The Moderation Conversation: Matt and Chris Talk Francis and Scalfari

We hereby debut a new RM feature: “The Moderation Conversation,” in which Matt and Chris sit down in real life to discuss ideas that haven’t yet congealed into 2000-word essays. The following is a lightly edited transcript of a post-Chipotle chat from this past Saturday evening that dealt with Pope Francis and his recent interview with the editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

The Interview in La Repubblica

Chris: So Matt, we’ve talked about Pope Francis a lot at Reasonably Moderate so far, and…. there’s more to talk about.

Matt: We actually contemplated closing down Reasonably Moderate and starting up a Francis-only blog.

C: [Laughs] Yeah.

M: But I think we decided the better route to take would be to just have an extended conversation about Francis and some of the interviews he’s given recently and then post a transcript on the blog.

C: So, the most recent major interview that Francis gave was to Eugenio Scalfari of La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper. Scalfari is an atheist who had written to Pope Francis, who had a written a column in the same newspaper to Pope Francis, and –

M: And Francis responded by writing him a – no, Francis responded by calling him!

C: Calling him, yeah.

M: There was a lot of talk a couple weeks ago about the really lengthy and groundbreaking interview that Francis gave to a Jesuit publication that was published in the United States in America magazine. But in some ways, when I saw this interview – I found this one to be more striking in a lot of respects. I don’t know about you.

C: Why do you say that?

M: Well, there were a lot of people arguing after reading the America interview that not very much of what the Pope was saying was actually that groundbreaking, that his words were being taking out of context and there was nothing, nothing really new there from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine. Maybe the framing was different, but there was nothing that he was really… changing.

C: Mmmmmm.

M: Whereas in this interview, obviously he’s not coming out and formally changing any positions of the Church, but it seems as if the way that he states things and the way that he phrases things is somewhat more revolutionary. And I guess we can get into what some of those specifics are, but maybe it would be best to start off talking about the issues relating to the reliability of this text itself.

C: That’s a great topic to start on. So this is somewhat unique in that it’s not a recorded transcript of the interview. It’s … what did you call it?

M: It’s a reconstruction.

C: A reconstruction of it.

M: Eugenio Scalfari put this together based on his notes of the conversation, but it’s written as if it’s a transcript. He puts things in quotes, but I don’t believe this was based on an actual recording, so there are questions about its reliability.

C: It’s a very loose piece. It’s very warm and conversational in tone. The writing itself [has a] kind of strange formatting. Odd paragraph breaks, very disjointed sentences and quotes. Gives it a really informal feel, which is kind of nice. But the interesting thing is that it’s posted on the Vatican website under official interviews of Francis.

M: Yeah, I think that was mentioned by Father Zuhlsdorf, who has this… rather traditionalist blog.

C: Father Z.

M: He’s been trying to reassure more conservative-minded Catholics who are a bit nervous about the direction that Francis seems to be taking things that, you know, the Pope’s words are being taken out of context, that he’s being mistranslated, etc. And so, getting back to the issue of the reliability of this text, there are sort of two levels on which this interview has been critiqued.

There are some who say that the entire thing is unreliable because Scalfari has misquoted the Pope. There was this controversy specifically surrounding the passage where he talks about the Pope’s description of the night that he was elected and how he recounts going to a small room in the Vatican where he contemplated whether or not he should accept the papacy. I think Cardinal Dolan and some others have said that that episode never happened. He accepted right away and there was no small room that he went to. The Vatican has obviously approved this interview. They posted it on their website, so it can’t be that unreliable, but there are some questions there about how loose Scalfari is with the facts.

But there are others like Zuhlsdorf who just critique the fact that we’re reading an English translation of Scalfari’s original Italian piece, and some of the things have been mistranslated or they haven’t done justice to the original Italian.

C: I know you had said, not specifically related to the translation, but on Father Z.’s blog there were some questions and some rather snide comments about some parts of this interview. Such as the opening line, which is: “Pope Francis told me, ‘the most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.’”

M: Yeah, and I think there was a commenter on Father Z.’s blog who reacted to Father Z. trying to reassure people that the issues were just related to translation, and they said that, well, it must be the case that in Italian, “youth unemployment” is fairly close to “the scourge of abortion.” A way of expressing their frustration with what they see perhaps as Francis’ misplaced priorities.

I think you called my attention to a comment on the Father Z. blog that worried that Francis is taking us on a “meth trip back to Vatican II.”

C: [Laughter] Yeah, a Catholic meth trip back to the –

M: Second Vatican Council.

C: Yup. [Laughs]

 

Spaces and Processes

C: I mean, I find it interesting, you know we talked about – you talked about – the reliability of the text. I find it interesting how it’s structured, that it begins with this quote about how youth unemployment is the most serious issue facing the world today, and then it jumps into a piece of the exchange between the Pope and Scalfari. And then it kind of diverges to the narrative of when Scalfari enters and meets the Pope. It’s very strange.

M: It starts in media res.

C: In media res. Oh, baby…

But it seems to be giving pretty prime position to youth unemployment, which is a strange place to start in all this.

M: I mean, we’re reading this from the perspective of the United States, where unemployment is a problem and it’s a serious problem – I don’t think it’s taken seriously enough – but in Italy it’s just catastrophic right now. I think there are some statistics that have shown that youth unemployment is hovering around 50%, which is just worse than a depression.

C: Mhm.

M: So I can understand why Francis might be calling attention to that as one of the most immediate problems facing Italian society, and global society more generally. But specifically he’s seeing things from an Italian perspective.

C: He asks, “Can you live crushed under the weight of the present?” That calls back to his previous interview in America in which – we talked about this a little bit on the blog – the idea of spaces and processes. Spaces being the current areas, addressing current concerns, trying to establish solutions to immediate problems, vs. processes, which is more, enacting historical structures to create lasting change. It sounds like he’s drawing our attention to a very pressing issue, really emphasizing how we’re potentially mortgaging the future of a lot of people.

M: Are you saying that’s different from the way that he framed things in the America interview?

C: No, I think it’s just an example of one way in which this can be fit into that interview.

M: Okay. See, the way that I interpreted the “spaces and processes” line was that – I think we’d have to go back to the other interview to see how exactly he phrased it –

but he talked about how we shouldn’t be trying to occupy spaces, we should be trying to initiate processes. And I saw that as a critique of what he’s also called careerism in the Church or an excessive focus on one’s status at the expense of thinking about the good that you can do in the world.

C: I’d interpreted the line as “spaces” being something that you address as an immediate concern, but not something that creates lasting effects.

M: Okay.

C: But yeah. That was… was quite a way to start off.

M: This thing is just laden with great quotes. We know that Francis obviously has a

way with words, but I think maybe Scalfari has embellished some of this as well. It’s just really interesting to read.

C: What’s your favorite quote?

M: My favorite quote from this one?

C: From this, yeah.

M: Well, I don’t know. I’m partial to the dialogue between Francis and Scalfari about “what is being?”

C: Ah, okay.

M: When I first read the interview, I tweeted that these Francis interviews are getting increasingly zen.

C: [Laughs]

M: I think this is interesting because Francis asks Scalfari what he believes in. I think Scalfari was talking about how he was led away from the Church when he read Descartes earlier in his life. And Francis asks him what he believes in. And he says, you know, I don’t want to know about what you think about the common good or society, I want to know about what you think about the universe, and the meaning of the universe, and where we come from and where we’re going. And Scalfari talks about how, “I believe in Being, and Being is a fabric of energy, and man has a resonance within himself, a vocation of chaos,” and all this abstract-minded –

C: A vocation of chaos. Oh, man.

M: And then the Pope says, well – okay, you’ve told me enough. I don’t really want to hear about your whole philosophy.

C: [Laughs]

M: I just found that to be an amusing exchange. But I do think it’s interesting how much emphasis Francis puts on trying to find common ground between their philosophies. Between their ways of thinking.

C: Mhm. That seems like a pretty resonant theme throughout the interview. He says at one point that, you know, it’s important to listen to each other, to start that conversation between believers and nonbelievers. And he really, especially in the beginning, he emphasizes how critical that is to modern belief and to engaging people outside of the Church. He’s spoken about this in other interviews, and at World Youth Day especially.

M: I think some of the Father Zuhlsdorf crowd was a little worried about the part where he talked about how everyone has his own individual conception of the good.

C: Ohhhh, man. Yeah.

M: I’m also skeptical that that was exactly the way that Francis framed things, because it is sort of at odds with the Catholic notion that there is objective morality and that we can discover objective morality.

C: He seems to think that – here too he says that clericalism is something that is to be avoided, which implies that there is something outside of the hierarchical understanding.

M: Yeah, and he talks about how he wants to move the Church away from a top-down vision to a more horizontal model.

C: A horizontal vision.

M: But no, I did like that line where he says that, when I meet a clericalist I become anti-clerical. I can sympathize with that attitude, because I sometimes feel like I have a very strong tendency to play Devil’s Advocate. And when I meet somebody who holds to a view very strongly, I just instinctively want to disagree with them and want them to appreciate that there is something to the other side of the argument.

C: Mhm. Mhm.

 

Is Francis a Liberal?

M: So that leads me to another point, which is that Michael Peppard, a theologian at Fordham, wrote this article in the Washington Post on the On Faith blog about asking the question “is Pope Francis a liberal?” I think there had been a piece in Slate earlier saying that Pope Francis is a flaming liberal, and some people took offense at that characterization.

C: [Laughs]

M: Peppard’s point is that Francis is not a liberal in the sense that he doesn’t subscribe to all the policy positions of what in the West we think of as liberalism, but he has a liberal temperament, a liberal outlook, in that he’s very open-minded about dialoguing with people that he disagrees with and entertaining ideas that may seem at odds with those of the Church. But he has faith that he can negotiate those in a productive way.

C: We’ve seen that recently too. I think today he had met with a group of Jewish leaders and had prayed, “may anti-Semitism be extinguished in the heart of man,” or something like that. He’s also – earlier this week it was revealed that he had written to a gay rights group in Italy, a Catholic gay rights group, and they were very thrilled by him. He didn’t, obviously, promise any changes in doctrine or anything like that, but it was a gesture that has not been done before and it was quite surprising that he was consciously making that effort to reach out.

M: Yeah. And there’s this passage in the interview where he talks about how he had a teacher who was a communist.

C: I was just going to bring that up!

M: He talked about how he was very good friends with this person and that though he didn’t agree with communism, he didn’t accept communism and he thought it was too materialistic, he appreciated learning about it from somebody who was open and honest. It does show a genuine willingness to engage with the ideas of people that he disagrees with.

C: I was curious when he talked about communism, he said that his professor’s materialism had no hold over him. But he says that, “I realized a few things: an aspect of the social which I then found in the social doctrine of the Church.” Which kind of surprised me a little bit. I mean, you could definitely understand how that aspect, that communal aspect is present in the Church – especially the Church he describes: of the poor; not vertical, horizontal – but at the same time it seems like a somewhat strange contrast.

M: Well I think there’s a quote from Benedict where he says that the political philosophy that has most effectively embodied Christian principles is what in Europe is called “Christian Democracy.” You know, a sort of social conservatism married to economic liberalism. Which is a perspective that maybe in the United States doesn’t seem to make sense to a lot of people who are used to the standard conservative-liberal divide. You find it a little bit in politicians like Bob Casey or Bart Stupak, the pro-life Democrats.

But I can understand why that makes sense to him that there is this similarity between communism and Catholicism. Both are skeptical of radical individualism or putting too much stock in autonomy. Both of them want to emphasize the interconnections among people and the fact that we don’t exist as individuals, we exist within in a network of social relations.

C: So, kind of along those lines, Scalfari questioned him about liberation theology. And I wish there was a little bit more discussion about this in the interview.

Francis acknowledges it, and he says that “many of those who practiced liberation theology were believers with a high concept of humanity.” And then the conversation shifts, and it sounds like based on what you were just talking about and based on what Francis has said before that he would be more open to greater integration of liberation theology principles.

M: I’m not an expert on liberation theology. I know the Church has been skeptical of it in the past and I think Benedict was no fan of it. But I don’t have a good sense of how radical a departure from existing doctrine it would be to either affirm liberation theology or rehabilitate its proponents.

I did want to go back to something you said earlier. You talked about Francis’ relationship with the Jewish community.

C: Mhm.

M: This isn’t really talked about much in this interview. The only real mention that’s made of interfaith relations or where ecumenism is hinted at is the part where he says that “I don’t believe in a Catholic God. There is one God.”

C: Oh! Yeah.

M: You and I were talking the other day about this video that we stumbled upon that was put together by some very traditionalist Catholics who charge that Francis is an antipope [illegitimate pope] because of his close relationships with Jewish leaders and his willingness to attend Jewish worship ceremonies and pray in synagogues. So it does seem like interfaith relations are going to be a prominent theme of his papacy going forward.

C: Yeah. I wonder to what extent he’ll begin to meet with Muslim leaders, and to have that conversation about Islam.

 

Of Mystics and Minorities

C: The one part that I wanted to get your opinion on, because I found it to be one of the more questionable pieces of the interview –

M: Questionable in terms of reliability?

C: It seems like Francis’ words belie an inherent contradiction. So he says that mysticism is a critical part of the Church. He says that “a religion without mystics is a philosophy,” which is kind of an ambiguous statement as is. He says later that he loves mystics, but then argues: “The mystic manages to strip himself of action, of facts, objectives, and even the pastoral mission, and rises until he reaches communion with the Beatitudes.”

So the piece of that which seems questionable and somewhat controversial is, how can a mystic who doesn’t take action – which Francis seemed to very much support earlier in this interview and in other interviews – if a mystic doesn’t engage with people and have those conversations with other groups, to what extent can he/she be that critical a part of the Church?

M: Well, doesn’t he also say that he himself is not a mystic?

C: He does, he does. But it seems like even if he is not a mystic, he’s emphasizing mystical experience.

M: Maybe he’s just acknowledging that there are different types of people that are needed within the Church and that everyone has his own role to play in the Church’s mission. I mean, he also talks about this point that I think is very interesting where he says that the Jesuit order is the “leavening of Catholicism.” We hear a lot about how Catholics should try be a leavening in the larger culture, but so far it’s been rare to hear popes talk about a leavening within Catholicism. The emphasis is usually on the Church being united, and talk of different types of outlooks is downplayed.

Generally the hierarchy tries to emphasize the fact that there are no divisions within the Church, or at least that there shouldn’t be divisions within the Church. Commonweal had an editorial recently in which they considered America magazine’s argument that you shouldn’t think of disagreements within the church as liberal vs. conservative, or indeed that we shouldn’t think of there being substantive disagreement within the Church at all. So I think it’s interesting that Francis would say that the Jesuits are a leavening within the Church.

I also wanted to talk a little bit about the fact that Scalfari points out that Christians and Catholics are a minority in the world, and Francis replies that being a minority can be a strength. I talk a little bit about this rational choice model of religion in one of my earlier posts on the blog, and I think that analysis is very insightful when you think about it through that lens: that if the church didn’t face competition from other religions and other ideologies, then it would have no need to work on refining its message or the way in which its message is presented. And so I agree with Francis that being a minority or at least having to deal with contending ideologies can be a beneficial thing in the long run.

C: I did like how Francis discusses politics and the role of Catholics in politics.

M: Oh, right.

C: He says, “I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them, but have the mature awareness and expertise to implement them.” It seems like a lot of the debate, especially in the United States, about what constitutes a Catholic politician… I’m struck by the phrase “mature awareness.” It seems like in some cases that there may be uncritical applications of what are generally said to be Catholic values without sufficient regard for the context in which they’re being espoused.

M: Mhm. I think even more generally, when we look at the Republicans who were very vocal about the need to stand firm against Obamacare even if it resulted in shutting down the government, we see there are some people who think any compromise with your opponents is necessarily a violation of your principles.

That doesn’t have to be the case. One can recognize that not everyone is going to agree with his perspective, that there are limits to how effectively he’ll be able to translate his principles into actual policies.

C: I think that’s what he’s talking about when he says “mature awareness.” It suggests the ability to negotiate without holding absolute principles and trying to have them taken up regardless of the actual situation.

 

The Parable of the Potted Plant

M: Do you think that maybe connects with some of the other points he’s made about controversial social issues? That the Church’s position has to be understood in a context, that it can’t be just a limited set of propositions?

C: Sure. I think that definitely makes sense. It needs to be applied to specific scenarios. Again, going back to the whole “spaces vs. processes” concept, taking into account the given status quo in a specific situation, trying to enact the best process that will effectively solve that issue. You know, help the Church become a kind of vine that can wrap itself around an issue.

M: I’m not sure I got that. The Church is the vine and we are the branches?

C: It’s… like a potted plant that’s going to fall over. You put a stick in the pot and you tether the plant to the stick and the stick helps the plant grow straight.

M: Alright!

C: The Church is the stick in that analogy.

M: I like that analogy. It sounds like a parable – the Church is like a stick.

C: That’s what we do here. Dispense invaluable parables.

M: Do you remember when we were taking bets on who might be elected pope?

C: So disappointed that the 666-to-one odds on Richard Dawkins didn’t work out. I didn’t actually put any money on that.

M: We would have lost money had we done that.

When we were taking bets, you had brought to my attention this guy named… the Italian cardinal… Ravasi?

C: Yeah, Gianfranco Ravasi. The “Cardinal of Culture.”

M: John Allen of National Catholic Reporter has called him “the most interesting man in the Church.” He had an article about him recently where he said that he was debating an atheist somewhere, and thought it was very intriguing that the atheist quoted Jesus and the Bible a lot and Ravasi quoted McLuhan and Plato and a variety of other non-Christian thinkers.

But in any case, he had this quip that Jesus was the original tweeter and that a lot of his most memorable aphorisms, like “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” are in fact less that 140 characters. And that one of the reasons people are responding so well to Francis is that his style of preaching is very similar to Jesus’, in that he comes up with very memorable quotes, very memorable phrases, and he tells a lot of parables, stories that either force you to draw your own conclusions or in which the lesson might not be immediately clear but becomes clear as you think about it.

C: Yeah, that’s very true. I didn’t realize that there was a debate between Ravasi and an atheist. I’m sure that had been going on before Francis was elected, but it’s nice to know that this is something that’s going on throughout the Church. Hopefully what Francis did with Scalfari here is going to be a model going forward. You’re going to have this increased dialogue. And it’s nice that the interview ends on the note that they’ll get back together soon and they’ll discuss the role of women in the Church.

M: Yeah, I was just going to say that.

C: It’s ongoing.

M: And Scalfari concludes by saying: “This is Pope Francis. If the Church becomes like him and becomes what he wants it to be, it will be an epochal change.” So he’s clearly inspiring respect from a lot of quarters and from people who might otherwise be opposed to the Church or hostile to it.

 

RM is Badly in Need of Readers

M: I guess maybe we can just conclude on this thought: John Allen had a piece about Pope Francis’ “older son problem.” Do you want to describe this?

C: Sure, yeah. In the prodigal son parable, the father throws the returning son a lavish party, slaughters the fattened [calf], etc., gives him a lot of attention, and the older son feels neglected by the father’s showering of attention and love on the younger son. And John Allen wonders whether the older son, in this case the more conservative Catholics who have supported the pope in the past, who have really given their lives to help enact changes in Church doctrine, you know, proselytize –

M: Or, rather, not “changes,” but helping to uphold doctrine.

C: Oh, excuse me, uphold Church doctrine.

M: And to engage in advocacy on social issues like abortion.

C: Whether these conservative Catholics will feel disenfranchised by the Pope, whether they’ll take offense.

M: He’s clearly slaughtered the fattened calf for the prodigal Catholics many times over with his comments about gays and other groups.

C: Yeah. Well, do you think that’s a legitimate issue? Do you think a lot of Catholics do feel alienated by stuff like this?

M: I mean, we do certainly see this discontent from people like the readership of Father Z.’s blog, and I do think Allen has a point. He writes about how Pope Francis has criticized the careerism in the Church. You know, the Roman Curia is the “leprosy of the papacy.” Certainly there is corruption at the higher levels and reforms that have to be undertaken, but there are also a lot of very dedicated individuals who are with the hierarchy, and maybe they’ll feel slighted by Francis’ comments. I don’t think his rhetoric has been inflammatory by any means, but I do think that he needs to make clear that he’s not making blanket statements about everybody in the Church.

C: Well, it sounds like he’ll be giving a host of interviews going forward. This is not the end, which is always great to hear. So we’ll see if he does take that kind of a detour.

M: He’s also cold-calling people.

C: Do you think we can get him to cold-call us?

M: Uh, we could try. I think we’re… that would certainly do wonders for our readership.

C: [Laughs]

M: How would you get him to cold call us? What would we say in our letter?

C: Um…

M: “We have this blog and we’d like you to read it.”

C: Well, no, I think we’d frame it from the perspective that we appreciate what he’s doing. I don’t know if this applies to both of us, but I really admire his attempt to engage with other groups, other faith traditions in this type of dialogue. That seems like far and away the most effective way going forward to actually… get people to understand what Catholicism is about rather than outright rejecting it based on preconceived notions.

M: He definitely has our vote.

C: He does have our vote.

M: We’ll work for his next campaign.

C: [Laughs]

M: So we actually met [former Daily Beast blogger] Andrew Sullivan about a week before Pope Benedict resigned, and we asked him for his thoughts on the man. And I won’t repeat them because they involve expletives.

C: Well, he really disliked Benedict especially for his lack of… I know Benedict is said to have done a lot to try to curb the child abuse scandal, but Sullivan heavily criticizes Benedict and a lot of the other cardinals and the Curia for failing to do enough to really hold people who engaged in that type of behavior responsible.

M: He also had this really tendentious argument about how Benedict was a closeted gay man.

C: Ah, yes. The red shoes. The red shoes. He loves Francis, though.

M: Yeah.

C: Thinks he’s revolutionary and extraordinary.

M: And he’s on the record as being straight. There’s that story about how he went to a wedding when he was in the process of deciding whether to become a priest, and he met this girl and was very captivated by her. He describes how he couldn’t focus on his prayers for a week afterwards because he couldn’t stop thinking about her.

C: I hadn’t heard that. Really?

M: Yeah. And considered… I guess he wasn’t a priest already, but considered not going into the priesthood because of it.

C: Wow, that’s fascinating.

M: Unless he was making up the story to keep people like Sullivan from questioning his sexuality.

C: [Laughs]

M: Well, I guess we’ll have to leave it at that, until the next time one of these interviews comes out. And it seems like they’re becoming more frequent.

C: Alright.

M: Alright. We’ll… we’ll cut it off there.

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