Parsing Papal Popularity, Part III: Toward a Hermeneutic of Sanity

Parsing Papal Popularity, Part III: Toward a Hermeneutic of Sanity October 21, 2013

I had not planned to extend this series to a third post – until I stumbled upon a short and sweet analysis that is so utterly sane that its positive suggestions make an irresistible complement to my more critical breakdowns (here and here) of the ongoing ideological tug-of-war over Pope Francis and how he is interpreted.

I am referring to a simple yet astute article by Kevin Cotter of the college-oriented ministry FOCUS.  After noting the controversy that tends to circle around Pope Francis, Cotter offers the following 6 tips for reading him.  His point is essentially that the best corrective to misunderstandings of the pope is to make an effort to understand him well ourselves, and he reminds us with a few biblical examples that Jesus too was susceptible to being misunderstood.

The short commentaries are well worth reading, but in brief, his six suggestions in his own words are:

1.Get used to the fact that the media will misconstrue Pope Francis’ words.

2.Read Pope Francis for yourself.

3.Take a look at the recommended Pope Francis reading [with a short list of favorite homilies and addresses].

4.Seek to understand what the pope is and isn’t saying.

5.Take in not only what Pope Francis is saying, but also what he is doing.

6.Don’t be the older son in the story of the Prodigal Son.

Under this final point, Cotter turns to those Catholics who “have been dismayed by Pope Francis because they perceive him to undo the work they have worked hard for in the last few decades.”  Addressing in an admirably disarming way those who might identify with that description, Cotter explains,

Pope Francis is trying to welcome people back. He is trying to encounter the world that rarely thinks about Jesus or the Church. He is trying to completely change the Church’s PR that sorely needs a new message. And us? We are…often worried about ourselves. We are worried about that person in the parish who strays outside the boundaries of the Church teachings who might misconstrue the pope’s words and rub it in our face. We are worried about the family member who feels justified thinking that you are a rule Nazi and are trying to be more Catholic than the pope.

In the end, we need to focus on those who need Jesus and not ourselves. We need to follow Pope Francis message to get out of ourselves and to encounter and dialogue.

Some may recall that John Allen recently invoked the same parable, with the same tact and sensitivity.  Here is the gist of his reading of things:

Over his first eight months, Francis basically has killed the fatted calf for the prodigal sons and daughters of the post-modern world, reaching out to gays, women, nonbelievers, and virtually every other constituency inside and outside the church that has felt alienated.

There are an awful lot of such prodigals, of course, which helps explain the pope’s massive appeal.

Yet there are also a few Catholics today who feel a bit like the story’s older son, wondering if what they’ve always understood as their loyalty to the church, and to the papacy, is being under-valued.

Without in any way diminishing the enormous good Francis has been doing by reaching out to prodigals – or the “strongly positive” overall vibe he senses within the Vatican – Allen offers an insightful bit of reassurance to the “elder sons” of the Church, citing Francis’ commitment to unity and his political astuteness as “reasons to suspect that over time, he’ll take the sensitivities of these older sons to heart.”  Allen is wise to recall the reassurance the father himself gives to his older son in the parable, taking him aside to remind him, “Everything I have is yours.”  In other words, whether you are the prodigal seeking welcome after an estrangement or the older son fearing that your loyalty may be going unrecognized, take heart: Pope Francis is pastorally sensitive enough not to want to leave anyone behind.

Not a bad lens for reading the Gospel.  Or the pope.

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  • The sad thing is that I think that some Catholics actually like the idea of throwing out the people who don’t measure up. I felt that way myself once, and I have read plenty of comments on the internet that suggest that others do too.

  • Chris Sullivan

    I think that most of the issues some Catholics seem to have with what the Holy Father says result from their own inadequate understanding of Catholic teaching, which Pope Francis draws from brilliantly.

    The appropriate response is to listen carefully and go deeper into the theology and be prepared to learn from the Holy Father.

    God Bless

    • I know what you mean. I saw one poster declare “The pope is Christ on earth, and we are not.” Apparently the Pope is the Catholic Dalai Lama.

  • I think there’s a certain trope going around that is being seized on hopefully by the far right; which maintains that liberals are somehow misinterpreting Pope Francis, and will savagely turn on him in disappointment when they realize that doctrinal changes will not be forthcoming on the below-the-belt issues.. I think this assumption on their part is mistaken, and only goes to show how far the “no enemies to the right” character of the last papal court and the blogosphere it encouraged has shifted the Catholic center towards the right. The positive reaction to Francis is mostly about tone, and while I would consider myself a centrist, I think that most liberals and progressives who have a basic understanding of the faith are well aware that the media coverage has been spotty and incomplete, and are not realistically expecting changes in doctrine. I think it will be sufficient for most of them that the highest reaches of the Vatican won’t be scolding them for their laxity and relativism while simultaneously coddling and courting Vichy-sympathizers with anachronistic obsessions about the French Revolution, international Jewry, freemasonry, and the useful idiots serving the Bolsheviks.

    • Julia Smucker

      I’m not entirely sure what your point is here, but I would underscore that part of Cotter’s point was that there is indeed some misinterpretation that happens with regard to the pope – which should be dealt with in a spirit of charity (and which, I would add, is not completely new with Francis). I think he makes a good point as well to suggest that the best corrective to the misinterpretation is to deepen our own understanding. Mudslinging, whatever part of the Church it’s directed to, really doesn’t help.

      • I don’t think Kevin Cotter and John Allen were making precisely the same point when they both invoked the parable of the Prodigal Son, but I fully appreciate it when you say that both the “prodigals” and the “older sons” can take heart out of reading Pope Francis carefully. Kevin Cotter in particular seems to wish to make it clear to the older brothers that they have nothing to fear from Francis. This is true. I do think there is a tendency on the part of those older sons, however, to accuse the prodigals of being more likely to misinterpret Francis than they would themselves. I also think there’s a tendency to conflate the secular left in the MSM with the Catholic left. They’re not the same thing. The ill-informed views of the NYT, Slate, and Jon Stewart on these matters aren’t necessarily representative of the views of the Catholic left, so we need to be careful not to present them as such… Having said all that, though, I think it would be a mistake to suggest, as some well-known bloggers do (not necessarily you), that there is a perfect hermeneutic of continuity between Benedict and Francis, even though they are both certainly orthodox in terms of doctrine. Francis’s pastoral priorities and emphases are not only very different from Benedict’s, they also suggest that he believes that certain ones laid down by his predecessor were even imprudent or ill-advised. This should not really shock anyone. Benedict clearly thought that Paul VI had made some pastoral mistakes, and even John Paul II as well. As for mudslinging, I offer no apology for condemning the over-solicitude spent on the SSPX during the last pontificate. Bishop Fellay’s own recent words about Pope Francis certainly show a distinct lack of charity, to say the very least, and if it was anyone who broke Pope Benedict’s spirit and confidence in his papal mission, it was those guys.

        • Julia Smucker

          Thank you Jeff, I think this clarifies what you were trying to say. I was a bit put off by the barb in your previous comment, but I basically agree with you here, as I also agreed with the blogger on Ethika Politika, whom I mentioned in my last post, who made the point that we don’t need to make the stretch of seeing a “perfect segue” between Benedict and Francis in order to respect them both and affirm their orthodoxy.

          And yes, I think it’s safe to say the general consensus is correct that the door is closed with the SSPX. I’m tempted to say “good riddance”, but that wouldn’t be very charitable, although I have to admit it came as a relief to me. The possibility of their reconciliation with Rome had challenged my own sense of catholicity, as one of the great ironies of catholicity is that the Church is such a big tent that it must have room for some who would rather it be a smaller tent – unless they choose to remain definitively in schism. Benedict’s overtures to the SSPX did make me uneasy, but I have to give him credit for recognizing where the boundaries were. If they refused, as they did, to back down from their condition that Vatican II’s declaration on religious freedom be revoked, then a reunification was doctrinally impossible, and Benedict knew it.

          John Allen’s point is also well taken that Francis, as a gifted pastor, knows better than to abandon anyone who doesn’t refuse the maternal mercy of the Church, including his “older sons” who remain in the fold while begrudging the prodigals the attention he is giving them.

  • I would add something to your own and Cotter’s list: one must consider more carefully than is being suggested here, how the people of his own religious culture and tradition read him. The new pope is a pastor from a part of the world that has been stinted in terms of its influence in the universal Church, and he comes from a particular place and time that European and North American Catholics don’t know much about. His own South American people are likely to have a more accurate picture of him than we do.

    • Jordan

      I would agree that Pope Francis’s engagement with the world is certainly a reflection of his experience as a pastor in the developing world. On a broader scale, however, Pope Francis is turning the tables on “postmodern discourse”, if such a term exists. If conversation is play, an exercise in a constant revolution in the meaning of words and concepts, then Pope Francis is certainly a master of “discourse outside discourse”. This is why ultramontanes go berserk over his statements: they cannot understand that Tridentine-style dogmatism cannot prevail in an age where words are rapidly stretched and stranded like noodle dough.

      Pope Francis knows that the fullness of Catholic teaching requires time to mature. He cannot show all facets at once: mercy and law cannot be communicated to an ignorant world through a mindless repetition of bulls, encyclicals, and the Catechism. And yet, this is exactly what the “smaller church” demands of him. May Pope Francis preseve in ignoring the (self-)”elect”!

      • Julia Smucker

        Jordan, what do you make of John Allen’s argument that Pope Francis ultimately can’t and won’t ignore the Church’s “older sons”?

      • Jordan

        Julia, I must admit that I often have little patience or regard for the “older brothers”. I have suffered mightily at their hands, not only because of my sexual orientation but also because of their rigidity in the face of questioning. (I do not discriminate by race, gender, or creed, but whether or not a person can formulate an articulate answer.) Many of the “older brothers” are motivated by works-righteousness and not any understanding of charity and mercy. Standing in a picket line outside of an abortion clinic and shouting in women’s faces is not the face of Christ to the suffering, suffers who are also created in the image of God. Is this behavior, among other confrontational methods, the surest path to Abraham’s bosom?

        So, I have my own demons and prejudices to wrestle with. Still, why should Pope Francis cease from his criticisms in order to assuage those who must be challenged? Pope Francis should move more boldly forward towards the opening of minds.

        • Julia Smucker

          It’s interesting that you use the phrase “opening of minds”, because it sounds like you’re asking him to be more confrontational toward those who are too confrontational. I’m sure he is enough of a pastor to understand that this is not the best way to win hearts or to open minds. That’s what I like about him: he is not afraid to critique certain trends (and occasionally personal actions, as the case of the “bling bishop” shows) that do need to be challenged, but he seems to know how to do so in a way that gets a lot of people listening. In fact, he is challenging me to further reflection on my own need for a better balance of “truth in charity” in the way I raise criticisms.

        • All of what you say is quite true Julia. I should not have participated in this thread because my heart is filled with anger and rage towards whom I imagine the “elder sons” are. This anger has extended to the point where I have considered leaving the faith out of disgust at these cariactures I have formed in my mind. How many times have I offended others with my condecension?

          You are right that Pope Francis wants us to be challenged. I greatly suspect, however, that he does not believe that challenge can take place between poisoned hearts.

          • Julia Smucker

            Thank you for your introspective honesty. I continue to hold you in high esteem as a model for receiving criticism. And I have caught myself in that same cycle on multiple occasions, judging judgers to the point that the same poison wells up in my own heart.

            So maybe we all need a detox in order to dialogue.

        • trellis smith

          Quite excellent Jordon
          While I vehemently disagree with this pope’s moral positions one can remain in communion with him because he understands that from God’s grace all else flows.
          From such understanding an epistemological humility rather than an infallible arrogance comes to the forefront as well as a respect for the individual conscience.
          All of Christ’s parables are an indictment of the American hierarchy. Chaputs disregard for the concept of freedom of conscience is one such indicator how far this Church has strayed from the promise of Vat II

      • “This is why ultramontanes go berserk over his statements: they cannot understand that Tridentine-style dogmatism cannot prevail in an age where words are rapidly stretched and stranded like noodle dough.”

        I think that’s probably very true.

        • Cojuanco

          I’m an Ultramontane, yet I don’t go berserk over his words. A true Ultramontane would submit to the teachings of the Holy Father in Rome, not try to defy it because it doesn’t fit in with his Jansenistic misconception of what Holy Mother Church teaches, or wish him to be killed. A true Ultramontane would charitably assume the Holy Father is orthodox, not moan and groan about how his pet sins are being condemned from the pulpits of Rome and therefore he must be an idiot for his condemning these sins. A true Ultramontane would prefer the Magisterium of Pope and bishops over the magisterium of either political party platform.

          Much of what the Holy Father condemns is indeed contrary to what is taught by Trent, and instead is more like to Calvinism than anything else, which as we all know is a heresy. Perhaps it may be called neo-Jansenism?

          Julia, as to the SSPX, I never understood why the Holy Father Emeritus was so solicitous to invite them back post-2007. I love the Latin Mass. I cheered when Summorum Pontificum was promulgated. I still do. But that’s the point. We have the motu proprio. We have legitimate places for those devoted to the spirituality of the Extraordinary Form. What the SSPX asks of the Church right now the Church cannot give nor will ever be able to give. It is Fellay that much change, not Peter.

          • Julia Smucker

            Cojuanco, this is an interesting and, I must say, stereotype-breaking comment. I believe too much in collegiality to ever call myself an ultramontanist, but if you substitute “Catholic” for “Ultramontane” here, I agree with you – especially about preferring the magisterium of the Church over those of political parties.

        • Cojuanco

          Of course, we can recall the Holy Father’s actions. On the one hand, yes, he relies on collaborative and deliberative bodies to render advice to him. On the other hand, we have seen in concrete detail where he has acted on his own initiative over the authority of local dioceses – ask the misguided Australian priest who is now excommunicated (may God grant him the grace of repentance). Or ask the Bishop of Limburg. He has, it seems on his own initiative, decided to canonize two of his predecessors. Witness further how he takes advice primarily not from the Curia, but from men handpicked by him. He is exercising papal supremacy, while at the same time asking for advice from bodies of men. One can balance the fact the Pope should at times consult others with the knowledge that he can take their advice but decide to act on his own initiative instead. And I think that is a perfectly good balance, which comes to him naturally as a Jesuit.

          The problem is that some who seem to wrap themselves in the appellation Ultramontane have used it to cover their own personal agendas. In the United States this has taken the form of acting as if the Popes commanded all of us to vote Republican (now I am a Republican myself, but still, it’s a bit of a stretch, no?), as if the red and gold pens were mandated by the Holy See itself! Which is a distortion of the commands of the Popes, but it suits their secular purposes well.

          Another thing – I think what gets people so out of joint is that he’s the first consecrated religious to be elected Pope in a while. Such usually happens when one is elected. The last one was almost lynched by the people of Rome. The one before that changed the order of the Mass so radically people across Europe complained bitterly.

          So to me, an Ultramontane is someone who believes that the Pope possesses supreme, full and universal jurisdiction. If he on his own initiative solicits the advice of his bishops as a body, that is his prerogative.

          • Julia Smucker

            With comments like these, I see a variety of ultramontanism that I can sincerely respect. I never thought I’d say that, but I thank you for it.

        • I would like to remind both Julia and Conjuanco that it has never been established that a Council of the Apostolic Church doesn’t have the prerogative of over-ruling, and even deposing a duly elected Supreme Pontiff–which means that the pope is not “supreme” and that a certain type of “collegiality” has greater authority than he, when it is sitting.

          • Julia Smucker

            I never argued otherwise. And indeed I would part ways with Cojuanco on the point of the pope’s “prerogative” to consult with the bishops, which I believe is not merely his prerogative but his duty. At the same time, I can respect a consistent deference to the pope much more than a selective one. That’s all I’m saying here.

        • I agree with you, Julia–absolutely–about a “consistent deference” to the Supreme Pontiff’s teaching authority–but not the kind of mindless one, suspending the duty of conscience that the FAUX “traditionalists” of the American Catholic Right have been advocating since 1978. They, in fact, are anti-“traditionalists” and need to be corrected by John Henry Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, on the subject of “papal infallability” and the role of the individual human conscience. Newman knew more about “tradition” than they ever will.

          • Julia Smucker

            Completely agreed, both on the limitations of a selective or mindless kind of traditionalism that ends up with an anemic understanding of tradition, and on Newman as a good corrective to this.

            Wait a minute – did we just witness an agreement between me, dismasdolben, and a self-described Ultramontane??

        • Cojuanco

          On the other hand, the First Vatican Council assented out of obedience to the Holy Father’s claim of infallibility, in spite of fierce disagreement before. So I think the Pope may overrule a Ecumenical Council, though this should of course be prudently used. Provincial Councils, though, not so much, as during the Jansenist Controversy.

          As to prerogative, I mean that in some cases, he can dispense with consultation. It might be his moral duty to do so, but not his legal duty to do so.

          As for selective traditionalism, the SSPX and other schismatics aside, the selective traditionalism in my experience has been more among the laity than the priests. The average celebrant of the Latin Mass, from my experience, has little or no bone to pick with the Holy Father – usually because they have other things to worry about, like say, running a parish or a school, or trying to convince Brother Alphonse to stop that racket while he’s trying to pray next door, or consoling a woman whose son has decided to join a gang. The sort of selective traditionalism described, I have seen more among my fellow laymen, and even then, it is but a significant vocal minority. Usually they seem to unthinkingly worship not our Lord, but some political party or another.

          And of course there’s some agreement – I suspect because all three of us are self-professed Catholics.

          • Julia Smucker

            …the selective traditionalism in my experience has been more among the laity than the priests.

            This resonates strongly with my experience as well. A similar spectrum to that of the laity also exists among the priests and magisterium, but in my observation the ideologies of the laity go further out in either direction. And I think you have a good point in suggesting that it is the reality of having more pastoral concerns to deal with that keeps at least some priests grounded.

    • That’s very true. It’s going to be problematic if we interpret Francis in the light of Europe or the United States.

  • Jordan

    Kevin Cotter’s admonition number six, “[d]on’t be the older son in the story of the Prodigal Son” [my addition], strikes me as especially pertinent in light of Pope Francis’s method of instruction and homiletics. Unfortunately, many in the Church will speed past Cotter’s sage advice in their self-righteous rage at the Pope’s supposed disregard for “Church teaching” (i.e. the straw magisterium idol which ultramontanes have erected for their psychological security).

    Once, while loitering in a church vestibule, I saw a notice which called together parishoners to discuss then-pending same-sex marriage legislation in Conn. The concluding throwaway sentence in the notice read in a manner similar to, “we don’t hate same-sex-attracted people, but we have to do something.” This notice struck me as a call to a Jim Jones-esque blind allegiance to the magisterium, mixed with a utter naivety about current sociocultural and political affairs. I decided that I wouldn’t stay around to drink deeply of that Flavor-Aid. So many so-called devout Catholics do not think critically about their belief and faith, let alone the interface of these two concepts within communities.

    Often today many think of “fundamentalism” as a distinct and seperable subset of a particular belief and faith system. Pope Francis is encouraging Catholics to realize that rigidity and blind allegance is an affliction of degrees. I interpret Pope Francis’s comments on belief and doubt as an affirmation of grace and revealed truth. Ultramontanism is not a heartfelt response to grace, but rather a disability of the human intellect. For Pope Francis, belief and faith require doubt. The pope’s exhortation to doubt is most painful for those who mask their fear of unbelief with a uncritical allegiance.

    • Kimberley

      Or perhaps the parishioners you encountered had thought and prayed over their decision to support marriage. And decided that scripture, 2000 years of tradition, the catechism, and a moral truth taught by the pope in communion with all of the bishops means they could not go along with the immorality of the current culture.

      • trellis smith

        I sometimes wonder if the elder brothers and sisters have encountered the one true thing as found in this internet synopsis of Mark Twain’s famous coming of age story. “Huck’s and Jim’s quest for freedom on a raft on the Mississippi River provides a panoramic view of Southern society, which Twain saw as beset by greed, violence, and coldhearted brutality in the guise of virtue. At the end of the book, Huck definitively abandons the hypocrisy and cant on which he has been raised when he makes the shocking decision to go to hell rather than betray his friend Jim and send him back to slavery.”

        I too would rather shake hands with the devil then send gay and lesbian people back to the oppression of the 2000 years of “tradition”, the catechism, and some supposed moral truth promulgated by the pope in communion with all the bishops of the Holy Catholic Church. The Law does not save.

    • Jordan

      Kimberly, I respect people who hold well reasoned convictions about any social movement such as gay marriage. Usually, those who can express their convictions with articulation do not resort to hateful words against those who they disagree with. To be fair, hatred occurs on both sides of the gay marriage question. in both cases, this is an objectification of another person’s position, which is unjust.

      However, the example I gave earlier is not a well-reasoned response to gay marriage. Not infrequently I will meet laypersons who can’t articulate why they oppose gay marriage, but blindly follow what has been told to them by clergy. I do not have much respect for people who do not thoughtfully consider the issue. “We just have to do something” or similar does not suggest to me that the persons who formed this meeting have any real contextual and personal knowledge of homosexuality, gay people, or why gay people would want to marry. Ultramontanism enters the stage when Catholics act in a knee-jerk reaction against current “hot button” issues in an automaton-like manner. Simply quoting Catechism is no different than a person who memorizes Bible passages in order to proselytize.

  • john larkin

    I find this prodigal son comparison simplistic because it assumes all conservative traditional catholics were themselves never wayward or prodigal.
    It is therefore base line Manichism.

    What is so therefore so sad about the conduct of the current roman Catholic pontiff is his astounding public devaluation of the spiritual consolation afforded by what is generally widely understood as traditional conservative catholic piety and practice.

    That any pope would publicly utter the types of sentiments widely attributed to him and broadly credible in the press is a great tragedy.

    In my view the history of the papacy has entered its darkest age yet.

    • Julia Smucker

      What has Pope Francis said to devalue traditional piety? He did talk about his prayer practices (the breviary, the rosary, Eucharistic adoration) in the America interview, but that wasn’t what made the headlines. I think he demonstrates more of a connection between such practices and broader social concerns than is often picked up on, and he is calling us to focus more on the latter than we sometimes have, without neglecting the former.

    • Jordan

      john larkin [October 29, 2013 7:44 am]: What is so therefore so sad about the conduct of the current roman Catholic pontiff is his astounding public devaluation of the spiritual consolation afforded by what is generally widely understood as traditional conservative catholic piety and practice.

      As an ex-traditionalist, I have noted that traditionalism and Tridentine worship often distorts the postconciliar Church both out of anger and a resistance to change. Pope Francis’s photo on the Vatican website summarizes his pontificate: he is captured walking, smiling, and raising his right hand in an open gesture (perhaps a wave, or a blessing). Pope Francis’s papacy is an “open hands” papacy. He invites us to reconsider the faith from many angles, instead of the closed-handed dogmatism of those holding onto an ecclesiology which cannot answer postmodern challenges.

      While I agree with Julia that Pope Francis has never deprecated traditional devotions, he has also bolted shut the doors to the papal throne room. Traditionalists should not fear but celebrate the end of the trappings of papal monarchy. The end of papal reigns and the royal Nos is the very beginning of the pilgrim church realized.

  • Julia Smucker

    Another noteworthy dose of sanity from John Allen:

    No matter where one stands on the spectrum of reaction Francis has elicited, from the most enthusiastic to the most ambivalent, it’s undeniable he’s got the world’s attention. In theory, that should represent a boon to the new evangelization, the effort to relight the church’s missionary fires that became Catholicism’s highest internal priority under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

    One reliable method for squandering the momentum, however, would be to divert it into the church’s internal battles. The world may now be looking at Catholicism in a new light, but if what it sees primarily is squabbling over who Francis is and what he represents, then he may remain a mere curiosity or pop culture sensation, not an invitation to faith, and his magnetic pull may never extend to the church he leads.

    Allen makes it quite clear in the rest of this column that his advice is for all of us.