During the annual pre-Easter season of snarky or mildly negative religion stories, I think that I received more personal emails about the Pope Benedict XVI vs. Pope Francis story in The Atlantic than any other item (even more than the Mrs. Jesus media blitz, if you can believe that).
Quite a few readers wanted to critique some of the alleged facts in the story or note some of its inconsistencies. For example, at one point Benedict is portrayed as an all-dominating doctrinal bully. Flip a few pages and readers are then told that he was a totally hands-off leader who, when it came to governing the church, “didn’t interfere even when he was pope!” Yes, the exclamation mark is in the text.
Most of the emails missed the point. You see, “The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis” isn’t really a work of journalism.
Oh, the author makes it clear that he went to Rome and, apparently, he even drove around and talked with some people. But the result isn’t a work of journalism built on clearly attributed information. No, this is something else — it’s a work of apologetics.
Do you remember that famous Peggy Noonan quote about Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” a show for which she served as a consultant?
A reporter once asked me if I thought, as John Podhoretz had written, that “The West Wing” is, essentially, left-wing pornography. I said no, that’s completely wrong. “The West Wing” is a left-wing nocturnal emission — undriven by facts, based on dreams, its impulses as passionate as they are involuntary and as unreflective as they are genuine.
That’s kind of what we are dealing with here, especially in the passages in which essayist Paul Elie all but claims to have read the mind of Benedict, perhaps while driving past his abode (I am not making that part up, honest). This piece is a love song to all of the Catholics who suffered so much during the terrifying reign of the soon-to-be St. John Paul II and his bookworm bully, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Here’s a sample, right up front:
Pope Francis lives only a few hundred meters down the hill, in the Casa Santa Marta: the guesthouse where the cardinals stay while electing a new pope. He arrived there for the conclave of 2013 as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. After his election, he surprised everyone by taking the name of Francis, the saint of radical simplicity — and then by refusing to move into the palace, and staying on at the guesthouse instead. All the world acclaimed the act as if he had pitched a pup tent in St. Peter’s Square.
Benedict was as surprised as anybody. In a stroke, the Argentine had outdone him in simplicity.
Interview? Quote? A second-hand reflection from a key aide, even an anonymous aide? And then there is the thesis statement:
And so it has come to pass that, in his 88th year, he is living at the Mater Ecclesiae, served by four consecrated laywomen and his priest-secretary, with a piano and a passel of books to keep him occupied. Here he watches the Argentine, prays for him, and keeps silence — a hard discipline for a man who spent his public life defining the nature of God and man, truth and falsehood.
It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church.
If the key to Benedict was his defense of doctrine, using such a word requires the author to provide some concrete examples of major doctrinal changes made by the new pope. In other words, in what sense has Francis dismantled the doctrinal work of Benedict and John Paul II? It is clear that he wants major changes in pastoral strategies. But he is attempting to “dismantle” the doctrinal work of Benedict?
A few lines later, when Elie discusses the methodology of his work, he even undercuts his own argument.
With the press transfixed by Francis, I went to Rome to talk about Benedict. Invariably, the conversations wound up being about both of them. Priests, Church officials, and Vatican insiders told me that the differences between the two men come down to personality, not principle, and that Benedict is delighted with the goodwill the world is showing Francis. He probably is.
Wait for it. You know what’s coming, right?
Yet when he was the arbiter of Church doctrine, he never missed a chance to declare that the Church was founded on revealed truth rather than personality, and that the world’s goodwill isn’t worth having except on the Church’s terms. “Who am I to judge?” — Francis’s remark about gay people — was a sharp turn away from Benedict’s view that the role of the Church is to render judgment in a world in thrall to “a dictatorship of relativism.” Francis’s offhand statements and openness to new approaches make clear that he is a very different pope — and unless Benedict has lost his mind, he cannot be altogether happy about it.
Of course, of course, read the actual statements by Francis (click here for transcript). The pope was talking about gay priests who were struggling — in repentance — with their sins. Francis stressed that he opposed public opposition — the gay “lobby” issue — to the church’s moral teachings. He was saying that, when sinners repent, God is the judge.
But that kind of logic does not fit into this work of anti-Benedict apologetics.
And the mind-reading? Here is one more example, during a discussion of Benedict’s genuinely radical act of retiring from the papacy:
Benedict’s renunciation changed the calculus. Now no older man can be ruled out. Now an older man can be elected pope and work hard for a few years, knowing he is free to resign when his energy flags or when he reckons that he has done all he can.
That’s what Francis is doing — and Benedict knows, better than anybody, that his renunciation of the papacy is what made Francis’s freestyle, judgment-averse pontificate possible. The thought is enough to keep him awake at night.
Read it all, if you are into foggy works of apologetics written and reported, kind of, in the old New Journalism style.