Winding Down the Pope Francis Debate and Bridging a Sea of Ink (Inkblots Part VI)

This is the sixth installment in our #Inkblots debate series, which has seen Matt and I discuss the extent to which we can forecast Pope Francis’ plans for guiding the Catholic Church. I’d like to respond to Matt’s most recent entry as we wind down the thread and move on to brighter, more contentious things.

Matt wrote the following about my comparison of the Pope to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie:

Far from allowing us to ‘glean a little more insight to why Francis has been so popular across such broad constituencies,’ I think the analogy just serves to validate my original point: people do not perceive “bluntness” in their leaders as an intrinsic virtue.

In my original response to Matt’s initial post in the series, I wrote that Pope 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 admit that my original inclinations were to see the Pope’s bluntness as an unequivocal asset, but I had tried to qualify these inclinations after reading Matt’s critiques of my argument. That’s why I wrote the following in my most recent post (italics included in the original text): “…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.”

I’m unsure, then, why Matt asks the following question: “What would happen if (Pope Francis was) shockingly straightforward in his zeal to advance more controversial measures?” The point of my argument was that the fusion of bluntness and a willingness to engage in some sort of tempered bipartisan work was the reason Christie and the Pope have achieved such popularity at this point in time. Both pieces are equally important ingredients in each man’s success. Of course there would be backlash if either man tried to enact more controversial measures of either conservative or progressive ilk. The fact that they have simply tried to appeal to their more liberal constituencies, albeit in only minor ways, acts as a subversion of their ideological background and is an inherent component of their appeal. While I want to thank Matt for bringing this up if this wasn’t made clear in my previous post, his “Aha!” moment and his two subsequent paragraphs detailing Christie’s early unpopularity counter an argument I wasn’t making.

Matt’s comparison of my analogy to Ezra Klein’s “glowing briefcase theory” was a welcome addition to the thread. Matt disagrees with this theory, arguing that “it is not that there are deep divides in our political culture because of a dearth of presidential leadership, but that presidential leadership is ineffective because of those deep divides.” I’m sympathetic to the possible accuracy of his assertion, and I share his sobriety in realizing how centrist solutions might not be possible for all national issues. But I’m not sure the discussion of the Pope and Christie is a perfect corollary to what Klein is discussing since much of the “glowing briefcase theory” is beholden to the structure of the federal government. The case of Pope Francis, in particular, elides any sort of meaningful contrast since the Pope doesn’t have to bridge a bicameral legislature. While he lacks absolute power to dictate policy and doctrine, Francis does have greater authority in directing the Church’s trajectory and courses of action. In theory it should be easier for him to organize the College of Cardinals and work toward a set of centrist solutions. In theory.

Christie does fit Klein’s model at the state level, but if we look at Christie as a national figure instead of a state figurehead, the comparison begins to fade. Christie represents a political force with (slight) crossover appeal who is currently not embedded within the federal system. In this sense, he has the ability to contribute to the political landscape through symbolic gestures and decisions (i.e. his acceptance of Sandy aid while standing alongside President Obama). Matt makes some very good points about the limitations of rhetoric in crafting leaders and politicians, but Francis and Christie’s success in reaching out across the spectrum is a powerful gesture that supersedes rhetoric. Whether this symbolic outreach leads to substantive results is another matter. I share Matt’s fear of Francis’ potential inability to heal divisions in the Church, and I’m unsure whether current expectations have created unrealistic anticipation for fast reform. Let’s hope that Francis will be able to successfully navigate Vatican politics to achieve workable solutions. He seems to be off to a rousing start.

One final quibble with Matt’s post. He wrote:

I agree with Chris that Pope Francis has managed to appeal to a wide variety of constituencies both within and without the Catholic Church, but I do not think this is because of his ‘bluntness.’ I think it is because his gestures of humility, like taking up residence in the Vatican guesthouse or washing the feet of women and Muslims, have convinced people that he is a good and holy man, and not a career-minded hierarch.

I’m surprised Matt would finish such a well-argued piece with a somewhat un-rigorous conclusion. While I agree that Francis’ gestures of humility are certainly a component in his current popularity, I’m strongly hesitant to assign the cause of this hubbub to people believing he is a “good and holy man.” The near-breathless tone of Vatican watchers we’ve been quoting throughout this series tells me there is something different about Francis that surpasses only piety and moral fabric. I would absolutely argue that Benedict was a good and holy pontiff (and I’m sure Matt would agree), but his institution in the papacy did not seem to cause so much discussion and commotion.

While Matt is assuredly correct in saying that any “specific decisions about church governance” could potentially temper the current level of enthusiasm, I’m inclined to believe Francis’ combination of bluntness, simplicity, and framing of the current issues facing the Church has created a spirit of optimism that’s unlike anything in the recent past. I won’t try to read any further into the inkblots at this point in time.

I’ll turn it over to Matt for a final response. If you read through this entire thread, many thanks! (We probably owe you a fountain pen or something similar to make up for the terrible ink puns/analogies interspersed throughout.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s