Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Thou Shalt Not Spin

Ruminating on excerpts from John Allen’s one year review of the pontificate of Pope Francis (in red):
Many Points of Praise for Pope’s First Year
….In the year since, Pope Francis has electrified the world with his taste for the improbable: his spurning of the papal apartment, his resolutely informal personal style, his startling words, such as his instantly immortal “Who am I to judge?” line on gays. Quite right! Who are we to judge anyone? He’s popular at the Catholic grass roots and may be the most celebrated pontiff ever in non-Catholic venues, and even some secular circles where criticism of the papacy is much more common than praise. I rejoice at this, and pray that the world will listen to all of Francis, even the hard sayings….

Symbolically, Francis, 77, has changed the narrative about Catholicism. Substantively, he has taken bold steps toward reform and reoriented the church toward the political and cultural center after years of a perceived drift toward ever more hardline stands. Perceived, indeed! But Satan is the Father of lies, and has been known to trick many.
For all those reasons, the full measure of his impact so far runs well beyond the power structure of the Catholic Church. Nothing new here.

Despite that point — or, perhaps, precisely because of it — many observers can’t help wondering what the 114 cardinals who thrust this maverick onto the Throne of Peter are thinking today….

Never Expected A Rock Star
Few cardinals anticipated the way in which the new pontiff would capture the imagination of the world, or how quickly he would do it…

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York amplified the point.
“We knew we were electing a man of the poor, and we knew we were electing a good manager,” Dolan said. “We had no idea we were electing a rock star.” While Benedict plays the piano, I did not know Francis played a musical instrument.

Dolan’s experience is typical of many churchmen. He reports that when he does media interviews today, the questions generally aren’t about pedophile priests, crackdowns on nuns, or bruising political fights inside the Vatican.

Instead, they’re largely adulatory inquiries about the new pontiff.
Cardinals also say that politicians and diplomats are less inclined to be hostile to church interests, because no one wants to be on the wrong side of a popular pope, and that when they mingle at the grass roots, even outside the confines of the church, they generally find delight. Popes are not Presidents.

DiNardo said one prominent Evangelical leader in Houston recently told him, “I feel like he’s our pope too.” Dolan said he can’t move in New York’s Jewish circles without hearing, “We love this pope!” Where I Francis, and I hardly compare, when I discovered this I would take the full Gospel to them! What a great “scoring chance” (for my hockey brethren)!... After all, Salvation is from the Jews.

Not Just A Matter Of Style

Immediately after Francis’ election, the question was whether his impact would turn out to be more in style than substance. Dolan tells a story from those early days that hinted at an answer.

“We were getting ready for Mass the morning after his election, and Francis came in carrying his own alb and just plopped down to get dressed,” Dolan said, referring to a white garment priests wear during services.

Vatican mandarins, Dolan recalled, swarmed around the new pontiff and began issuing instructions about the ceremony. Francis gently, but firmly, swatted them away.
“‘That’s okay,’ Dolan quoted the new pope saying, ‘I’ve been saying Mass for fifty years. We’ll be fine.’ The clear message was, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ ”

After twelve months, that flash of gritty self-assurance seems prophetic. On hard matters of policy, Francis has moved farther and faster than even his most enthusiastic backers anticipated.

For instance, Francis recently triggered a Vatican uproar by creating a new Secretariat for the Economy, giving it full power to impose fiscal discipline and to police transparency and accountability.
To run it he named Cardinal George Pell, a tough-as-nails Australian who’s one of the few senior churchmen viewed as having not only the vision but the spine to overhaul deeply entrenched patterns of doing business.

While money management may not have the media appeal of inviting homeless men, as Francis did, to a birthday breakfast, it’s hard to imagine anything a pope could do more challenging to the old guard.
“Nobody could have predicted he would strike such a chord with the world,” Pell told the Globe, “and many Italians probably never anticipated that he would reform the financial system.” Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s….

Not A Right-Winger (Maybe he is a defenseman?)

For many Princes of the Church, the real revelation about Francis is that he’s not quite the doctrinal conservative they thought they were electing. Here we go again, right-winger, progressive, traditionalist, neo-Catholic, cafeteria….Outside a small circle of fellow Argentinians who knew Bergoglio well, the sense of the Buenos Aires prelate’s ideological leanings was based largely on two elements of his biography.

First was a falling out within his Jesuit order in the 1970s over liberation theology, a current in Latin American Catholicism that sought to place the church on the side of the poor. Ummm… it sought to interpret Our Lord’s message through the eyes of His creature, Mr. Marx. Mostly because he feared that it might drive Catholics into endorsing armed rebellion, such as the Montoneros guerrilla movement in Argentina, Bergoglio was ambivalent. Who is he to judge?

Second, Bergoglio engaged in a high-profile standoff with Argentina’s leftist government under President Cristina Kirchner in 2010 when the country became the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage over the vigorous opposition of the church.
As pope, however, Francis has profiled largely as a moderate, declaring in a September interview that “I’ve never been a right-winger.” As Cardinal at that time, he said that if a proposed bill giving same-sex couples the opportunity to marry and adopt children should be approved, it will “seriously damage the family.”

While not, he insists, changing doctrine, (so he wishes to conserve it, then?) he has struck a more merciful stance vis-à-vis the church’s traditional teaching, and has opened the door to debate on matters such as permitting Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment to return to the sacraments.

In a recent interview with the Italian paper Corriere della Sera and the Argentine daily La Nacion, Francis also stopped short of blanket opposition to civil unions for same-sex couples, saying “the different cases have to be evaluated in their diversity.”
Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, admits that there have been times when the pope’s almost casual rhetorical turns and his spirit of openness have created heartburn. Prilosec works great, I can tell you.

“There have been things which are hard to explain,” Collins said, referring specifically to one of the headlines from an October interview Francis granted to a left-wing Italian paper: “God is not a Catholic.” This cannot be one of the hard-to-explain sayings; I always find the Trinity harder…

DiNardo said the new pope’s informality and lack of pretense have taken some getting used to. He told a story of being at a two-day meeting of cardinals with the pope in Rome in late November, and turning around during a crowded coffee break to find Francis standing in line for a cup like everybody else.  As a coffee addict, this I like! I bet it was not a carmel macchiato….

Still, DiNardo said, Francis’ relaxed style by no means suggests ambivalence about his power or his will to use it.

“I’ve never known a pope, if he really thinks he has to use his universal jurisdiction, who’s been afraid to use it,” DiNardo said. “This guy’s not afraid at all.” Good. He is the Servant of the Servants….

Few Anxious To Go Back

Reading between the lines of these conversations, the impression is that whatever reservations some cardinals may feel, few are anxious to turn back the clock.
Cardinal Gérald Lacroix, for instance, is the primate of Quebec, widely viewed as perhaps the most thoroughly secularized pocket of North America. Yet even there, Lacroix said, Francis is a hit.

“The Quebecois love him,” he said. (I knew there was a hockey connection in here somewhere….)

Lacroix said he’d recently given an interview to a major newspaper often critical of the church. When he was done, he said, the editor in chief told him, “If your pope continues doing what he’s doing, he’s going to get us,” meaning the paper might warm editorially to the church’s approach. (We need a papal visit to Quebec then—perhaps even a WYD in Montreal).

Asked if he would trade such entrée into secular circles for greater doctrinal precision, Lacroix’s response was unambiguous: “Are you kidding me?” With Francis, it will be both!

In a similar vein, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the United Kingdom said that Francis’ appeal seems to have reached even into corners of British society most hostile to the church. Having studied pope Benedict’s visit to Westminster, I think the Church in England is doing very well; let’s build on it. Personal Ordinariates, anyone?

“Pope Francis has shifted the perceptions of the Catholic Church,” Nichols said. “He’s done it partly through a very deliberate policy of speaking through actions, and it’s hard to argue with actions,” he said.

Outside the West, the enthusiasm may be even greater.
Chibly Langlois, for instance, was one of nineteen new cardinals created by Francis in a February ceremony, and is the first-ever cardinal from Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the Americas.

“The Haitians are a people that need to be helped, maybe, but more than anything, they need to be heard,” Langlois told the Globe. “Pope Francis is making us heard.”
Turkson, of Ghana, said Francis is playing well across Africa, in part because he’s able to translate the church’s concern for the poor into emotional language that resonates with ordinary people, such as when asked a gathering of seminarians if they’ve ever wept for a poor person. Reminds me of the time when Jesus wept for those of Jerusalem.

“Lots of Africans feel this is a pope who cares,” Turkson told the Globe.
Despite Francis’ remarkable opening act, some cardinals believe there’s still a raft of unfinished business, that the glow around Francis may yet be tested by some of the major questions ahead.

O’Malley, for instance, said Francis “is aware of how serious” the child sexual abuse scandals have been for the Catholic Church, but added that “I don’t think he has a plan yet for how to deal with it.” Unassisted, (sorry) perhaps—but let us wait on the Spirit….

Overall, however, the judgment seems strikingly positive. Even cardinals who admit to being blindsided by some of the pope’s words and actions seem to regard the new lease on life Francis has given the church as a godsend.

“It confirms what we believe, which is that if you open yourself up, the Holy Spirit’s going to act through you,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.
“It still works.” Yes, I have to agree. So let us work.