In Which Chris Spills an Inkwell onto a Rorschach Diagram Right as We’re About to Make Some Sense of It

Chris has offered up an intriguing comparison in our ongoing back-and-forth about Pope Francis’ public (and private) statements and the extent to which one can use them to infer specifics about his agenda. In response to my suggestion that his admiration for the new pontiff’s rhetorical style has less to do with that style per se and more to do with his apparent willingness to entertain changes that Chris favors (and that I favor as well), he wrote that it is not so much Francis’ words as his emphasis on transparency and openness that he finds so attractive.

I had been critical of Chris for praising Francis’ “frank,” “straightforward” and “no-nonsense” oratory because I didn’t think that’s what he was really praising. I pointed out that he would probably be dismayed if Francis started to argue in a “frank and straightforward” manner that gay prelates needed to be rooted out of the priesthood. And he concurred, explaining that his example involving the pope’s “gay lobby” comment was intended to illustrate his willingness to be open about problems in the Vatican rather than his specific thoughts about homosexual cabals as such.

Setting aside the fact that there are some obvious problems with using this particular remark as evidence that Francis has a strong desire to subject the inner workings of the Curia to a greater level of public scrutiny – namely, the fact that it was not intended to be a public statement, and may not ever have been uttered in the first place – I saw that maybe I had been reading his original argument incorrectly. Fair enough. Plus, Chris agreed that different factions see what they want in Francis, which is what I had originally been arguing with my whole Rorschach analogy. So it seemed that we were on the same page.

And then he compared the pope to 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. Rather, they are drawn to blunt rhetoric insofar as it is deployed on behalf of causes and arguments with which they are already sympathetic.

Consider what Chris writes about New Jersey’s YouTube sensation of a governor:

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.

Very true. But as he then acknowledges, this is insufficient as an explanation of Christie’s stratospheric approval ratings:

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.

Aha! So it’s not just that he’s “shockingly straightforward,” but that he’s shockingly straightforward in his attempts to bridge acrimonious political divides, something everybody but campaign strategists and talk radio shills can get behind. What would happen if he were shockingly straightforward in his zeal to advance more controversial measures?

As it happens, we already have some sense of how to answer this question. Amid all the talk about Christie considering a run for president in 2016 and about how he may be poised to crush his little-known Democratic opponent this November by a double-digit margin, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there was a time when Christie was far less popular. Interestingly enough, this coincided with high-profile fights with the legislature over unpopular cuts to education and social services in the state budget. Was Christie insufficiently blunt during these fights? Was it his reticence to lay out his vision clearly and forcefully that did him in, rather than the substance of the proposals he was plugging at the time?

Alas, no. Christie’s unfiltered persona is not a recent innovation, nor does it represent a political course correction. It was not effected in response to advice from his aides that he wasn’t plainspoken enough, or poll data showing that voters saw him as a timid waffler. His bluntness was on full display during the budget showdowns in question, so I think we have to conclude that this cannot account for his apparent glide path to reelection. Rather, it seems to be just reflective of who he is: a typical New Jerseyan. (Note: This is a joke. RM does not endorse Jersey stereotypes, and might even serve to combat them. We would rather engage our opponents in dialogue than see them whacked.)

To me, Chris’ argument about the provenance of Francis’ and Christie’s popularity is a twist on what Wonkblog’s Ezra Klein has dubbed the “glowing briefcase” theory of the presidency. According to this theory, the lack of legislative progress in the United States in recent years is directly linked to the failure of the president to show sufficient “leadership.” In other words, it only appears that the enormous disagreements between the two parties on issues of taxes, spending, job creation, healthcare, energy policy and more are hopelessly intractable. Rather, there are obvious, centrist solutions floating around that just need to be seized upon by the chief executive and sold to the public (and to Congress) with all the force of the bully pulpit.

This conceit understandably has appeal to people who believe in seeking compromise and middle ground rather than berating one’s enemies, and so it’s especially distressing for someone like me to have to admit that it has in fact been refuted by the past several years of American politics. When President Obama tries to argue forcefully for change, he is portrayed by his opponents as single-minded and inflexible. When he reaches out, he is said to be weak. When he tries to champion policies that were formulated by conservatives and once seen as potential bipartisan compromises, he is called a socialist. Forceful argument, civil engagement, and generous compromise are all possible forms of leadership, right? In the mind of the public and, to a much greater extent, among the members of the chattering classes, they are – but only if they work.

The fact is that the glowing briefcase theory gets it precisely backwards: 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. When Obama travels the country trying to whip up support for his agenda, his public appearances are liable to embolden his enemies rather than to soften their opposition. For some members of Congress, having a poor working relationship with the president is a badge of honor.

Rhetorical style is not totally irrelevant to the question of what makes for effective leadership. Some people are better-equipped to manage complex organizations and to communicate their ideas than others. That said, it is generally the case that pundits, commentators, and the public, gifted with the benefits of hindsight, ascribe too much credit to the rhetoric of their leaders when they succeed and too much blame to it when they fail, especially in contexts in which the power of those leaders to act unilaterally is limited and change tends to be driven by other actors (e.g. the Catholic Church, the constitutional system of government in the United States, etc.). Successful rhetoric is seen as inspirational and powerful, while unsuccessful rhetoric is dismissed as professorial bloviation. More to the point, if leaders are “blunt” or “direct” on occasions when they happen to succeed, then bluntness and directness themselves come to be lionized.

I worry that some of the early enthusiasm about Pope Francis has led to unrealistic expectations about his ability to heal the divisions in the Church. I also worry that over time, should Francis fail to deal with the problems of corruption in the Vatican and to burnish the tarnished public image of the Church, his oratorical style will come to be judged much more harshly than it has been thus far. No longer will it be a “most welcome approach to the papacy,” as Chris puts it, but a feeble substitute for action.

There’s certainly no shortage of juicy topics that we’d like to discuss in future essays here at RM, but I think it would be worth contemplating further the ways in which a person’s political and ideological orientations color the way that their other traits can come to be seen by their allies and foes. For example, supporters of Obama’s foreign policy, with its general reluctance to intervene in foreign conflicts, may see his decisions as stemming from a deep appreciation for the difficult ethical calculus that goes along with authorizing military actions. His opponents, on the other hand, may see only cowardice and contemptible vacillation. This is understandable, but my point is that this simple agreement or disagreement can lead to something else. Obama’s stances may come to be seen as revealing not only the results of a process of prudential judgment, but important aspects of his character or personality as well.

One final note: I argued in the piece that kicked off this discussion that, while talk of a Vatican III was baseless, Francis is probably on the cusp of doing something. It ought to be clear by now that I’m hesitant to try to define what that “something” might be, but am I falling into the same trap in which I think Chris has been ensnared by even assuming that? Could my own desire to see bold action from a new pope be causing me to read too much into simple acts like the changing of personnel? After all, merely hiring some new Vatican bureaucrats is not the same thing as “reform.”

I don’t think so. There are plenty of objective indications that this is not going to be a status quo papacy. Talk of the “gay lobby” doesn’t tell us much, but watching Francis assemble a cabinet of eight cardinals to “advise him in the government of the universal church” and “to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia” (the document that outlines the organizational structure of the Vatican) certainly does. John Allen, Jr. observes that the first mandate is so broad that “there’s almost nothing that falls outside its purview… this isn’t a blue-ribbon commission assembled to handle a single task.”

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. To borrow one of his own phrases, he does not have the “psychology of a prince.” Once he starts making more specific decisions about church governance, I have no doubt that he will start to attract more controversy. I would hope that he does not attract so much controversy that it becomes crippling for his papacy – I mentioned once before that I hope he can steer clear of another Regensburg debacle – but that it will come seems inevitable.

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.

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.

A Deluge of New Inkblots

Matt referenced John Allen, Jr.’s analysis of Pope Francis’ papacy in yesterday’s post about James Carroll.  Allen wrote that the Pope’s homilies have been “open to widely differing interpretations,” and that “they almost seem to function as an ecclesial Rorschach test, revealing the agenda of constituencies eager to put a frame on the new pope.”

Allen’s commentary is insightful and prudent, especially given the limited sample size of the Pope’s tenure thus far.  But Rocco Palmo details a new host of comments the Pope reportedly made last week that might make the Rorschach test a little more navigable.  Take it away, Rocco:

“During an audience last Thursday with the leadership of the religious conference of his home-continent and the Caribbean, the Pope is said to have aired (without apparent prompting) the realities of “a current of corruption” and a “gay lobby” in the Roman Curia, talked his 44th-place standing in the pre-Conclave betting market, chided traditionalists who “account” rosaries and modern-day “gnostics” who’d rather take “a spiritual bath in the cosmos,” placed the reform of the church’s governing apparatus squarely on the shoulders of the eight cardinal-assistants he’s tapped to advise him… and, indeed, encouraged the religious to keep “moving forward” and not get too “bother[ed]” should they face scrutiny from the CDF, the august “Holy Office” which – together with the Institute for the Works of Religion (the IOR, more commonly known as the “Vatican Bank”) – was already often reduced to being among Francis’ favorite punchlines.

Good Tuesday morning, folks…”

The whole report is worth a read.  Some of the Pope’s comments are fascinatingly frank and clear, and it’s apparent that this man is straightforward and no-nonsense in his desire for action and reform.  (His employment of language is an important manifestation of these attitudes; this recent condemnation of “socially mannered language” warrants a future post in and of itself.)  This is a most welcome approach to the papacy.

The Pope’s comments don’t necessarily place him on a defined point of the ideological conservative-progressive spectrum.  Instead, he seems to chart a middle ground between extremes with roots in realistic action.  In explaining his dislike for both extreme traditionalist groups and modern gnostics, the Pope makes this clear: “The Gospel is not the ancien regime, nor is it this pantheism. If you look to the outskirts; the indigent… the drug addicts! The trade [trafficking] of persons… That’s the Gospel. The poor are the Gospel….”

Francis’ realistic action extends to his reformist attitude towards solving actual problems that exist in the Church hierarchy and structure.  His blunt talk about the “gay lobby” is a refreshing indicator of honesty and (limited) transparency, something that has been desperately needed of late.  It speaks volumes of the Church’s recent state that this attitude alone is enough to warrant talk of his supposed liberality.

All of this said, Pope Francis’ drive for reform across various sectors in the Church does seem to put him in the company of previous “progressive” Popes.  I think Matt’s correct in saying that a third Vatican council is highly unlikely, but the sheer emphasis on change thus far (even though it’s not doctrinal change) seems to put Francis on a more restrained version of Carroll’s track.

What James Carroll Sees in the Inkblots

Early last week I finished reading Practicing Catholic, a memoir of sorts by the novelist and former Roman Catholic priest James Carroll. The pivotal episode in Carroll’s coming-of-age story is the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the world’s Roman Catholic bishops that took place in several sessions between 1962 and 1965. Colloquially known as “Vatican II,” it is widely regarded as having been the most consequential religious event of the twentieth century (among the Council’s most notable acts is its decision to allow the Catholic Mass to be said in the vernacular in place of Latin). So-called ecumenical councils do not happen often: the two immediately prior to Vatican II were convened in 1545 and 1870, respectively. But could another be happening soon?

Unlike Carroll’s earlier book An American Requiem, Practicing Catholic is intended less as a traditional autobiography and more as an overview of American Catholicism from the 1950’s on, with personal anecdotes inserted where relevant. As it happens, this is nearly everywhere, since important milestones in Carroll’s life coincide with key events of the twentieth century in uncanny fashion (Bobby Kennedy is assassinated the morning that he preaches his first sermon as a deacon, he is ordained a priest a few days after Apollo 8 orbits the moon, etc.).

Moreover, the range of prominent figures with whom he has personal encounters or extended personal relationships is astonishing. While Carroll is a high school senior, his family is granted an audience with the pope on account of his father’s status as the “senior Catholic officer in the Air Force in Europe.” In an incident that could be a scene out of Forrest Gump, he spends a night in jail in 1972 following an antiwar sit-in; the very next cell holds civil rights leader and Protestant clergyman William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who leads the detained protestors in singing hymns from Handel’s Messiah. Later on, Carroll becomes a student of the poet Allen Tate and consoles him after the death of his child; meets Cardinal Richard Cushing, the progressive cleric who presided over the wedding and funeral of John F. Kennedy; and interviews the theologian Hans Küng, an early mentor of Joseph Ratzinger and now his ideological archnemesis.

In a coincidence almost worthy of Carroll himself, I unknowingly finished the book on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII, the reformist pontiff who convened the Second Vatican Council and who serves as one of the key protagonists of Catholic. I realized this either later that night or the next day, when I read a piece in the National Catholic Reporter about Pope Francis’ remarks to a group of pilgrims from Bergamo, John’s native province in Italy, wherein he praised the former pope by saying that

[f]ifty years after his death the wise and fatherly guidance of Pope John’s love for the Church’s Tradition and his awareness of the constant need for renewal, his prophetic intuition of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council and his offering of his life for its success stand as milestones in the history of the Church in the 20th century; and as a bright beacon for the journey that lies ahead.

NCR’s Michael Sean Winters writes that “there is something in the mien of these two men that really is similar, a knack for the common person, a willingness to speak from their own experiences… and the ability to communicate intense love to people in their midst and across the airwaves.” Carroll himself, in a column in the Boston Globe, opines about what this similarity might portend for the future of the Church:

[I]n a homily in the chapel at St. Martha’s, this pope lifted up what he called the “culture of encounter”… [T]he Argentine pope praised every human being as a source of goodness. “Even the atheists?” he asked, giving voice in the homily to his inevitable critics… It has been a long time since popes have incited holy wars, and there is nothing new in the call to tolerate those who believe differently. But [Francis’] sermon suggests a movement beyond tolerance toward an authentic pluralism in which the convictions of others are not only allowed, but valued. Instead of opposing others’ beliefs, Francis emphasizes “encounter”… Is it reading too much into a simple homily to imagine a coming shift? In the case of a pope, not necessarily. The reforming openness of John XXIII first showed itself in nuances like this, and the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II followed. It may be happening again.

Much has been made of Francis’ gestures of humility since becoming pontiff. And while some of these have perhaps been overanalyzed – Francis answered a question from a schoolchild about why he has been living in a Vatican guesthouse instead of the papal apartments by saying that the decision is more about his “psychiatric” need to avoid isolation rather than any kind of desire to intensify his “personal virtue” – they certainly represent a stylistic departure from Benedict XVI. Is Carroll right to suggest that they are more than that: harbingers of a Third Vatican Council?

The reliably middle-of-the-road John Allen, Jr. warns that Francis’ knack for extemporaneous homilies has meant that his public monologues tend to be “open to widely differing interpretations,” and that “they almost seem to function as an ecclesial Rorschach test, revealing the agenda of constituencies eager to put a frame on the new pope.” So while “liberals… jumped on… [a] homily devoted to the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, in which Francis criticized ‘those who wish to turn the clock back’ on the council’s reforms,” “conservatives… celebrate every time the new pope uses traditional argot, such as his strikingly frequent references to the devil.” The bottom line is that Francis’ reference to John XXIII as a “bright beacon for the journey ahead” could mean many different things, and those who hope for sweeping changes might, as Carroll puts it, be reading too much into simple homilies.

I think it would be an understatement to say that the odds of Francis convoking a Vatican III are long. But it seems to me that his early statements do indeed indicate an intention to do more than just bring about a slight shift in papal rhetoric. His past remarks about the “spiritual sickness of a self-referential church” and the perniciousness of “rigorous and hypocritical neoclericalism” (a denunciation of priests who refuse to baptize the children of unwed mothers) suggest that, in making episcopal appointments, he will perhaps be looking for men who are more like Sean O’Malley than Charles Chaput.

Carroll’s religious views are undeniably heterodox, so it’s natural that he would be inclined to see Francis’ most publicized comments as declarations of revolution. He describes himself in the book as a “Catholic radical,” although “on the larger scale of culture and politics, [his] being Catholic [disqualifies him] from being radical in any real way” (this notion will come to be a recurring theme at RM).

That said, his optimism about the future may not be wholly unfounded. Yes, many of the most fraught questions facing the Church are ones that previous popes have declared to be definitively settled, like the ordination of women to the priesthood or the use of artificial birth control. But there are plenty of substantive reforms that remain within the realm of the possible. Beyond the more mundane matters of ecclesiastical governance, like the need to overhaul the operation of the Vatican Bank, there are the debates over obligatory priestly celibacy and the ordination of women as deacons, debates that the hierarchy admits are open to discussion.

Francis is not the first pope to function as an “ecclesial Rorschach test,” and by now the phenomenon is probably a permanent feature of the papacy itself. But only time will tell whether James Carroll’s vision of five thousand bishops jam-packed into a basilica actually comes to fruition – or whether it’s nothing more than a mirage in inkblots.