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.

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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