Sunday, August 11, 2013

Papal revolution? Seriously? Maybe it's time to take a deep breath

John Allen Jr. has been inclined to friendly reporting on the current Pope Francis I/Jorge Bergoglio. He was too willing in my view to brush off real concerns about Bergoglio's role during the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-83. (See Hard questions about Francis in Argentina and a lesson from Chile National Catholic Reporter 04/12/2013.

And in A revolution underway with Pope Francis National Catholic Reporter 08/05/2013, he seems to be letting his enthusiasm for the current Pope get him carried away. He writes that "everyone, it seems, knows that Francis is trying to engineer a Catholic glasnost." Or at least that's his impression reporting from Rome. He's seeing a lot in what looks to me is still Francis' honeymoon period:

In terms of public opinion, Francis is already on the cusp of achieving the iconic status of Nelson Mandela, a figure of unquestioned moral authority. It's telling that during his trip to Brazil, protagonists in the nation's current unrest virtually tripped over one another in a contest to see who could demonstrate more deference and respect.

There's also a sense in which Francis is the "Teflon pope," in that nothing bad seems to stick. When anything scandalous happens, reaction isn't to blame the pope, but to see it as additional proof of why he's needed.

Allen was considerably more cautious in Francis and the risk of overheated expectations National Catholic Reporter 04/26/2013:

Yet it's an open question whether Francis will move fast enough and far enough to satisfy the moderates most elated by his election and who have already projected a fairly elaborate set of hopes and dreams onto his embryonic pontificate.

The truth is, in some ways it's surprising wariness hasn't already set in.

In his very first homily, in the Mass celebrated with the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel the day after his election, Francis quoted the French novelist Léon Bloy: "Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil." Had someone been so inclined, that line could have been seen as spectacularly insensitive to non-Christians. If it had been a pope who came into office carrying the baggage of being "God's Rottweiler" rather than a man who was already drawing rave reviews for humility and simplicity, it's not difficult to imagine the contretemps that would have ensued.

On Tuesday, Francis celebrated Mass in the Pauline Chapel for his name day, the feast of St. George, and included this line: "It is not possible to find Jesus outside the church." Once again, it's easy to imagine how that would have played had it been Benedict.

In reality, it's unlikely that on most matters of faith and morals Francis will represent any real departure from either John Paul II or Benedict XVI, and sooner or later he'll likely draw the same mixed reactions, even if the most intense disappointment in his case comes from another quarter.
Oddly, even in that post and in the 04/12/2013 one linked above, Allen softpedals the harshness of Bergoglio's opposition to same-sex marriage, which is now legal in Argentina.

And I think more recently that people have seen things that aren't there in Pope Francis' recent statement on gays. (Here I'm more-or-less in agreement with the conservatives' characterization of his words, but not of the policy and doctrinal position they represent. On that, see Roy Edroso, Tighten Up, Francis: Rightbloggers Reassure Us the Pope Isn't That Gay-Friendly Village Voice 08/04/2013.

It's been the Church's position for a while that it no sin to be gay but it is a sin to act gay. Francis/Bergoglio was against Argentina's marriage equality law, saying opposing it was a "war of God" against the Devil, a position he has not withdrawn. In his recent interview, he said "The problem is not to have this tendency [i.e., being gay] but to constitute a lobby. That is a very grave matter for me." ("El problema no es ser gay, sino hacer lobby" Página/12 29.07.2013; my translation from the Spanish) That was a reference in particular to the alleged "gay lobby" in the Vatican, though he seems to have meant it in the larger sense, as well.

If there's any change of the Church position in there, it's not obvious to me. But one prominent Argentine gay leader did see it as expressing an intention to dial back at least the intensity of his previous anti-gay positions. For good (?) measure, the Pope threw in that on the matter of female priests, "That door is closed." Although he did say the Church needs to deepen it "theology of women," whatever that may mean. (Mejor no hablar de sacerdotisas Página/12 29.07.2013; my translation)

Pope Francis is taking what looks like good action on cleaning up the Vatican Bank. But on gays and female priests, so far he's sticking with the same-old same-old. When Allen in his "revolution" article gets down to describing the outlines of what he sees as progressive change, it comes down to some reforms that do look hopeful: changing "the Italian monopoly on governance" in the Church, which will be progressive if he replaces conservative Italian administrators with more moderate-to-liberal ones; building up the role of the laity; increased accountability, as with the Vatican Bank; and, a diplomatic downplaying of hot-button culture war issues like abortion.

Joanna Moorhead defines the current situation in a way similar to how I see it in Friendly rhetoric from Pope Francis in Brazil. But will it translate into action? Guardian 07/30/2013:

Even as a cardinal, Bergoglio had already clamped down on priests who refused to baptise children born out of wedlock; now he has gone further and said gay people should not be marginalised ("if a person is gay and seeks God, who am I to judge him?" he asked). On the role of women, (we're only 70 percent of the church's membership, so we really shouldn't push our luck) he said having girls as altar servers and employing a handful of senior women in the Vatican might perhaps not be quite enough. On the matter of women priests, of course, there was no debate to be had.

So we're seeing a thaw, though definitely not a revolution; a subtle but significant change of direction, yet from a man who remains deeply conservative. You don't need to be radical to be seen as a wind of change in the Catholic hierarchy (what they'd have made of Christ, one shudders to think). But as Francis is no doubt all too aware, the foreign trips are the easy bits. Because the truth is that it's in the Vatican, the smallest state on Earth, that most of his problems lie. None of his difficulties have gone away while he's been on the beach in Brazil. The fact is that by signalling a change of style, the new pope has raised expectations of a change of substance.
And Nick Cohen caught a dark twist that I had not seen discussed before in Francis' now-famous comment about gays (Don't be fooled. Pope by name, pope by nature Observer 08/10/2013):

But consider the sequel. "Being gay is not the problem," the pope continued, "lobbying is the problem and this goes for any type of lobby... political lobbies, masonic lobbies, all lobbies." ("Lobby dei politici, lobby dei massoni, tante lobby.")

And with that casual phrase, the pope signalled his fealty to the deep strain of reaction in European history and hardly anyone noticed. Few Anglo-Saxon readers understand that prejudice against freemasons is the founding conspiracy theory of the far right. It saw the machinations of a society that began among harmless Scottish craftsmen in the 15th century as responsible for liberalism, the enlightenment, the rights of man... everything it hated.

In the 1790s, an abbé named Augustin Barruel, an alarming combination of Dan Brown and David Icke, looked at the American and French revolutions and concluded that the masses could have overthrown divinely ordained monarchs and the holy mother church only if they were the dupes of an international conspiracy of freemasons.

The masons were not middle-aged men in fancy dress, but the descendants of the Knights Templar, who went underground in the Middle Ages and swore to avenge themselves on the church and monarchy that had persecuted them.

It sounded mad. Indeed it was mad. But a conspiracy theory that says that human rights are a sham behind which a sinister secret society manipulates the world was too useful to waste. Successive popes issued bulls against it. Pius IX included freemasonry along with socialism, liberalism and freedom of conscience as evils the faithful must fight in his Syllabus of Errors of 1864.

The antisemites and fascists of the early 20th century added that the masons were in league with the Jews. Franco and Mussolini persecuted them. The Nazis made freemasons wear red triangles and murdered them by the thousand.

Do not think these foul ideas are dead. Radical Islam echoes the European far-right's ravings. (The Hamas charter says the freemasons are in an alliance with the Jews and – brace yourselves – the Rotary Club and the Lions as well.) Like Hamas, Luigi Negri, a Catholic bishop, believes that freemasons were responsible for the French revolution and the Russian revolution, too. Last week, the [British] Catholic Herald took its cue from the pope's condemnation of the "masonic lobby" to raise the "truly frightening thought" that masons had infiltrated the Vatican and were subverting the Holy See from within. These devils in aprons are everywhere.

A second part to Allen's "revolution underway" article is due out tomorrow.

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