A Third Post with the Word “Inkblots” in the Title

Chris presented some interesting insights from Rocco Palmo in his last post, and I think he’s right to say that they make the Rorschach test that is Pope Francis a bit more “navigable.” The “quotes” that Palmo reprints – and I put “quotes” in quotes because they are not the pope’s actual words, but rather notes taken by his interlocutors during a closed-door meeting – do not really tell us much about the new pontiff that we didn’t already know. They do, however, lend credence to the idea that he is still intent on pushing forward with some sort of substantive (if not doctrinal) reforms, and that his earlier remarks on the subject were not merely post-conclave boilerplate intended to strike the right tone at the beginning of his tenure. Insofar as these comments are recent, they are evidence in favor of the idea that something is about to happen. As Chris puts it, Francis is almost certainly putting the Vatican on “a more restrained version of [James] Carroll’s track.”

That said, I would quibble somewhat with his effusive characterization of Francis’ “fascinatingly frank and clear”, “straightforward” and “no-nonsense” style, which he sees as a “most welcome approach to the papacy.” I agree that the clear and accessible language of the new pope is preferable to abstruse and easily misinterpreted pontificating (pun certainly intended). To the extent that Francis can avoid precipitating another PR disaster on the order of the Regensburg affair, he will have helped to protect the Church’s public image from further damage.

I also agree that the criticism of “socially mannered language” is an important one that’s worth exploring further, although I think it’s peripheral to the point that Chris is trying to make here. The pope is obviously not attacking the idea of having good manners and respecting norms of civil discourse, but rather the tendency to “say nice things which we do not feel.” Citing this phrase in the course of praising Francis for being “frank” and “no-nonsense” is at best a non sequitur, and at worst a misinterpretation of his argument.

But I’m not sure that what Chris really appreciates is the pope’s “clear” and “straightforward” language so much as the program of reform at which he seems to be hinting. He writes that “[Francis’] blunt talk about the ‘gay lobby’ is a refreshing indicator of honesty and (limited) transparency, something that has been desperately needed of late.” I think I know what he’s getting at here, but it remains the case that someone with a more traditionalist interpretation of the inkblots is liable to hear (see?) something completely different. Whereas he understands Francis’ talk of the alleged gay lobby to be a part of a broader critique of the “current of corruption” in the Vatican administrative apparatus, those who follow the line of thinking promoted by Benedict several years back may see this as the start of a renewed effort to root out not bureaucratic chicanery, but homosexual clerics. One can present any agenda in “clear” and “straightforward” terms, but whether that clarity and directness is seen as a virtue will depend on one’s views of the agenda itself.

The Rorschach test once again! Chris’ attempt to squint a little bit harder at the blots and blobs is not completely fruitless, but it ultimately just ends up reminding us how blotty and blobby they really are.

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