What Michael Brendan Dougherty Gets Wrong About Our “Vaguely Commie” Pope

Michael Brendan Dougherty, formerly of The American Conservative, took an extended leave of absence from blogging about politics and religion early last year to start the baseball newsletter The Slurve, but he’s finally returned from his hiatus to throw #slatepitches for The Week. On the first anniversary of the announcement of Benedict XVI’s resignation, he makes the case that Pope Francis has indeed changed the tone of the Catholic Church’s engagement with the world – for the worse:

If the church’s tone under Pope Francis has changed at all, it has actually become harder, more lashing, and even snarky.

The story of the last two papacies to which most of the media is slavishly dedicated goes like this: Pope Benedict was a meanie who, in the memorable phrasing of Rolling Stone, “looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares.” By contrast, Pope Francis is your super-chill, vaguely commie friend, who plays with animals and responds to sin with a cool shrug.

The truth is somewhat different. Pope Benedict was a warm and often misunderstood scholar. His views of economics may be even further to the left than his successor’s. His encyclicals and his books are gentle and reflective. His letter to the atheist author Piergiorgio Odifreddi typifies the tone. Even when much of what he offers is criticism, it comes with a light and inviting touch.

The unnoticed part of the “new tone” in the church is that Francis is practically an insult comic. Where Benedict sought to condemn errors in the abstract, Pope Francis makes it personal and attacks tendencies within certain groups of people, usually in highly stylized papal idioms.

He has condemned “airport bishops.” Christians who complain too much, he called “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner.” Can we even imagine how much crap Pope Benedict would have taken from the media if he told nuns not to become “old maids?” Francis said just that, though.

Sometimes it is not exactly clear whom the pope intends to lampoon. The pope has dumped rhetorical acid on “Christians of words,” who “are rigid! This type think that being Christian means being in perpetual mourning”… Catholics of a more traditional bent really cause Francis to bring out the stick. He has called them “triumphalists” and “restorationists.” He dubs those that send him notes enumerating the number of rosaries they have prayed for him “Pelagians,” after the heretic who denied the necessity of divine grace for salvation…

I agree with Dougherty that, at least in some respects, the differences between Benedict and Francis have been dramatically exaggerated in the popular press. Many an internet quiz has attempted to lure readers into misattributing quotations from Benedict to his successor (or to misattributing quotations from his successor to New York City’s “Marxist mayor” Bill de Blasio).

But I think he engages in a similarly unwarranted form of exaggeration when he lauds the pope emeritus for “condemning errors in the abstract” while criticizing the current pontiff for “making it personal.” Are Francis’ attacks really that personal? It isn’t as if he’s called out particular individuals for their transgressions by name, and he must not be that specific if even Dougherty admits that he sometimes can’t figure out “whom the pope intends to lampoon.” Indeed, the fact that Francis has refrained from publicly taking aim at even some of the most flagrantly egregious offenders and limited himself to bemoaning sourpusses and neo-Pelagians could perhaps be interpreted as a mark of admirable restraint.

On top of that, there is really no substantive difference between criticizing “people” who hold ideologies to which the Church is opposed and criticizing the ideologies themselves. Would Dougherty object to Francis reframing Benedict’s famous denunciation of “the dictatorship of relativism” as a denunciation of the actual “relativists” themselves? Arguing that there is any real difference here is an exercise in hair-splitting.

Francis’ “highly stylized papal idioms” and pithy formulations are almost certainly one of the main reasons why he has endeared himself to so many. Far more people will remember a sermon that takes comical shots at “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner” or “sourpusses” than one that drily reminds listeners to maintain a positive outlook on life. Yes, there are ways in which Benedict was unfairly maligned – the Rolling Stone quote about the knife-fingered gloves comes to mind – but his introverted and “wonky” personality did in fact make it hard for him to connect with the average Catholic, in the same way that many conservatives accuse Barack Obama of being hard to relate to because of his “cerebral” and “aloof” demeanor (perhaps Dougherty would agree?). Francis’ use of humor doesn’t detract from his preaching, it enhances it.

Dougherty would likely point out that I’ve failed to show that Francis has “softened” the Church’s tone, only that his putative snarkiness is not as bad as it seems. But the real aim of his argument is to show that Francis’ rhetorical style is counterproductive, and I think it’s abundantly clear from the many and varied manifestations of the “Francis effect” that exactly the opposite is true.

In any case, Francis has already offered us, toward the end of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a preemptive apology for any infelicitous expressions he might use over the course of his papacy:

If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth. (Evangelii Gaudium, 208)

Maybe Dougherty should stop being a whiny sourpuss. I feel bad for putting it so bluntly, but… the pope said it first!

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