Ten Bullets on Francis’ Recalibration of Church Engagement

A few loosely organized thoughts on Francis’ recent interview with America magazine, “A Big Heart Open to God.”

Francis did not speak about changes to Church doctrine.

This point has been made by most conservative Catholic commentators in response to Francis’ interview.  And it’s true.  Francis did not imply there are any doctrinal shifts forthcoming on issues such as gay marriage or women priests.  He also strongly condemned abortion while speaking to a group of gynecologists the day after the interview was published.  Catholics hoping for swift changes to the Church’s official policies on these issues should temper their enthusiasm.

But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed.

Although Francis did not announce any modifications of core Church principles, the tone and content of his interview suggests a change of direction in how the Church approaches culture war issues.  This new focus underscores a potentially transformative shift in the Church’s ability to engage in dialogue with a broader scope of peoples and cultures.  Francis is placing a greater emphasis on how the Church can act as a steward to help people find “daily sanctity” as they navigate the confusing, painful, and disappointing annals of daily life.  He is also focusing more on the pastoral role of the Church and placing greater importance on helping the poor and afflicted.

We can see a recalibration of sorts taking shape in Pope Francis’ commentary.  The central themes he discusses of love and helping the poor have always been a part of Church teaching, but he makes a point to contrast these against how the Church has recently (fairly or unfairly) been perceived as focusing on things like homosexuality and contraception.  Perhaps this contrast will be a continuing element of Francis’ papacy.  “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” he tells interviewer Antonio Sparado, S.J.  Inclusiveness is the order of the day, with a heightened focus on “the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more.”

I found the Pope’s anecdote about the mother who had an abortion to be a particularly tender manifestation of this idea:

I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

The quote indicates a refreshingly realistic look (from the highest post of the Church!) at the realities and consequences of living in an imperfect world.  The Pope’s story focuses on helping the woman reconcile her decisions in order to find greater peace in her spiritual life.  A great deal of Catholic commentary on abortion in the U.S. centers on why women are forbidden to have them, but Francis is hinting at an approach that gives deeper consideration to the effects of extremely difficult and painful decisions.  Making a conscious effort to expand the discussion in this manner, even if the core of the discussion is unchanged, is a crucially important step both in helping those in need and demonstrating the rationality of the core.  Again, this does not entail any shifts in doctrine, but simply looking at contentious issues more broadly will go a very long way in revitalizing how most people view the Church.

The concepts might not be revolutionary, but the proclamation of them is.

Last May, Francis made headlines when he said that atheists could be redeemed.  James Martin, S.J., reflected on the Pope’s sermon by noting:

Pope Francis is saying, more clearly than ever before, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for everyone. That’s always been a Christian belief. You can find St. Paul saying in the First Letter to Timothy that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for all.” But rarely do you hear it said by Catholics so forcefully, and with such evident joy.

This same forcefulness seems to be a recurring hallmark of Francis’ papacy thus far.  Beyond shifting the conversation on how the Church engages with the public, Francis is also articulating little-known beliefs with greater clarity and compassion.  This was evident in his recent letter to an Italian newspaper responding to an atheist’s columns about the Church, and it’s on full display in “A Big Heart Open to God.”  Francis’ commentary on uncertainty is particularly important for finding common ground with unbelievers:

…in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

Hearing the Pope say that uncertainty is an integral part of faith is revelatory, not because it’s an unheard of theological principle but because the point has been made rather poorly of late.  That so many people are reacting so well to the Francis’ words is proof positive of how the Church hasn’t effectively conveyed core principles to nonbelievers (and, often, the laity) in the recent past.  Spreading this kind of testimony that makes faith a more relatable proposition to so many people will hopefully be a constant throughout Francis’ papacy.  This is how the Church wins back the credibility it squandered in the child abuse scandal (in conjunction with a renewed focus on helping those in need and emphasizing grace and love).  “The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return,” he says.  Better engagement with these people by actually addressing their concerns is crucial and it’s wonderful to see Francis acknowledging this.

Spaces vs. Processes

I found the following to be the most interesting part of this extraordinary interview:

…there is a temptation to seek God in the past or in a possible future. God is certainly in the past because we can see the footprints. And God is also in the future as a promise. But the ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today. For this reason, complaining never helps us find God. The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is—these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today.

“God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes.

“We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.

Francis is positing a model for how the Church should act in order to achieve meaningful, lasting, and adaptive change.  He argues that there is a strong temptation to react against new challenges with a reversion to traditional solutions and established rules.  But to more fully engage with God, new frameworks, new methods of solving these new problems, must be established.

Francis’ characterization of how God is “in the processes” of history successfully captures how the amalgamation of our individual strivings for the ideal and the perpetual disappointments that result are one way the divine is manifested in our world.  He’s correct that we need reconsider how our most powerful organizations and institutions (including the Church) influence the moral constructs that govern our coexistence.  It’s a logical philosophy, too.  Trying to affix theological bandages on new barbarisms doesn’t necessarily solve their root causes, but establishing clearer moral paradigms might help reduce some of those problems altogether.

This is a difficult process that will take a great deal of time, and it’s fair to argue this rhetoric of enacting new processes is an ambiguous gambit that could result in negligible moral enhancement.  But it’s exciting to hear Francis discuss the necessity of reevaluating the core bases behind how the Church can be an influence for the good.  Power is not a meaningful tool unless aligned with (and not forced upon) the systems through which people live.  Working to restructure these systems and the actors which shape them is a goal most worthy of the Church’s full engagement.

It’s important that we initiate the historical process of a new theology of women.  But how?

One particular example of a system that warrants reconsideration is the role of women in the Church.  Francis had previously stressed the importance of this question and he revisits it once again in the interview.  “We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman,” he says.  But he has also spoken out against the ordination of female priests.  So what is to be done?

This is admittedly wild speculation on my part, but I wonder if Francis was hinting at the creation of an entirely new role for women in the Church, something that would parallel the position of a priest or bishop.  “Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops,” he says, and also notes that “the feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”  If women are this critical to the future of the Church, it follows that they need a role with equal power and influence as clergymen.  I’m not sure there is any doctrinal basis on which this new position could be developed and it would likely be met with immense scrutiny and questioning.  But it would essentially end the debate about “women priests” by simply creating an entirely new religious branch of the hierarchy in which women could wield substantial power.

Again, Pope Francis did not say that such a revolution is on the horizon, and this idea is merely an extrapolation of how the Church could best give women such influence without changing core doctrine.  But his words do hint that change is coming.  The question is- when?  And what will that change entail?

Our fear of eventual disappointment in Francis is all the more acute after this interview.

In our original debate series about Francis, Matt had the following cautionary note regarding initial excitement over the Pope’s rhetoric:

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.

Matt expressed the same concern when we spoke recently about this new interview.  I share his concerns now with a greater degree of apprehension than from earlier this summer.  Francis’ words have earned him accolades across the political and social spectrum, but they hinted at few specifics for any potential policy shifts.  The role of women in the Church was addressed, for example, but what will actually be done?  One has to worry that continual soaring rhetoric without tangible change will lead to claims that Francis is all hot air and no action.

Fortunately, Francis has bought himself a good amount of time, especially through his emphasis on discernment.

If we created a word cloud of the most frequent terms used in the Pope’s interview, I’d guess that “discernment” would be at or very close to the top of the list.  Francis hammered home the importance of critical reflection on both a macro and micro level in order to make the wisest, most prudent decisions for both himself and his flock.  He speaks at length about discernment in the interview; for brevity, I’ll cite his reference to John XXIII: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.”  The idea of seeing and reflecting on everything but not trying to overhaul the status quo suggests Francis will be a proponent of humble discernment going forward.

It’s important to emphasize that Francis realizes the requisite discernment for overseeing 1 billion Catholics, along with the process of enacting new historical processes, will take time.  He notes that this initiative “requires patience, waiting.”  “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment,” he says.  This is an important clause that, if repeated often enough, actually gives additional weight to the Pope’s pronouncements.  Let’s tackle these issues as quickly as we can, but let’s make sure we’re trying to solve them correctly before we jump, he seems to be saying.  In conjunction with the amount of goodwill he seems to have earned so far, I think Francis has bought himself a good amount of time before people start criticizing him for a lack of substantial change.

The translators did a wonderful job.

Much credit is due to the translators of the original Italian interview for crafting an easy-to-read yet engaging and beautiful piece.  Lines like the following are almost poetic in their depth and diction: “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”  Truly fantastic work.

Francis’ literature anecdote provides a model for artistic engagement that the Church should follow.

In speaking about his musical and artistic preferences, Francis shares an enlightening anecdote about when he taught young school boys:

Of course, young people wanted to read more ‘racy’ literary works, like the contemporary La Casada Infiel or classics like La Celestina, by Fernando de Rojas. But by reading these things they acquired a taste in literature, poetry, and we went on to other authors. And that was for me a great experience. I completed the program, but in an unstructured way—that is, not ordered according to what we expected in the beginning, but in an order that came naturally by reading these authors.

Is it possible for the Church to extrapolate this model in how it engages with popular culture and contemporary art?  I hope so.  The idea of using familiar material as a jumping point into the divine seems like such a logical way to show people the joy of both faith and art.  More on how this could be accomplished in a future post.

Above all, faith is love made manifest, and this transcends dogma.

“But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

I did a double take when I first read that line in the interview.  We’ve already established that Francis did not suggest forthcoming alterations to core doctrine, but this is a succinctly shocking mission statement for the Church in the twenty-first century.  To hear him say that proclaiming God’s love transcends any religious edicts almost seems like subversion of Church authority- and from the Bishop of Rome, no less!

But it’s not, and it reminds us of what the Church’s ultimate goal is: to encourage the love of Jesus and to provide scalable systems that facilitate the transmission of this love.  Its edicts are ultimately ways that are, or were, thought to best encourage this process.  Francis seems to realize the danger of letting these edicts become hardened dogma and get in the way of actually spreading love: “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing,” he says.

This is why I think it’s appropriate to call “A Big Heart Open to God” a kind of recalibration in how the Church engages with the world.  It’s not that Francis is proclaiming new ideas or concepts, but rather that he’s trying to reframe the discussion (especially that of nonbelievers) around deep connections and agapic love.

A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog wrote in with a positive impression of the Pope’s interview but ultimately focused on how he “can never return to Christianity because it is, in a phenomenological sense, meaningless.”  I’ve only had limited theological training in my academic career, but it seems to me that Pope Francis is making the absolute strongest argument in this interview why Christianity has as much meaning and importance in contemporary life as any other accepted religious belief or secular principle.  It’s not based on worshipping a big hairy man in the sky; it’s about achieving a divine connection through love, in the hope that we can make these broken things glow and burn a little bit more.  It’s about “common sanctity,” as Francis says- seeing holiness “in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity.”

Simply making sure that people know this is the core of the Church instead of strict proclamations against contentious issues is an important task.  Despite the myriad of praise, criticism, and commentary it’s received so far, “A Big Heart Open to God” ultimately succeeds because it initiates this process of renewed engagement.  This will be a primary component of Francis’ papacy, and it certainly seems that he’s off to a good start.

Religion and Rational Choice Theory

I think Chris vastly overstates my level of expertise when he says that I’ve done “extensive research” on how people choose their religious affiliation, but it is a topic in which I’m very interested; I wrote my undergraduate thesis on mathematical models that can be used to analyze this question and similar questions in economics and political science. I’ve actually never read the Hirschman book that Margaret Steinfels discusses in the Commonweal column that Chris has linked to, but the framework that she alludes to – conceptualizing religious institutions as something like “firms” competing with one another for adherents in an active “religious marketplace” – is a helpful one for thinking about issues of religious participation in the modern West.

There is a diffuse literature in economics and sociology known as the “rational choice theory of religion” which posits that individuals do not simply decide to remain or to become a member of a religious body because they have been socialized into it or because they feel pressure from their friends and relatives, but rather that they actively weigh costs and benefits in order to determine whether a particular group is right for them.

“Costs” might consist of frequent participation in services, fasting, tithing, volunteering, etc. “Benefits” can be either supernatural (rewards in an afterlife) or more mundane (a sense of spiritual well-being, a feeling of belonging to a supportive community, etc). This helps to explain why fringe cults that the vast majority of people would see as extreme can actually manage to cultivate a following (pun intended): while they may make extraordinarily onerous demands of their followers, they often promise immense otherworldly rewards to those who join the flock.

It turns out that integrating the economic notion of rational-self interest into the study of religion can provide plausible explanations for otherwise puzzling phenomena. Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy advances the theory that religious pluralism ultimately erodes religiosity, since the recognition and acknowledgement of competing theological ontologies and ethical systems causes one to become less sure of one’s own commitments. When one religion is dominant in a given area or among members of a certain population, it casts a “sacred canopy” over even those who do not belong. The emergence of other religious groups discredits not only the hitherto dominant tradition, but those newer groups as well. The canopy that had previously sheltered the very idea of religion from the raging storms of secularism becomes tattered and frayed.

It turns out that there are serious problems with such a view of religion, though. There is actually empirical evidence suggesting that religious pluralism, or what we might call religious competition in the market metaphor, actually promotes religious participation rather than eroding it. The rationale is easy to understand if you think through the implications of the metaphor. Healthy competition among firms is, all else equal, generally thought to lead to the production of higher quality and more affordable goods and services, since producers must give their customers what they demand or risk losing business to a competitor. Monopolies, unburdened by such a constraint, know that they can slack off and still do fairly well.

The United States, which has had a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion since its inception, is the most religious industrialized nation in the world. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has a state-sponsored church but far lower rates of attendance at services and lower self-reported religiosity. While there are obviously myriad other cultural and historical reasons why religion might play the role that it does in both countries, the apparent inverse relationship between pluralism and participation is suggestive. Richard Dawkins, a fierce advocate of the separation of church and state, has noted that people often ask him why quarantining religion from government seems to have the paradoxical effect of increasing religious activity rather than diminishing or suppressing it. He claims to have no explanation to offer, despite the fact that rational choice logic seems to yield a solution to the apparent conundrum.

In Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, a comprehensive book-length exposition of the rational choice approach, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argue that all human beings have some sort of innate religious preference, and that these preferences tend to follow a bell curve-shaped distribution. Some people have an inborn sense that religion should be strict and should guide every aspect of their lives. Such people will likely be drawn to demanding varieties of religion, like Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Orthodox Judaism. Others have a preference for more liberal faiths that offer a greater degree of individual autonomy and that leave a wider range of decisions to personal choice.

The majority, however, falls somewhere in between. In America today, both austere sects like the Amish and progressive churches like the Unitarian Universalists command relatively small followings. Although aggregate religious participation has dropped off steeply over the last few decades, it is still the case that the groups dominating the scene are those that are strict, but not too strict. They may require their congregants to attend weekly services or undertake periodic fasts, but they probably don’t ask them to sell all their possessions and become itinerant preachers (well, maybe they do, but they don’t really press the issue).

Where does the notion of the Catholic Church as a “lazy monopoly” fit into this framework? Chris, following Steinfels, suggests that the Church might be growing rather than shrinking if the hierarchy were more responsive to the concerns of the laity, treating them like adults rather than infantilizing them. While Francis might possibly be moving toward a “flatter” vision of the Church (more on that in an upcoming post), Benedict XVI seemed to embrace the idea of a pyramidal ecclesial structure wholeheartedly. He did not see the Church as a lazy monopoly but as a monopoly that knew exactly what it was doing, and mused about whether it might not be better if we ended up with a “smaller, purer Church.”

There is a sense in which this line of argument is beyond critique. Chris rightly points out that there is little an institution that understands itself to be dealing in “immutable truths” can do to appeal to the masses if people are simply nonreceptive to those truths or to the meta-notion that any truth can be immutable. Moreover, there are those who embrace Benedict’s approach but reject his false choice between purity and mass appeal. As Ross Douthat has written, both in his 2012 book Bad Religion and in several of his Sunday New York Times columns, it is the churches that have most enthusiastically embraced the innovations of modernity that have been most seriously impacted by the decline in churchgoing. If you have nothing to offer people that they can’t get from, for example, participation in secular politics, then why would anyone give you a second look? Liberalizing is not as promising an option as it might seem for churches seeking to revitalize themselves.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it fails to account for the idea that individuals might have heterogeneous religious preferences. Another way to think about the prediction that greater competition leads to greater participation is to imagine that there are a variety of “market niches” that are ill-served by the presence of a single religious monopolist but that are more likely to see their personal spiritual needs met when there are a variety of available options.

While some niches may respond negatively to a lack of theological rigor or to a perceived doctrinal flexibility in their religious leaders, others may be drawn to such things (although they would no doubt frame them in more positive terms). Any shift in dogma or practice will please some and offend others. What matters is the relative size of the constituencies that are pleased and offended. So while it could very well be that Episcopalianism would collapse if it adopted every idea ever pushed by John Shelby Spong, it might also be the case that the Amish population would grow if they allowed themselves to start using microwaves.

This argument that liberalization, or what Stark and Finke would call a lessening of “tension with the social environment,” is intrinsically fatal to the robustness of religious congregations carries an implication that there is but one way to reinvigorate religion, and that is to cling firmly to “orthodoxy.” Acts of Faith contains a helpful example that shows why the rational choice approach cannot be used to make definitive recommendations about the path that should be taken by ailing religions. Stark and Finke consider the steep dropoff in vocations to the Catholic priesthood since the mid-1960’s, and conclude that

[t]he collapse of Catholic vocations was self-imposed, not merely incidental to the process of modernity. It was the assembled bishops of the Catholic Church who, after collective deliberations [at Vatican II], withdrew many of the most compelling motivations for the religious life [e.g. intimating in Lumen Gentium that priests and religious are not superior in holiness to the laity], while retaining the most costly aspects of vocations [e.g. celibacy]. Perhaps orthodox Freudians and other proponents of irrational choice theories might have expected that Catholics would still flock to the religious life out of neurotic need. The fact that the “flocking” went in the other direction testifies that humans subject even their most intense forms of religious commitment to reasoned evaluation. This point is additionally confirmed by the exceptions: some dioceses still generate vocations, and some religious orders still attract new members – those able to revivify perceptions of a positive ratio between the costs and rewards of the religious life… We do not propose that the Catholic Church ought to retain its reliance on costly religious vocations – on a church staffed by a corps of what Max Weber called “religious virtuosi.” Centuries of Protestant experience demonstrate the adequacy of less costly vocations.

According to this analysis, the effect of retaining “costly” practices like celibacy while reemphasizing the exalted status of the priest would have a similar effect to abandoning or reforming those practices but continuing to put laypeople and priests/religious on equal footing. The tenor of Francis’ papacy so far, as well as remarks made to reporters by his newly-appointed Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, suggest that the latter path is more likely than the former.

As a budding economist who obviously spends a great deal of time thinking and reading about religion and culture, I worry about attempts to overextend economic logic and to apply it to situations where explanations from sociology or anthropology or other related fields might be more effective. And so even I myself sometimes find it strange that I’m drawn to the approach promoted by people like Stark, Finke, and Hirschman. Yet maybe it isn’t all that unusual. Just as economists need to develop a sense of where and when and in which contexts their preferred assumptions are appropriate and where they break down, so too should scholars of religion appreciate the fact that religious behavior is not entirely unlike other kinds of human behavior. Maybe the sacred and the profane are not mutually exclusive.

Is the Church a “Lazy Monopoly”? To What Extent?

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels reports that “one out of every three Americans raised in the church is no longer a Catholic.”  She looks to economist Albert O. Hirschman’s study Exit, Voice, and Loyalty for a potential explanation for this exodus.  In the study, Hirschman argues that “lazy monopolies” are organizations that fail to satisfy their members (who either “exit” or stay but “voice” their displeasure) and yet do little to address the concerns of their (ex) constituents.

Steinfels correctly points out that the Church differs from other monopolistic organizations because of its role as guardian of immutable truths.  Indeed, its inherent credibility is based on upholding doctrines regardless of the will of a given era.  At the same time, though, one can’t help but feel there hasn’t been enough of an outreach to more effectively address the root causes of why the faithful are leaving.

According to Steinfels, 12 million people have moved from Catholicism to other religions and 12 million more are unaffiliated with any religious group.  I would like to see further subdivisions of these numbers that identify specific reasons for people exiting the Church.  Is it because they no longer believe in God or the divinity of Jesus, or was their faith poisoned by specific policies or errors such as the errant handling of the child sex abuse scandal?

I think the Church is guilty of being a “lazy monopoly” to different extents in each of these cases.  A loss of belief in the former is usually spurred by doubts about fundamental Church doctrine or theory, meaning the Church is less culpable- its credibility on guarding eternal truths is nullified if they’re constantly changing.  But if millions of people are leaving because they no longer believe in God, the Church does bear responsibility for failing to engage in convincing dialogue with its body.  It needs to provide clear, strong, and well-argued answers to Catholicism’s toughest critiques, and it needs to make these answers readily available to the people.

A difference of opinion as to what constitutes fundamental doctrine or theory may itself be a cause of abandoning Catholicism, too.  The Church’s unwavering stance in the substance of the Eucharist is one thing, but taking a hard-line doctrinal approach to issues such as banning women priests or gay marriage could be a substantial deterrent for some faithful.  I realize that policy shifts on these issues could be judged as undermining the Church’s credibility as discussed above, but it would seem the Church’s emphatic rejection of ongoing debate about these issues is symptomatic of the “lazy monopoly” model, especially if coherent arguments are paired with popular support of the banned practices.  (See John Paul II’s letter on the ordination of women for reference and take note of the absolutist tone of the final sentence.)

In the case of the faithful leaving because of events like the sex abuse scandal, the Church has acted as a lazy monopoly.  It did not take forceful action against the offending parties and it suffered deserving criticisms of hypocrisy as a result.  The Church has certainly undergone changes in the past to better suit the will of the people (the English mass after Vatican II comes to mind), but given that many have left recently in the wake of poor response to internal crises, a better job still needs to be done to restore confidence.

I hope Matt weighs in on this issue and evaluates Steinfels’ article beyond what I’ve jotted down here.  Matt has done extensive research on choice theory among religions, and I think he’ll provide us with some insightful commentary about Hirschman’s model.

Reasonable Reads: “Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy” by José M. Sánchez

The first two installments in our “Reasonable Reads” series featured reviews by Chris of works of fiction, neither of which he particularly enjoyed. It seemed about time to shake things up a bit, namely by having (a) me take a look at some (b) nonfiction that (c) I would actually end up recommending to you as something worth reading. On that note, I hereby offer up my thoughts on Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy by José M. Sánchez, a masterfully nuanced and methodical look at one of the greatest controversies in twentieth century world history.

I realized as I stumbled upon Pius XII in the religion section of my local library that I really didn’t know much about the fraught question of the papacy’s attitude toward Nazism during the Second World War beyond the fact that there was a question and that it was fraught. I remember hearing criticism of Pius in the wake of Benedict XVI’s decision to move him one step closer to being declared a saint in December of 2009. I suppose that at the time I had meant to do some digging and develop a more informed opinion, but somehow I never got around to it. When I came across Sánchez’s book and was reminded that I still knew very little about an episode that clearly elicits strong views to this day, I decided that it would worth it to finally bring myself up to speed.

Of course, one worries going into any book that purports to be a primer on a contentious topic that it will fail to present the facts of the matter as objectively as possible and instead serve to advance one particular reading at the expense of other plausible interpretations. Any work of history will necessarily have to emphasize certain events and deal less extensively with others, but the likelihood that it is actually partisan propaganda masquerading as neutral scholarship is directly related to the volume and intensity of the public debate surrounding its subject matter. I was happy to discover that Sánchez, a professor of history at St. Louis University in Missouri, is not a shill for any particular camp and is in fact extremely even-handed in his analysis. While the writing is hardly scintillating and often ponderous, Pius XII lives up to its billing as a concise and accessible guide to “understanding the controversy.”

Sánchez starts off by tracing the development of that controversy:

[Pius, who served as pope from 1939 to 1958,] was universally praised by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, as the spiritual leader not only of Catholics but of Western Civilization itself… Four years after his death, in the late winter of 1963, that image was tarnished by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, who published his play, Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy)… Hochhuth created a sensation by charging Pope Pius with violating the moral charge of his high office by not speaking out publicly and forcefully in defense of the Jews against the Nazi machine of destruction in World War II. (Sánchez, 1-2)

From there he moves to an overview of the available historical sources, an attempt to understand what and how much Pius knew about the Holocaust as it was unfolding, and a meticulous consideration of the various hypotheses that have been adduced as explanations for Pius’ behavior.

The issue of how informed the Pope was about what was really going on in Europe turns out to be central to Sánchez’ conclusions about how he ought to be judged by history. Ultimately, Sánchez maintains that Pius’ failure to offer an unequivocal public denunciation of the extermination of the European Jews was not rooted in anti-Semitism or sympathy for the agenda of Hitler and the Nazis, but rather than it was motivated by a desire to “not make things worse” and to prevent reprisals against Catholics (including Jewish converts) living in Germany or in territories occupied by the Germans.

To those who would reply that nothing could have been worse than the Holocaust, Sánchez notes that the gift of hindsight can easily blind us to the fact that the ultimate Nazi objective of slaughtering all the Jews in Europe was unknown to virtually everyone outside of Hitler’s inner circle until the end of the war. The Holocaust was the worst act of genocide in the history of the modern West, a crime against humanity utterly without precedent; who could blame those who failed to deduce that the persecution of some Jews was only a prelude to the mass murder of them all for not comprehending the Nazis’ horrific schemes sooner?

Did Pius know that these killings were simply the first step in the German plan to kill all the European Jews? To move from the fact of persecution, to the knowledge that they were killing many, to the belief that they were going to kill all is a big leap. It was not commonly believed by the Allied leaders, who with their espionage services were probably in a better position to know German aims. John Conway says that ‘it is possible to agree… that, like the majority of educated men in Western Europe, the Pope could not conceive of iniquity on such a scale, which was a failure of imagination, rather than of nerve.” (45)

Yet he does not argue that ignorance suffices to explain the lack of a strong public protest, nor does he excuse all of Pius’ actions during the war. (For example, he is sharply critical of Pius’ failure to denounce the campaign of forced conversion and ethnic cleansing directed against the Orthodox Serbs by the ostensibly Catholic government of Croatia under the fascist Ustasha, who we can only assume might have been actually cowed by a papal rebuke.) Instead, he contends that Pius’ personality and background as a Vatican diplomat led him to follow a path of (perhaps excessive) caution in his dealings with the Axis powers. He explains how Pius appears to have nurtured a hope throughout the war that the Vatican would eventually be called upon to mediate the conflict, and that he evidently held fast to this belief in the face of mounting evidence that there was in fact no chance whatsoever that a diplomatic solution was possible:

All historians agree that Pius wanted to mediate the war and therefore was less critical of the Germans than he should have been… Michael Marrus says that as time went on, Pius “clung to the wreckage of his prewar policy” of diplomatic mediation even when it no longer had a chance of success… It should, however, be pointed out that Pius did not consider his policy one of indifference to the warring powers. He told Cardinal Faulhaber that his attitude was not one of neutrality, which he said was ‘passive indifference,’ but rather one of impartiality, ‘which judges according to truth and justice.’ This is a subtle distinction that gets lost in the great moral issues of World War II. (111-112)

A subtle distinction indeed – one that reminds me of my own effort to draw a subtle distinction between “centrism” and “moderation.” It seems that Pius was on to something here, at least in a philosophical sense. Yet it is clear that this stance was impractical, not least of all because of the fact that neither side was interested in seeking the Pope’s mediation. When the deadliest war in human history is raging all around you, isn’t it at least possible that trying to stay completely out of it will be seen as an act of cowardice? Even if you are not actually a coward?

Just as I’ve argued that the pursuit of moderation necessarily involves negotiating the tension between the need to appear open-minded and willing to engage with anyone and the reality of having to sometimes admit that one side is right and the other wrong, the pursuit of “truth and justice” during World War II presented Pius with a moral dilemma that was simply too much for him to handle.

Since we can never know what might have come to pass had someone other than Pius occupied the Chair of Peter during the Holocaust, we can never really know whether his silence was due primarily to his own introspective and deliberative nature, or to situational factors that would have backed even the most resolute and decisive pontiff into the same unfortunate corner. Sánchez writes that

[the] dilemma was compounded by the geographical existence of the Vatican in Fascist Italy. In the Lateran Accords that ended the Roman Question and provided for mutual recognition between the Italian state and the Holy See, the Holy See promised to maintain neutrality in conflicts between states, at the same time reserving to itself the prerogative to speak out on moral questions – another dilemma in itself. (38)

While it might seem self-evident that these objectives are bound to come into conflict in the course of almost any armed dispute, Sánchez observes elsewhere that World War II was, again, completely unlike the wars that had come before it. This was not a struggle over competing territorial claims or political legitimacy: it was a cosmic clash of good and evil. The diplomatic protocols that Pius had internalized over his long career as a papal ambassador were now moot. If even a man who had decades of political experience couldn’t get it right, why should we assume that someone else would have done any better?

I thought about Pius as I read news reports of the current Pope’s condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and by all governments. How would Francis have acted if he were the leader of the Church during the Holocaust? Or perhaps the more tantalizing question is: would Pius have denounced the Assad regime if he were leading the Church today? The questions raised by Pius XII and the Holocaust are ones that are highly relevant in our own time, and in fact may never cease to be relevant.

Sánchez is a scrupulous historian who is consistently aware of the limitations of his project, and his work is thought-provoking and carefully researched. The sole weakness of the book – or perhaps some may see it as yet another strength – is its almost mechanical prose, which repeatedly crosses the line from clear and systematic argument into what seems like the dry recitation of a bulleted outline. The chapter entitled “Vatican Diplomacy Has Always Been Cautious” begins by reporting how “Pius’ defenders [argue] that he was simply following papal tradition in exercising a cautious diplomatic policy…” The one called “A Crisis of Conscience for German Catholics” opens by saying that “[o]ne of the strongest arguments critics have made is that Pius did not protest against the Nazi terror because such a protest would have caused a crisis of conscience for German Catholics…” The first sentence of “Pius Wanted to Serve as Mediator in the War”? “From the time of the loss of the Papal States in 1871, the papacy attempted to play a role in mediating conflicts between states.” In summarizing his judgments about the various possible explanations for Pius’ failure to explicitly denounce the killing of the Jews, Sánchez begins three paragraphs with the formulation, “Argument X does/does not appear to have substance.” I certainly learned a lot from this book, but I felt at times as if I were reading a study guide for an AP Twentieth Century Vatican History exam.

That said, I suppose it’s only natural for authors trying to bring civility and levelheadedness to an otherwise combustible controversy to err on the side of pedantry, and I certainly don’t think it would be fair to dismiss the book on those grounds alone. Pius XII and the Holocaust is in fact an exemplar of the very notion of reasonable read. It deservedly becomes our first enthusiastic recommendation.

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.)

Sports and Social Commentary

In his first piece as the new Ombudsman for ESPN, Robert Lypsyte critiqued the network’s coverage of NBA player Jason Collins’ recent decision to come out of the closet.  In particular, Lypsyte analyzes a controversial SportsCenter debate about Collins between LZ Granderson and Chris Broussard, in which Broussard argued that homosexuality (among other sins) constituted “walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ.”

Lypsyte provides a thorough and much-needed breakdown of the network’s missteps in addressing this issue.  His extensive follow-up with Broussard, Granderson, and other network executives is admirable and does a good job of contextualizing the decisions that led to Granderson and Broussard’s debate.  But I would have liked to see Lypsyte provide a fuller appraisal of three components of the story:

1) ESPN’s reticence to publish news about Collins’ announcement

2) Broussard’s questionable comments on homosexuality

3) What ESPN can do to better integrate “the journalistic issues that affect our understanding and appreciation” of sports into its daily broadcasts to better satiate “…people [who] want information, they want to understand their world, including the world of their games.”

ESPN’s coverage of Collins’ coming out was surprisingly subdued, especially given that this was the first active male player in the four major sports to make such a revelation.   The network’s website failed to promote the story as a headlining issue and instead slotted it underneath a piece about Tim Tebow.  Although ESPN certainly had the right to assign a lower hierarchy of coverage to Collins’ announcement, the network’s credibility was called into question, especially since most major non-sports news organizations were reporting the story as a major headline.  While Lypsyte does acknowledge ESPN’s reporting delay, he only seems to give the network a slight slap on the wrist instead of assessing the editorial decisions that led to the lack of coverage.

Lypsyte gives Broussard and Granderson’s commentary on homosexuality a much more thorough breakdown.  While Broussard is entitled to his opinion, it would have been appropriate for Lypsyte to acknowledge that this is not what all Christians think about homosexuality.  The Ombudsman column exists to provide objective criticism of the network’s policies and decisions, and I would argue that correcting any misconceptions imbued in a flawed piece falls under the Ombudsman’s purview.  A simple line about how Broussard does not represent a categorical spectrum of Christian belief on homosexuality would have assuaged the loaded nature of the segment.

Finally, Lypsyte’s column raises an excellent question that warrants further discussion: how far should sports news coverage go in discussing prominent social, political, and cultural questions?  Lypsyte mentions that readers who wrote in about the Broussard story were strongly divided on this issue, with some explicitly saying that coverage of Collins’ coming out was not appropriate for younger viewers who are likely to watch ESPN’s programs.  Granderson told Lypsyte that his conversation with Broussard “went too far – not too far for where it needs to go but too far for that news story. It was not necessarily a conversation for ESPN, which is not necessarily the place to examine theological differences.”

Both Granderson and Lypsyte’s readers raise fair points.  ESPN is in the business of providing coverage of sports events, and while cases like Collins’ announcement do constitute significant events, the ramifications of these events are not necessarily suited for network discussion (especially on-air discussion in ESPN’s current slate of programming).  But it would be most welcome to see ESPN set up an affiliate subspace devoted to covering how sports can be an effective conduit of discussion about topics that might be uninteresting for people in a non-athletic context.  One of the best articles I’ve read about the state of South African economic division was an ESPN piece that discussed how construction of the soccer stadium in preparation for the 2010 World Cup was exacerbating Cape Town’s wealth disparity.  ESPN consistently produces stories with this kind of pan-athletic scope, but they’re often ineffectively integrated within normal sports coverage, and current analysis programs like “Outside the Lines” often include normal coverage that’s just more in-depth.  (Current story on the OtL main page: “As he settles into 50, Michael Jordan finds himself wondering if there are any more asses left for him to kick.”)  There is a yet-untapped space for ESPN to aggregate its longer magazine articles on politics, its “30 for 30” film series, its OtL social reports, and more in conjunction with new articles and interviews that deal with the impact of sports beyond the field.

Although ESPN is often criticized by many fans and other organizations such as Deadspin for being a grandstanding corporate behemoth, it does have the scope and influence to affect how millions of fans view and interpret their games.  It would be wonderful to see the network take advantage of this opportunity and create a space dedicated to things that matter beyond the games themselves.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

In advance of the release of his book Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal last year about how churches and religious buildings can serve as models for secular society in building communities and relationships.  “One of the losses that modern society feels most keenly is the loss of a sense of community,” he argues.  Botton finds that churches, through collective immersion in a shared belief and repetition of liturgical activities, help the individual to more easily develop new friendships and augment the community’s social bond.  Botton believes this is a worthwhile model for secular groups to emulate in order to stem the tide of social alienation in the twenty-first century.

I was reminded of Botton’s article when I read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a short story that finds two café waiters preparing to close their restaurant for the night.  The younger waiter is impatient to get home to his wife and eventually tells the last patron, a deaf old man who had recently attempted suicide, to leave.  The older waiter is in no such rush.  “I am one of those who like to stay late at the café,” he says. “With all those who do not want to go to bed.  With all those who need a light for the night.”

Botton is articulating a similar longing and desire fifty years later.  Hemingway’s waiter does not believe in God (“Our nada who art in nada…” he intones) but finds a deep unease in the dark of the night.  He finds himself attracted to the “clean and pleasant” café where the “light is very good.”  The same is true for Botton’s characterization of unbelievers who, despite their disbelief, find value in the rituals of organized ceremony.  Botton argues that the genius of grandiose church buildings and the Mass service lie in inspiring a bond of heightened purpose:

We leave [Mass] thinking that humanity may not be such a wretched thing after all.  As a result, we may start to feel that we could work a little less feverishly, because we see that the respect and security we hope to gain through our careers is already available to us in a warm and impressive community that imposes no worldly requirements on us for its welcome.

Botton evaluates the benefits and disadvantages of cathedrals and other locations for social gathering in an attempt to build the ideal contemporary and non-religious gathering space.  He settles on the following:

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

As the Catholic Church and other religious organizations define themselves in the twenty-first century, it would be wise to keep this model, as well as the café of Hemingway’s protagonist, in mind.  Botton does not specify who or what group should build this Agape Restaurant, but he seems to place the agency of creating these non-religious superstructures and ceremonies in the hands of atheistic organizations.  It would be beneficial for religious organizations to create similar buildings in an attempt to foster interfaith or inter-belief dialogue.  Such buildings would certainly not supplant traditional churches, cathedrals, temples, and mosques, but they could prove to be effective supplemental spaces to more effectively engage modern communities.

The goal of these new religious spaces would be engaging in a more open dialogue with people who long for greater communal belonging but have no allegiance to any faith tradition.  Conversion should not be a priority; tending to people’s spiritual, moral, and communal need, regardless of belief, is more important.  But providing a free dedicated space where anyone could feel welcome would likely be an effective new tool for religious organizations to spread their message.  Though Botton is correct that the grandiose appearance of many worship spaces instills a sense of wonder, this appearance can simultaneously be off-putting to non-believers who don’t feel welcome in this foreign, insular community.   Creating a supplemental space that features minimal religious iconography but emphasizes open and broad religious discussion and debate would be a boon to entice new people to re-evaluate their perceptions of what “worship” entails.  A stripped-down, warm, and simple architectural style for these new buildings could provide a stark contrast to older, more imposing cathedrals and temples which might disincentivize potential participants.

This is not to say Botton’s unaffiliated “Agape Restaurants” are not a worthwhile idea in and of themselves, since creating a theologically-neutral space would provide its own unique benefits to the community.   But the central concept is remarkably applicable to religious organizations as well.  Providing a modern, clean, and well-lighted space for all people to satiate their metaphysical and physical hunger is an admirable goal for all religions, a goal that could redefine how people come to believe in the twenty-first century.

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.

Quick Link: The Benedict-Francis Continuum

The debate continues. NCR has a helpful analysis of the continuity between Benedict and Francis.  I thought this quote from John Thavis was particularly insightful:

Benedict tended to view [social issues] in culture war terms, as part of a political effort to keep the church’s voice out of public affairs. Francis, so far at least, is framing it more in terms of the human conscience battling the powerful pull of selfishness.

The article effectively shows that while the beliefs and policies of Benedict and Francis are not necessarily dissimilar, the way in which they contextualize hot-button issues is.  Francis’ crossover appeal, which I discussed in my last post, is abetted by packaging these questions and issues in a different paradigm.  Even if it’s not substantively different from previous papal stances, it’s enough of a shift to attract attention from across the spectrum.

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.

Can We Find Common Ground in the Gay Marriage Debate?

I’ve been watching a fascinating series of video interviews that are being posted online by the New York-based Institute for American Values as part of an initiative called “A New Conversation on Marriage.” The Institute is a nonprofit think tank that was founded in the late 1980’s by the author David Blankenhorn to “study and strengthen civil society.” Despite identifying as a liberal Democrat, Blankenhorn and his organization have long been involved in causes that are traditionally championed by social conservatives, like promoting the value of two-parent households or proposing policies “to reduce unnecessary divorce.”

Until June 2012, when he published a New York Times op-ed reversing his earlier position, Blankenhorn was also one of the most visible opponents of the movement to legally recognize same-sex marriage. He changed his mind after coming to the conclusion that “the equal dignity of homosexual love” requires offering equal legal status to gay and straight couples, and that opposition to gay marriage had done little to strengthen marriage more generally or to counteract its “steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.”

While this shift should hardly have come as a shock to anyone who had heard or read about – or seen dramatic reenactments of – Blankenhorn’s conflicted (and occasionally incoherent) testimony at the California Prop 8 trial in early 2010, it did alienate some of his conservative backers and board members and upset some liberal commentators uncomfortable with his continuing critiques of out-of-wedlock childbearing and single parenthood. The upside for him, as recounted in a more recent NYT profile, was that the realignment freed Blankenhorn to take up the task of building a new coalition of advocates for what Jonathan Rauch has dubbed “the family values agenda for the post-gay world.”

The result has been an innovative attempt to seek common ground in the marriage debate. The project was launched with the publication of “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage: An Appeal from Seventy-Five American Leaders,” a document signed by a wide array of academics, clerics, lawyers, journalists and others. It lays out some guiding principles for how we might have a productive public discussion about marriage that both accepts the reality of shifting public opinion on issues of gay rights and acknowledges the concerns of social conservatives about the potential costs associated with an increasingly privatized view of adult relationships. It has continued with “The Conversation,” the YouTube interview series I mentioned at the outset.

Blankenhorn’s guests so far have run the ideological gamut. They have included Peter Steinfels, a pro-life Democrat and columnist for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal; Rusty Reno, a theology professor and editor of the traditionalist journal First Things (and an alum of my very own alma mater); Amy Ziettlow, a progressive Lutheran pastor and Huffington Post contributor; Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of a controversial book on race and intelligence entitled The Bell Curve; Glenn Loury, a Brown University scholar who was also Harvard’s first tenured black economist; and John Corvino, a gay philosopher and author of several books on homosexuality and gay marriage.

My goal is to put up some brief thoughts about each of the videos as I make my way through the series. So far I’ve found them to be well worth watching and chock-full of thought-provoking insights, although they do require a significant time commitment (the average length to date has been around 90 minutes).

The one downside is that Blankenhorn’s style and demeanor can be somewhat distracting; his opening exchanges with guests about their backgrounds and biographical details are often halting and awkward, and he outright forgets a question in mid-sentence during his interview with Rusty Reno. That said, he is generally quite skilled at playing Devil’s Advocate and at steering the conversation in interesting directions. I look forward to seeing where he steers the capital-C “Conversation” in future episodes.