The New Jersey Connection: Further Discussion about the Pope’s Rhetoric (Inkblots Part IV)

Matt and I are in the middle of our first “nauseatingly polite” slugfest for this site, and it’s been one heck of a conversation.  To recap: we largely agree that Pope Francis is aiming to conduct substantive reform in the Vatican, but we’re debating the extent to which these reforms can be forecast from the Pope’s pronouncements thus far.

I’m going to respond to Matt’s critiques and throw a couple of new ideas into the mix for further discussion.   Forgive me if I start referring to Francis as Pope Rorschach in the course of this effort; the man and the theme of these posts are fast synergizing in my mind.

I’ll respond to Matt’s latter criticism first: that my interest in the Pope’s rhetoric is actually misplaced for enthusiasm in his prospective changes to official Church policy.  Matt wrote: “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.”  Matt further noted how different ideological groups would interpret Francis’ aim to end the “culture of corruption” linked to the “gay lobby” comment differently – some might see it as strong indicator of reform, while others would view it as an attempt to root out gay priests entirely.

This is a fair and warranted distinction to make, but my point about Francis’ use of “clear” language was not a referendum or prediction concerning the Pope’s potential course of action.  Rather, it’s an appreciation that the Vatican is even confirming the lobby exists.  Rocco noted in his post that with respect to the “gay lobby,” “it’s not hard to draw a line back to the pre-Conclave reports in the Italian press which indicated the presence of actively gay officials in the Curia who were allegedly being ‘blackmailed’ by outside sources.”  The harm of the so-called Vatileaks scandal was not only in the allegations Pope Benedict had to deal with, but in the refusal of the Church to be transparent and actually engage in a dialogue with the public about potential corruption in the Curia.  The refusal of the Church to simply say anything was arguably in and of itself a miscalculation; members of organizations need to be treated with respect by their governing agents.  Francis’ mere acknowledgement of the lobby provides a modicum of transparency that was absent from the aftermath of Vatileaks.

Francis’ brief confirmation that the lobby does in fact exist serves as a critical step in the process of ameliorating this error, even if it remains to be seen whether the subsequent process entails full-scale reform of the inner circle or specifically relieving all gay priests, even outside the supposedly blackmailed group.  (I certainly hope it’s the former, and I think Rocco’s emphasis on “drawing a line back to the pre-Conclave reports” decreases the probability of the latter, at least in this context).

This leads to my second response to Matt’s critiques: the Pope’s employment of language.  Matt argued that “citing [the Pope’s criticism of ‘socially mannered language’] 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.”  I agree that the Pope’s critique is not directly linked to his blunt commentary; the theme of his speech was the problem with flattery and misrepresentation of truth, which is indeed unrelated to his own papal proclamations (he obviously doesn’t act as a sycophant).  This was why I said it deserved a separate post at a later time.

That said, I think it’s a bit overreaching to say Francis’ comments are at best a non sequitur for this conversation.  While the theme of his homily was not indicative of a personal attitude toward language, the Pope did suggest there is a general moral importance in choosing accurate language in order to avoid intentional misrepresentation.  “Do we speak in truth, with love, or do we speak with that social language to be polite, even say nice things, which we do not feel?” he asked, and it seems the last part of that question (“things we do not feel”) could be extended to explain Francis’ blunt style.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the same underlying conviction in the morality of sincere language explains both Francis’ frank public comments thus far and his criticism of politically correct communication.  This is admittedly an inference on my part, and I again emphasize my agreement with Matt’s original critique, but I do think we can draw parallels between the Pope’s employment of and commentary on language.

I’ll bring up one more point of discussion that Matt will probably have a field day with.  The most impressive aspect of Francis’ papacy has been his ability to equally energize conservative and progressive wings of the church, as well as groups and people outside of the Church entirely.  It’s a testament to his decisions thus far that we’re even having this discussion about reading the inkblots; the sense of shock that Rocco conveys in his post confirms that we’re in very unique waters for papal behavior.  I think we can glean a little more insight into why Francis has been so popular across such broad constituencies by comparing him to an entirely different public figure: Chris Christie.

Yes!  Chris Christie, governor of RM’s home state of New Jersey, frequently mentioned presidential nominee for the G.O.P., wildly enthusiastic Bruce Springsteen fan, and unceasingly outspoken former state attorney general.  Like Pope Francis, Christie has managed to gain widespread support for his governance that extends beyond ideological lines.  The most recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed that Christie had an astounding 70% approval rating in decidedly liberal New Jersey, including an over 50% approval rating from polled Democrats.  For a state that has historically tilted Democratic in presidential elections and usually elects Democratic senators and governors, this swelling support base seems wildly improbable and unlikely.  Why has Christie gained so much favor across the political spectrum?

His response to Superstorm Sandy is certainly a major component in his popularity.  Christie’s public image of the tireless governor who worked with Shore residents to rebuild their community was both compassionate and effective.  People saw a man who they could respect, especially when he blasted the GOP-run House for threatening to delay relief funds to the state.  Some of Christie’s policies have been quite popular as well; his efforts to stabilize the constantly increasing rate of NJ property taxes have won him a number of supporters.

But some of Christie’s policies have been wildly unpopular as well, most notably his stand-offs with union representatives in the state and his generally middling record with the state’s economic situation (see the Rutgers poll link above).  Especially among Democrats, there is no way Christie should entertain as much support as he has recently (including a wave of Democratic mayoral endorsements throughout the state).  Something else must be at play.

I’d argue that the ultimate reason for Christie’s success among all political demographics, and the main reason for Francis’ early groundswell of support among both liberal Catholics and non-Catholics, is their mutual tendency to use blunt language coupled with an ability to undermine expectations over what is acceptable to say in their respective nominal and ideological roles.

Let’s tackle their nominal roles first.  I’d argue that both the papacy and the governorship carry an ingrained understanding of reserved authority and, subsequently, formality.  Francis and Christie have undermined this formality in different ways but to the same effect of shaking up how people see sedentary institutions.  Francis’ use of blunt language has set him apart from the more scholarly Benedict, and his favoring of modest and minimal vestments and accommodations (rooted in his solidarity with the poor) as further indicators of his simple, straightforward style.  In contrast, Christie uses more conversational language and invokes sharp attacks on his opponents, forcefully calling out those who disagree with him.  New Jersey politics has never been a game for the faint of heart, but Christie’s often shockingly straightforward style has made him stand out like few governors in the recent past.

But it’s the coupling of this bluntness from an unexpected nominal role combined with a subversion of ideological background that has helped these men gain support from across the spectrum.  Christie, in particular, is a model for this type of success.  Forceful rhetoric only gets you so far in engendering support, but applying it in a heartfelt style across party lines in order to get the most effective state aid will boost your approval ratings like nothing else.  Christie’s interest in operating along bipartisan lines, even if only on a couple of issues or events, is perceived by many as a refreshing stance in a sea of bitter partisanship in government of all levels.  We’ve come to expect only grudging partnership between Republicans and Democrats on the national level, and so to see even Christie’s infrequent willingness to acknowledge when the Democrats are right has earned him respect by members of opposing ideologies.

Pope Francis has only been on the job for a few months and has not had as much time to establish the kind of success Christie has seen.  Based on his equivalent gestures of even moderate stances, however, has been enough to show that he is different from the same institutional continuity of the past.  This ability to actively engage the ideological other, just like Christie has done, could very well extend his honeymoon with all ideologies along the Catholic spectrum (and possibly with those outside the spectrum too).

This isn’t about reading the inkblots as to what he’ll try to do, but it does provide an admittedly crude model for explaining why the Pope has received so much support from groups who read the inkblots in entirely different ways.

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