My Mother Likes Pope Francis

This statement might not sound worthy of a lede, much less a headline. But I know the lady, and you don’t, so you’ll just have to take my word that her applauding Peter’s successor is about as improbable as her getting pregnant at the age of 68.

Let me amend that. You might not know who my mother is, but you’ll recognize what she is. In her biography is inscribed the entire history of Catholicism in the U.S., or at any rate, the version people like to fret about. After suffering for the true faith at the hands of Norsemen and Orangemen, roundheads and redcoats, her family emigrated to America. Raised in freedom and safety, my Mom got an education, started skipping Mass, married a couple of Jews (40 years apart, she’s asked me to point out), and moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she practices a kind of cafeteria Buddhism.

But this morning, during our weekly phone call, she was singing F1′s praises like a Vatican press secretary. “I like that he took the time to bless non-Catholics,” she said. “I love that he takes the bus and dials his own phone and is getting rid of all the spectacle and the frippery and the shit that turns people off to the Catholic Church these days.”

Coming from a woman who nicknamed Benedict “the rat,” this is a stunning turnaround. It proves that Francis has made a strong start as leader of what George Weigel calls the evangelical Catholic Church. By his personal commitment to the simple life, in his tacit acknowledgement that the Catholic view is a minority view, the pope has announced credibly that the Church is serious about washing feet, and about engaging nonbelievers on their own turf, in something like their own terms.

Now, when it comes to austerity, my mother might be an especially easy mark. She abhors stuff and always has. She and Bob, her husband, are the only people I’ve ever known who have never owned cell phones. She hasn’t driven a car since 1979. Though Bob did get one a few years ago, they use it only as transportation to funerals and speak of it with the distaste most Manhattanites reserve for overcharging, overbearing nannies. In taking even the simplest pleasures, she is moderate to the point of immoderation. At one intimate dinner, she and a friend are said to have shared a grape and called it a night.

If this proves you can take the girl out of the Church but not the reverse, the big question is whether a pope like Francis could get her back into the Church. My guess is: Not on your nelly. She’s quite happy with the way her apostate life has turned out. Unless the Church were to change its teachings on — well, on a whole lot of issues — her repentance and reversion would mean wishing she’d married her childhood sweetheart, Nuthead Chikocki, and borne a squadron of uhlans. Forget those of her friends and relatives whose post-Catholic paths led them into ‘burbs — they won’t likely find anything more compelling in Pope Francis than they do in any other straphanger.

But, though distant, heavily qualified approval from urban, intellectual quasi-aescetics might not sound like much, it is something. After all, my mother has a lot in common with the people who man the media, and Francis’ election has already forced them to change their tune, if slightly. Yesterday in Salon, Andrew O’Hehir quotes former Dominican priest Matthew Fox (who claims to be quoting late Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx) to the effect that the entire Church has been in schism since the election of John Paul II. Just a month ago, whipping up anti-Curial umbrage was a simple thing; all Mary Elizabeth Williams had to do was take a few swipes at men in dresses and pointy hats. Now it requires invoking elaborate arguments for sedevacantism. Believe it or not, this is progress.

If this progress has a forseeable end, one that Francis could hope to achieve within his own pontificate, it’s the re-tooling of the Church’s image from threatening to simply strange; from maddeningly corrupt to off-puttingly earnest. Look at the present Dalai Lama — he hasn’t gotten too many people to boycott Panda Express, but nearly everyone has something nice to say about him. For the world in general, he’s made Yellow Hat Buddhism into an admirable lifestyle choice, if an unrealistic one.

Or, better, think back to John Paul II. By 1992, the year the nation first backed the Clintons, he’d already squashed liberation theology and fired a whiff of grapeshot at the gay rights movement. Yet, when Sinead O’Connor shredded his photograph on Saturday Night Live, the public outcry put a deep dent in O’Connor’s career. Another pop singer seemed to capture the national mood when she said, “I think there is a better way to present her ideas rather than ripping up an image that means a lot to other people.” The singer’s name? Madonna.

A public that tolerates a pope and avenges grave insults against his person while continuing to do more or less whatever it wants might set some Catholics’ teeth on edge. Recall how hawks reacted when doves claimed to support the troops but not the mission. But general goodwill could pay tangible dividends. If the Obama administration had rolled out the contraception coverage mandate under different circumstances — say, after a few years under a pope who polled high on both sides of the aisle — would it have had quite so easy a time? Or would admonitions like Cardinal Dolan’s, that the government was “strangling” the Church, have caused general alarm and forced it to retreat even more than it has already?

I don’t know, but we’ll certainly find out. Those who are already mourning the pomp and swagger that Francis seems to have renounced will probably greet the end of his reign still dissatisfied with the Church’s clout. Me, I’d remind them that the Church thinks in centuries. The process of atonement for past mistakes, which JPII launched at Yad Vashem, may take a while. We may have to regain our innocence before we can hope to elect an Innocent.

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