Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pope Francis sizes up things from the back row.  This is a powerful photo and one I never thought I would see, conditioned as I was by decades of seeing something totally different when it came to the Papacy.     

David Gibson has a thought provoking analysis posted at Religion News Service and cross posted at the National Catholic Reporter.  His essential thesis is that both the far right and far left have reasons to be wary of Pope Francis.  I actually think the dead center does as well, but first Gibson's thinking:


ANALYSIS: How long will the pope’s honeymoon last?

David Gibson - Religion News Service - 3/22/2013
(RNS) Since the moment of his election on March 13, Pope Francis has been warmly embraced by his own flock and even the media and the wider public in a way his bookish predecessor, Benedict XVI, was not.
Polls show that anywhere from 73 percent to 88 percent of American Catholics say they are happy with the selection of Francis, as opposed to about 60 percent who were happy with the choice of Benedict — and many of those are extremely pleased with the new pope.

Such an effusive welcome is especially good news for Catholic leaders who spent years fending off criticism of Vatican dysfunction under Benedict and a cloud of scandal and crisis at home. And the hot start for Francis is also crucial in building up a reservoir of good will that will be needed when the new pope refuses to bend on unpopular teachings or commits a gaffe of his own.

Yet even as the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio basks in this broad approval as Pope Francis, some constituencies in the Catholic Church are cautious or even angry at his election, and their concern has only grown in the early days of his pontificate.

‘Something is profoundly wrong’

Chief among the critics are the liturgical traditionalists who reveled in Benedict’s exaltation of old-fashioned ways, and are now watching in horror as Francis rejects the extravagant vestments and high-church rituals that were in en vogue for the past eight years.

“Of all the unthinkable candidates, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is perhaps the worst,” an Argentine Catholic wrote in a post at Rorate Caeli, a blog for aficionados of the old Latin Mass rites. “It really cannot be what Benedict wanted for the Church.”

“Something is profoundly wrong when the winds of change can blow so swiftly through an immutable institution of God’s own making,” agreed Patrick Archbold at Creative Minority Report, another conservative site. (I've noticed this one popping frequently from conservative Catholics.  It's part and parcel of the monarchical papacy. Change can happen very quickly when one man holds all authority.  Perhaps the conservative wing will spend some time reflecting on why this autocratic form for the papacy was such an issue for progressives.)

Given that traditionalists are some of the most devoted and vocal Catholics in the church, and that they retain both contacts and influence in the upper ranks of the hierarchy, their pessimism could spell trouble for Francis. (On the other hand, Francis has not guaranteed any of these holders of upper ranks their current positions, so they could lose their influence.)

‘A Pope Francis problem’

The same could be said of politically conservative Catholics, especially those from the U.S. who have enjoyed access and approval in Rome for decades, under both Benedict and the late John Paul II.
Their concerns, while expressed in more muted tones, are tied to a number of markers: Francis is a Jesuit, for one thing, and even though he is considered a relatively conservative member of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits are considered notorious by the Catholic right.

Their list of alleged faults is long – they advocate engagement with the world, they have shown a willingness to criticize the hierarchy, and they have embraced a radical commitment to the poor. That last one is a priority for Francis as he sharply critiqued unfettered capitalism and austerity politics, even taking on the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor.

Indeed, the new pope “would likely be considered too liberal for a prime time speaking slot at the 2016 (Democratic) convention,” Charles Camosy, a theologian at Fordham University in New York, wrote in a Washington Post column titled, “Republicans have a Pope Francis problem.”
St. Francis is also an icon of environmentalism, which the new pope has similarly embraced. That discomfits some conservatives – as does praise for Francis from liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino. Rumors are already afoot that Francis might beatify slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by a right-wing death squad for speaking out against injustice.

Not only that, but Francis allowed Vice President Biden and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats who support abortion rights, to receive Communion at his installation Mass.
Moreover, while Francis is as orthodox as Benedict on the church’s doctrines of sexual ethics, he has shown what is to some a disconcerting willingness to seek pragmatic solutions to difficult issues, such as when he supported civil unions for gay couples in Argentina in an unsuccessful bid to thwart a gay marriage law.

Skepticism on the left

On the other side of the spectrum, however, some left-wing Catholics are leery of Francis, or openly criticize him for what they see as his antagonism to gay rights. They also question his track record on sex abuse by clergy and his disputed role during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s, when some say he was not sufficiently vocal in speaking out against the military junta.

“The election of a doctrinally conservative pope, even one with the winning simplicity of his namesake, is especially dangerous in today’s media-saturated world where image too often trumps substance,” the feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt wrote at Religion Dispatches.

“A kinder, gentler pope who puts the weight of the Roman Catholic hierarchical church behind efforts to prevent divorce, abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage – as Mr. Bergoglio did in his country – is … scary,” Hunt said. (It would depend on how he put that weight behind these issues as to how scary he might be.  It's one thing to be a Cardinal of one major city, it's another to be the Pope of a global Church.  Even Pope Benedict toned down some of his previous bark and bite once he donned the white cassock.)

By contrast, mainstream Catholics, and Catholic Democrats in particular, have welcomed Francis’ election not only because of his appealing common touch but also because his statements on behalf of the poor may hold out a chance for leveling the playing field in the church’s internal culture wars.

The new pope’s words about fighting economic exploitation and “being a poor church, for the poor” are so insistent that they could put the church’s social justice teachings back on par with its doctrines on abortion and sexual ethics, which have been so prominent for so long that some complain they outweigh any other tenets.

Still, even Catholic progressives could wind up disappointed as Francis begins to unveil his appointments and policies, just as traditionalists and conservatives could be cheered or at least reassured that all is not lost.
As the Rev. James Keenan, a Boston College theologian, says, the Jesuits have an unwritten rule that a new superior should spend the first hundred days of his office learning about the community before making any changes. That means the critics need to make their voices heard now, because the clock is ticking.


I'm not sure anyone is going to be totally comfortable with Pope Francis when all is said and done.  A lot will depend on how seriously one takes the idea of Jesus as having modeled a Way of living His core message.  In a real sense Pope Francis will be attempting to model that Way from exactly the kind of position of power and authority Jesus never accepted for Himself, and in fact outright refused.  In this sense Pope Francis is in unchartered waters. He's essentially asking WWJD about the kind of power position Jesus never countenanced as compatible with His Way.  It's the kind of thing which would take a really strong mystical connection coupled with a really strong belief in that connection and the ability to balance the ego self between two different views of ultimate reality.

Pope Francis has stated real power comes from service.  That's an interesting statement on a number of levels.  He did not say that real power comes from sacramental ordination or sacramental reception.  Just as he did not say real power comes from wealth or position.  He said it came from service to others.  This statement doesn't preclude the other kinds of power, but it does re prioritize them.  It places service to others as the act which both unifies and transcends other kinds of power, including clerical sacramental power.  It maybe this prioritization that is going to give the conservatives the most hissy fits, especially our cadre of JPII priests who have been enculturated in a very different view of priestly prioritization. 

But for the left, Francis's insistence on seeing the poor in an individual face to face kind of context is also going to be somewhat hard to swallow.  Pope Francis is espousing a concept of placing the poor first in a way that doesn't prioritize massive governmental subsistence programs.  These large programs sink to a level of service in which all poor people are treated in exactly the same manner, when in reality poor people become poor people in many different ways, and dealing with these many different way is going to take a much more nuanced set of solutions than just throwing money at the problem. It's going to take listening and then creating individual programs which help alleviate the myriad of individual pathways to poverty.

Two of those ways are going to give the middle class Catholic a hard dose of reality while sending the 1% into apoplexy: wealth redistribution and down scaling one's life style.  For Francis' curia these two prongs will be modified and mean redistribution of authoritative power and seriously down scaling clerical privilege. Hence, I believe that Francis' consistent modeling of power as service to others, a Christian truth Jesus showed by placing the power of  His divinity at the service of the poor,  is going to give ample reasons for all Catholics to wonder 'Who is this man and how did he become pope?'

One last thought, Pope Francis is a mystic and has had real mystical experiences, the first of which came as a young man and propelled his vocation to the Jesuits. When one has these kinds of mind expanding experiences, one isn't easily diverted from the message of the visions.  These occurrences really do change how you relate to the world, and for that matter, how you understand it's foundational realityThey are also colored and filtered through one's culture and religious training, so prophets come from a given culture with messages for a given culture and because they speak the language of that culture and use the symbols of that culture they are frequently rejected by that culture.  But even more than all that, mystical experiences can separate you from other people precisely because of their life changing aspects, or maybe it's not so much that one is separated from, but one taken outside the accepted boundaries of one's initial cultural upbringing. It does not shock me in the least, that Pope Francis has been something of a loner with in the Jesuits and within the hierarchy.  My prediction is that Francis will seek out others who have a mystical bent for some of his major appointments.  They would be most likely to understand his vision and why he does the things he does.  In the meantime, like everyone else, I wait for the hundred days to finish, and apparently so does Pope Francis, and sometimes he does it like me,  from the very back pew.


  1. Colleen,

    Thoughtful, challenging, nuanced, reflective. THANK YOU! I have somehow found myself more moved by Francis' Mass with "the help" than his embracing the disabled man en route to his installation. Someone posted somewhere the photos of Francis greeting each person at the Mass at St. Martha's. These photos are iconic. I found myself profoundly moved as I looked at them- the fact that these people were referred to as "invisible". (Found the link and it came from Rocco Palmo, reposted in "Pray Tell" :

    I find myself deeply moved about Francis in a way I hadn't expected- sort of a joyful hope that God has moved in ways we cannot yet fathom. I also think that your cautionary wisdom is well stated- that this man will not please everybody - he cannot. But also to give him time.

    I have also found it helpful to hear from Jesuits' own experiences about how Jesuit formation molds one to choose the plainer, simpler, thing- how they live out their vow of poverty becomes totally a part of who they are.

    I also keep thinking about how much Francis brings to mind Jean Vanier's life and teachings. Always very challenging, but a life lived very faithfully and with "the little ones".

  2. I don't imagine progressives will be "disappointed" with Francis' appointments, as Gibson imagines we might be. From what I understand, Bergoglio was less than thrilled with Ratzinger's conservative episcopal appointments in Argentina. I can't imagine he'll value doctrinal conservatism above all else, including basic competence, as his most recent predecessors did so much of the time. Time will tell, I guess. I wonder if he'll replace Ouellet as head of the Congregation for Bishops...that will be interesting to see.

  3. I also wonder if he will replace Mueller as head of the CDF. I agree that he most like will not appoint a host of doctrinal conservatives. I'm not sure that his issue with Argentinan appointments wasn't more about their authoritarian streak than their conservatism. That's why I can easily see Cardinal Schonborn and Cardinal Tagle as appointments, and a more prominent role for Cardinal Braz de Aviz.

  4. Two comments: the first is that when people tie their entire Catholic identity to
    Being loyal to THE POPE this whiplash mentioned is what you are going to
    Experience when you get a new guy who is not identical to you in thought.
    The second points is that there are a lot of people who are hard core
    tradionialists who are just Losing their minds about a cape. A flipping red cape.
    I am rembering the photo of Burke in a hideous liturgical get up. That is what
    you get when faith focuses on clothes instead of the values of the Gospel.

  5. Perhaps he'll bring Fr. Richard Rohr, O.F.M., to the CDF.

  6. Wouldn't that be something? Maybe Diarmud O'Murchu could land on the Pontifical Theological Commission.

  7. Or when externals are more important than internal conversion--which is a statement I think Pope Francis is trying to get across. It's not the outside conformity that counts, but the inside conversion.

  8. I was also quite struck by the Mass he said for the St Anne's folks because he really did operate like any other parish priest. He seems to be having fun in his new role, kind of like the Contraries of Native American myth. I think if he can keep the joy up, a lot of his less than joyful decisions may go down easier, and he's bound to make some. Kind of like Mary Poppins and the spoon full of sugar idea. Which now that I think about it, is exactly what Theologian Mary Hunt is afraid of.