the essential parts, what make the process sinful and what makes the sinner responsible.  Consider:  I might intend to kill my neihgbor, but if he dies before I get to it, I have sinned grievously, I'm still morally guilty of murder, though he just died of  heart attack.

I don't see how acting according to a mistaken conscience turns one away from God, not if the mistake is sincerely adopted.

Actually, I think the whole theology of sin needs revision.  Modern psychology has a lot to add to it.



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