Regarding Francis

Regarding Francis March 18, 2013

Echidne of the Snakes expresses well what it means to many of us non-Catholics watching the election of a new pope and the early, defining days of a new papacy. “Watching the pomp and circumstance of the papal elections,” she writes, is “a weird experience”:

In one sense it is nothing to do with me. In another, deeper sense, it is very much to do with me and people like me.

Pope Francis’ church is not my church, but the decisions he makes as the leader of his church will affect and influence my life, my family, my neighbors and my country. I cannot help but be interested, looking on with curiosity, a little hope, and a lot of dread.

Al Mohler seems almost surprised to learn that the new pope is Catholic, and takes the election of Francis as an opportunity to point out all the ways in which he, Al Mohler, is not. Like Mohler, I reject the doctrine of papal authority, but I didn’t really expect that the next pope would agree with me on that, so while I share Mohler’s disagreement, I can’t really say I share his disappointment. That’s not to say this is unimportant, but Pope’s are gonna pope. That’s to be expected.

And while I agree with Mohler on the papacy, I can’t agree with whatever it is he’s trying to say about justification “by faith alone.” I know he’s attempting to claim a historic piece of Protestant doctrine there, but the solas of the Reformation weren’t terribly coherent to begin with (sola fide tends to confusingly place more faith in faith than in the object of that faith — which is grammatically, logically and theologically backwards) and Mohler seems to strain them even further. As Jared Byas notes:

It sounds to me like Mohler is doing the exact thing he is accusing Catholics of doing. Isn’t he basically saying that “Justification is by faith alone AND your belief that justification is by faith alone”? In that case, neither the Catholics nor Mohler are saying that justification is by faith alone.

Just as I anticipated that Francis — or whoever else the new pope turned out to be — would be unsurprisingly disappointing for not being a Baptist, so too I expected any new pope would disappoint when it came to a host of other vitally important issues on which anyone likely to become pope was almost certain to be, well, wrong.

The patriarchy and hierarchy of the Catholic church is wrong. The church’s treatment of LGBT people is wrong. The church’s insistence on a nominally/officially celibate priesthood is wrong. These are serious problems and serious mistakes, but I couldn’t seriously expect any new pope not to continue repeating them. The Catholic church has been doubling down on those self-destructive errors for centuries and I do not expect that to change until crisis makes every other option impossible.

I am slightly more hopeful that the Catholic church may begin to soften its unscientific and theologically incoherent stance against contraception. That mistake is much more recent — the work of a pope overruling his theological advisers for political reasons just 44 years ago. The majority of the Catholic church has already corrected that mistake, with the vast majority of Catholic laypeople just ignoring this teaching. They do so not with any hint of the guilt that comes from actual disobedience, but only with embarrassment on behalf of the authorities still proclaiming this teaching as though faith or conscience or good sense required it, or as though anyone were listening to them.

When it comes to contraception and a whole cluster of “bedroom” related issues, my best hope is not so much that the church will change its views, but just that it will change its emphasis. Frank Bruni describes this hope well, writing that he wants to see the new pope “point the church toward a new conversation and a better focus for its spiritual energies. To have it dwell less in the bedroom, more in the soup kitchen.” Bruni says:

It’s time for the church to stop talking so much about sex. It’s the perfect time, in fact.

It’s on matters of sexual morality that the church has lost much of its authority. And it’s on matters of sexual morality that it largely wastes its breath. By insisting on mandatory celibacy for a priesthood winnowed and sometimes warped by that, by opposing the use of contraceptives for birth control, by casting judgment on homosexuals and by decrying divorce while running something of an annulment mill, the church’s leaders have enraged and alienated Catholics whose common sense and whose experience of the real world tell them that none of that is wise, kind or necessary.

The church’s leaders have also set themselves up to be dismissed as hypocrites, unable to uphold the very virtues they promulgate. Just weeks before the conclave, the most senior Catholic prelate in Britain, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, resigned his post, forgoing a trip to Rome and a vote on the next pope, because he’d been accused of, and admitted to, sexual misconduct. His case suggested the potential loneliness of a Catholic clergyman’s circumstances, and those circumstances, in the eyes of many Catholics, cast priests as odd, flawed messengers and counselors on the subject of a person’s intimate life.

And there are hopeful signs that Pope Francis — who clearly disagrees with Bruni and with me about these matters — may at least be inclined to find “a better focus for the church’s spiritual energies.”

There’s that name, for starters — Francis — which he confirmed that he chose in honor of Francis of Assisi, a saint committed to the poor, to peace, and to reverence for all of creation:

“The poor, the poor. When he spoke about the poor, I thought of St. Francis of Assisi,” said the pope, who took the name of Francis, as he continued in a bit of off-the-cuff storytelling that has become a charming hallmark of his new pontificate. “Then, I thought of the wars.”

“While the voting continued, until all the votes were counted: It is St. Francis, man of peace,” he remembered thinking to himself.

“And this is how the name came to me, in my heart: Francis of Assisi. The man of the poor, the man of peace, the man who loves and cares for creation – in this moment when we don’t have a very good relationship with creation, no?” he added.

“A man who gives us this spirit of peace, a poor man … Ah, how much I would like a poor church, for the poor!”

Good to hear. And Andrew Sullivan notes another very positive sign from that same papal press conference, when Francis said the following by way of offering his blessing on the gathered journalists:

“Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God. May God bless you.”

Sullivan writes:

This kind of understanding of the diverse and multi-faith and multi-cultural modernity is something you would never have heard from Benedict XVI. … Respecting the conscience of each of you. That might seem to be the bleeding obvious – but it isn’t in the context of Benedict’s theological reign, which was far longer than his pontifical one. Benedict wanted to place conscience below revelation as authoritatively adjudicated by … himself. The central place of individual conscience established at the Second Council was left to wither in favor of a public, uniform religion. He seemed to me to want ultimately to restore the seamless cultural-political-religious unity of the Bavaria of his youth; and if the public square were empty, it had to be filled with religious authority. He tried. In the West, the public square moved in the opposite direction. He hunkered down, hoping for a smaller, purer church. What he got was a smaller one, but beset by scandal and internal division and a legacy of the most horrendous of crimes.

Francis seems to me to be taking the world as it is, but showing us a different way of living in it. These are first impressions, but there seems much less fear there of the modern world, much greater ease with humanity.

And that is a hopeful sign.

On a less important note, I also see grounds for hope in this Reuters piece, which tells us that Pope Francis says his favorite movie is Babette’s Feast and that his favorite painting is Chagall’s White Crucifixion.

At this moment in history, though, a welcome display of respect for conscience, worthy remarks on the legacy of his worthy namesake, and impeccable taste in movies and art are not what matters most for a leader in Pope Francis’ position. Above all else, he will be judged — by me, and by most of the world, and by history — on how he addresses the shameful sex abuse scandal and the church’s decades-long cover-up and complicity in denying justice to victims. That has to be his first priority, and his second, third, fourth and fifth.

Let’s start with an easy, and obvious, first step. Mark Silk spells it out very clearly:

If Francis wants to make as much of a mark by his handling of the abuse scandal as he has by his simple lifestyle, he’s got a ready-made opportunity. Last September, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City was convicted of a criminal misdemeanor for failing to report one of his priests for possible sexual abuse of children. Thus far, neither the Vatican nor the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has so much as issued a statement on the matter.

If Francis removes Finn from office, as he should, he will signal to the world that it’s a new day in the Church. This is an easy call to make. Let’s see if he can make it.

It should be an easy call to make. If Francis is willing to make it, then perhaps we can look upon his service with a bit more hope. If he’s not willing to make it, then that hope would be severely misplaced.


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  • Baby_Raptor

    He makes pretty noises, but we’ll have to wait and see if he actually supports poor people. The catholic church’s positions don’t much do that right now.

  • No mention of his time under the Argentinian dictatorship, however we choose to interpret it? It seems pretty crucial.

  • Hexep

    50 kuai says he does not remove Finn from office.

  • Al Mohler seems almost surprised to learn that the new pope is Catholic . . . .

    Has anyone broken it to him yet about what bears do in the woods?

  • reynard61

    Will he join the Nuns on the Bus, or throw them under it?

  • Actions will indeed speak louder than any words or press releases.

    At his stage of the post-papal election thing, the standard PR “the pope loves pasta, and puppies” meme is still in effect as the days slowly progress.

    And even if he is a God send and a reformer, his usefulness to turn the tide of irrelevance of the cold gray Vatican machine around is at best five or six years.

    The age of miracles I think to say is quite over.

  • Apparently, given the choice between his limousine and… well, his limousine… Francis chose to ride the bus back to his hotel with the other cardinals. He then paid for his room at the hotel, despite this being “unnecessary.”

    Hopefully this means he’s on the bus after all.

  • konrad_arflane

    Pope Francis’ church is not my church, but the decisions he makes as the
    leader of his church will affect and influence my life, my family, my
    neighbors and my country. I cannot help but be interested, looking on
    with curiosity, a little hope, and a lot of dread.

    Replace “Pope” with “President” and “church” with “country”, and this is a very good description of how I feel around US election time.

  • Shane

    ” That mistake is much more recent — the work of a pope overruling his
    theological advisers for political reasons just 44 years ago.”

    One can certainly criticize what the Catholic Church teaches on contraception, but the above idea is not true. If one goes back through the history of Christianity, contraception was pretty much condemned up until 1930, wherein it was approved by the Anglican communion. There are statements and papal teachings on this subject that go back centuries, so claiming otherwise is simply an exercise in historical ignorance.

  • Jurgan

    But hormonal birth control specifically was a new innovation. Supporting or condemning that would be an important step in deciding whether the church would live in the modern world or fight against it.

  • Carstonio

    “unsurprisingly disappointing for not being a Baptist” – Is that Fred’s disappointment or Mohler’s? If it’s the former, that would undermine his point that the real problem is the Church’s position on vitally important social issues, not on theology.

  • I think it was a bit of humour on Fred’s part.

  • LMM22

    That was almost certainly sarcasm. It may also have been an LB reference, as *that* Pope secretly converted to evangelical Christianity.

  • Amaryllis

    One hears the expression, “From your mouth to God’s ear,” for something devoutly to be hoped for.

    If the first words that Cardinal Bergoglio heard at the moment when he become Pope Francis were “Don’t forget about the poor,” then we must hope that it’s “From God’s mouth to his ear.”

    We’ll see.

    I may also mention that Francis of Assisi, with all his devotion to poverty and animals and peace, with all his humility, was a pretty stubborn person when he was convinced that he was right. (That’s the saints for you.) We’ll see what this Francis chooses to be stubborn about.

  • aunursa

    Al Mohler seems almost surprised to learn that the new pope is Catholic

    Only in Left Behind is the pope (secretly) a Protestant.

  • banancat

    I’m from the US but I actually had a similar thought when I read this. I can now sort of understand how people from other countries have described their feelings of US politics.

  • Kirala

    Yeah, IIRC, the chief objection to obstructive contraception was repeating the sin of Onan. Which, yeah, it’s a stretch, but it gets downright ridiculous when you try to extend it to hormonal birth control.

  • Nick Gotts

    Indeed. Whatever the truth of specific allegations against Bergoglio (that he hung two of his fellow-Jesuits out to dry, and that contrary to his later claims, he knew that children of the disappeared were being given to families linked to the junta), the Argentine Church, apparently unlike its Chilean counterpart, was up to its neck in collaboration with the gang of kidnappers, torturers and murderers that seized control of the state. Bergoglio, at that time Jesuit Provincial for Argentina, was willing to appear hobnobbing with Videla, the junta leader. He has opposed the process of bringing the torturers and murderers to justice, and refused to defrock the vile Police chaplain Christian von Wernich, convicted on multiple counts of kidnapping, torture and murder.

  • Carstonio

    Heh. An exchange from a 1990s Superman comic that featured Impulse (approximate quote):

    Superman: “The Pope took it very well when you asked him if he was Catholic.”
    Impulse: “All of my friends keep asking me that.”

  • misanthropy_jones

    when al attacks the pope for claims of inerrancy, he does so from his belief in his own inerrancy. interesting circle there…

  • Will that cover a cup of coffee, a dinner at Red Lobster, a purebred black Labrador, or a new Chevy Volt?
    Just wondering how much a kuai is worth and too lazy to look it up.

  • Maggadin

    I’m not sure why Benedict is regarded as the Worst Pope Ever when it comes to issues that JP II and Francis are equally bad on (that is, homosexuality, abortion, the child sex abuse etc). If anything, Papa Razzi was one of the more ‘honest’ popes when it came to not hiding his abhorrent views behind a grandfatherly joviality. It obviously doesn’t make him *better*, but other popes were not less ‘evil’ than him. I also wish people would quit using the Hitler Youth card as 1. Him and his family were anti-Nazi and he was only a member because he had to be. 2. Given that it isn’t true it distracts from the legitimate issues that people have with him.

  • Maggadin

    Just a quick self-correction: We obviously don’t know yet how Francis is going to deal, or not deal, with the abuse scandal, but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Hexep

    One of my lucky 50s will get you, hmm, hrmm… It’s 8 dollars.

    I call them my ‘lucky’ 50s because, for various numismatic reasons, they’re the rarest bills you get. We have 1s, 5s, 10s, 20s, 50s, and 100s, and ATMs only hand out 100s. At any given time, I like to have one. It’s also nice because the picture on the back is Potala Palace, and it’s the best-looking of all the bills.

  • Victor Savard

    (((The patriarchy and hierarchy of the Catholic church is wrong. The church’s treatment of LGBT people is wrong. The church’s insistence on a nominally/officially celibate priesthood is wrong.)))

    Keep supporting your troops Fred cause the end will eventually justify the means and/or your means will eventually justify your end. Hey your black pope agrees with YA and we alien gods have forced “ONE” pope out and if the rest won’t see “IT” our WAY then we alien gods will deal with that bridge after we’ve Crossed “IT”. We must make sure that LGBT people are seen as perfectly normal and if This so called Cat lick, I mean Catholic church pope won’t accept “IT” then we may as hell, I mean as well forget about inviting alien gods into our world. Long story short, if they’re going to be treated like they were during the first and second world war and after we, I mean those gods cremated so many Jews for humanity guilt of having crucified your so called “Jesus” and by the way, we’ve cremated Victor’s sister and truth be known, she was poor and that’s how all your poor people should be treated cause what good are they anyway and……

    End again sinner vic?

    Butt, butt Victor, your sister was dead and only a burden on Canadian health care and beside, you Canadians all had a vote and we won so give “IT” UP already before we cremate your old family NOW!

    Victor we own YA NOW!

    Folks if this old dogs start strobbing at the mouth YA know what to do with NOW.

    Very funny Victor!!!!!!


  • frazer

    The Pope’s own commission set up to study artificial birth control endorsed it. The Pope rejected the majority’s conclusion.

  • I’ve explained this several times. The church’s objection to the Pill is that they consider it to be equivalent to treating fertility like an illness to be cured, and they consider this to be a kind of treating your body like it’s a thing that you own separate from your self — sin by Granny Weatherwax’s definition (“Treating people like they’re objects. Including yourself”)

    (I did not say that I agree with this argument, and I already know many of the flaws in it. So there’s no need ot try to convince me I’m wrong)

  • EllieMurasaki

    I remember hearing the ‘treating fertility like an illness to be cured’ part, but not the ‘treating your body like it’s something you own’ part. Supposing they’re right on that latter: how can that POSSIBLY be worse than treating your (uterus-equipped) body like it’s something owned by the fetus it contains or might contain, or like it’s something owned by the person attached to the penis it intermittently contains or might contain?

  • Well, it appears, at least at first glance, that Frank did not directly participate in the perpetration or coverup of child sexual abuse.

    Which, I suppose, is the absolute best the Church could hope for, and quite possibly, their number one requirement for the office.

  • P J Evans

    After reading about Onan’s sin being not providing an heir for his brother, I tend to think they ought to rethink that argument.

  • Presumably, they just flat out don’t accept that their position necessarily constitutes treating your body as the property of a fetus or someone attached to a nearby penis, in much the same way that I don’t accept that deliberately suppressing ovulation necessarily constitutes Thinging one’s body (for everyone. I imagine for some people it would. They should probably avoid it. Unless they’re dualists).

  • Name

    Dennis Markuse?

  • EllieMurasaki

    No, Victor’s harmless. Markuze has been on Slacktivist before and they’re not at all alike.

  • And I was beginning to like Pope Francis.

  • Keulan

    So far I’m not optimistic about Francis. Not surprisingly, his positions on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia are out of touch with the modern world. Meanwhile, he talks a lot about helping the poor, but he hasn’t taken any actions to help the poor yet. And he also hasn’t said or done anything about the church’s sex abuse problems. If he actually does some good for the world I’d be surprised.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m not optimistic either, but I also don’t think it’s fair to judge him on his first couple days in the hot seat.

  • Nick Gotts

    Frank Schaeffer is hosting an article from SALON about Bergoglio’s membership of a group called Communion and Liberation. That may sound like it has something to do with “Liberation Theology”, but that’s only true in the sense that the National Socialist German Workers’ Party had something to do with socialism. The parallel may seem extreme, but CL is referred to as having an “integralist” philosophy, which is not so far from fascism. CL arose in Italy, and has been very supportive of Berlusconi, who has increasingly made a point of saying nice things about Mussolini. Much has been made of Bergoglio’s concern for the poor, and opposition to globalisation and market fundamentalism. It’s worth remembering that both Italian fascism and Nazism initially included genuine elements of anticapitalism, later purged; and that fascism in Spain, Poland, Austria and Slovakia had a strong clerical component.

    On a lighter note, someone on a Guardian thread about the new Pope noted the similarity between the recent succession of two very elderly conservative men to the Papacy, and the Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko sequence in the Kremlin. I pointed out that if the parallel holds, when they elect their “Gorbachev”, we’ll know the end really is nigh.

  • Maggadin

    That is indeed something. But I’m not going to be shocked if it turns out that he did.