Pope and Circumstance

Of course I have no business saying so, but I think Pope St Francis is a bore.  From the moment he said he wouldn’t wear the ruby red slippers, I thought the guy was a fraud.  Then came the news that he’d ordered a Vespa (joke), wouldn’t live in the papal apartments, preferred washing the feet of tattooed prostitutes and criminals to those of his fellow priests on Maundy Thursday, and liked being called Bishop Francis (Why not just Jorge?)  instead of Your Holiness.

What about “Your Silliness”?   I have nothing against simplifying the world’s largest bureaucracy, being attentive to the needs of the gazillion Catholics in the southern reaches of the globe who now make up the largest active segment of the Church’s population, or eschewing the more flagrant symbols of office that Benedict XVI seemed to enjoy.  –Confidentially, though, I like my popes to look like popes and not like an ad for Clorox.  A little red as an accent colour reminds me the popes have blood, and sins, and aren’t simply parading around like perpetual virgins.

The problem with Francis is that he already looks like a guitar mass and a paper hymnal.  There is something Old Vatican II about him that makes me want to bang my head against the wall.  He has begun to sound like those Jesuits before him that gave us thirty years of tuneless tripe that tightlipped Catholic congregations refused to sing. In a scary, bad-memory kind of way he looks like those liberal priests who liked their liturgies (in the strict sense) vulgar, their chalices wooden, their genuflections optional and their altars square. For the sake of relevance OV-II style, it helped to make the congregation stand when they should kneel and put the tabernacle to one side in an ecclesiastical game of Where’s Waldo?  That is the “context” Francis fits into away down south in Argie.

The idea he is anything new just shows you how quickly you can forget about how old and stale Vatican II had become by the time Benedict XVI replaced the drooling and Parkinson’s ravaged John Paul II, himself soon to be sainted for presiding over the total dissolution of Catholic liturgy and priestly training while the rest of the world looked on oblivious (and oddly forgiving) of his sins and limitations.

What is saddest about Francis is that he may honestly believe one gesture is worth a thousand bells.  He may believe that the Catholic church is a church of the poor, or he may, more cannily, know that the future of the Church depends on a demographic that is largely poor and looks at a pope in red velvet and ermine-trimmed mozetta and sweet lacey surplice beneath as out of touch with the nitty gritty of the Church Militant—the old name for those of us here below, working out our salvation in an era of sexting and American Idol.

If Francis believes that his gestures are significant he is merely ignorant.  If he fails to recognize that Benedict brought the Church back from a forty year decline into liturgical torpor that fell past the pedestrian into the ditch of banality, then he is both ignorant and malignant. At age 74, he may be too old or too diffident or (dare I say it) too new world to realize that people like a little paprika with their potatoes, and so far he is all stodge and no excitement.  I think it was Steinbeck who said that no American thinks he is poor; he thinks he is a temporarily embarrassed millionaire.  Most Catholics, for the same reason, like a pope who isn’t afraid to strut a bit, as long as underneath the strutting they sense compassion and integrity.  To be honest, Francis is doing his own kind of strutting for the cameras, and I am not at all sure the integrity is there.

After a while, even the media are going to get sick of watching him be one of the guys.  When we see him auctioning off treasures of the Vatican Museum or trying to hock the keys of the kingdom for a sensible padlock, we’ll know his moment in the limelight is over.  But that, probably, will never happen.  Francis will be too hard pressed to find new, meaningful gestures that seem to tweak his papacy as a papacy for the little guy without really doing much of anything.  My own feeling, as a devout lapsed Catholic, is that if you’re not going to do much of anything, do it in style.

I am not sure what walk this pope is walking or talk he is talking because gestures, of course, are just that.  They cost him nothing and change nothing that may need to be changed.  The great virtue of his predecessor was that Benedict “knew” the Church in both real and historical terms.  Francis has all the marks of a diocesan ordinary who thinks what worked in Buenos Aires will work globally.  Benedict was all about recreating an authentic Catholicism that transcended the local, because Catholicism is, after all, by name and self-understanding, a global faith.

In pinpointing the life and ministry (and obsessions) of a thirteenth century monk as the way forward for the church universal, Francis runs the risk of becoming an artifact of Vatican II, a bit of nostalgia , repackaged as The Latest Thing.  Shaw infamously teased about the teaching of St Paul that the conversion of barbarians to Christianity was the conversion of Christianity to barbarity.  Francis’s determination to create a Church of the poor will impoverish the Church is ways still to be seen.

Prayer of Pope St Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of political persuasion:

Where there is pomp let me feign humility;

Where there is skepticism, sincerity;

Where there is tradition, anything that looks new and comes in white,

Where there is certainty, relativism;

Where there is light, gray;

Where there is doctrine, opinion.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much

Do as be seen to be doing;

Change things as to pray for changes;

Be Pope as to be one of the boys who happens to be Pope;

Teach anything clearly as to listen to absolute drivel from nincompoops in ten languages, including Chinese, and pretend to take it seriously

For it is in pretending that we are convincing.

It is in forgiving everyone anything that we look good,

And it is in  chucking it all up in about eight years, more or less, that I am saved…



Pope St Francis

As we wait for the media to make Pope Francis into its own image of a “people’s Pope” I thought I would offer a few thoughts.  I have no special insight.  I am a lapsed Catholic who, when most recently asked if I was “practicing,” replied that I had given up practicing when I felt I reached a sufficient level of perfection and could go no further with it.

Francis of Assisi, to use CNN”S favourite adjective, is an iconic saint. That means everyone knows a little bit about him, even protestants who normally can’t be bothered with names like Boniface and Thomas Aquinas.  I haven’t checked the registry today, but my recollection is that there haven’t been popes named Thomas either.  Peter is off limits, so too the names of the apostles with the exception of lots of Johns and Pauls and a few Marks. –Odd in the institution that invented the theory of apostolic succession but ended up with names Like Zosimus, Celestine, Pius, and (hee hee) Hilarius.  But that is a quibble.

So what about Francis?  Francis was a thirteenth century hippie who talked to birds, had delusions of spiritual communion so intense that he bled, and  was neither pastoral nor especially generous.  He was dirty, sickly, a coward, spiritually selfish, weird, a poor administrator, a beggar who lived off others’ charity and left his own order in a shambles of rival sects that made little impact on the consolidating authority of Rome, then heavily into the regal trappings of an imperial papacy. Those who wish to read good but sanitized versions of these interpretations may wish to have a look at the recent biographies of Dominican priest Augustine Thompson (Francis of Assisi, A New Biography) and, from the French to English, Andre Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint.

It is not that Francis that this Francis wants to evoke.  It is the Francis legend: that Francis, the Francis of Catholic piety and garden statues, loved birds, wore a brown robe as he strolled in the evening composing nature poems, and in his spare time loved the poor.  The crucial part of the legend which is almost certainly crucially false is the bit where Pope Innocent I, in a vision, dreamed he saw a monk holding in his hands the Basilica of St John Lateran  (the pope’s own church), and decided it was God’s will for him to approve the monk’s new order.   As a symbol of their obedience to his authority, however, the friars were required to be “tonsured” ( a patch of their hair removed from their pate), signifying they would not preach heresy.

This Francis, a pope,  is said to prefer the simple white cassock and to eschew gold, ermine and red slippers.  Offered those trappings immediately after his election, he is reported to have said to an attendant, “No, the carnival is over.”  But this may just be a rumour being spread by traditionalist Catholics.  Who could know?

What I do know is this.  The least offensive thing about Benedict XVI is that he fulfilled the central office of the papacy, which is to be a teacher.  That is the job description. Loving the poor and being concerned about the plight of the environment are noble things, and everybody should care about those things.  But that is not what popes can do best. The councils of the modern secular state are where poverty alleviation and environmental protection take place, not in a baroque office under the ever-blue skies of eternal Rome.

The unavoidable fact is, the Church is only strong in a world where the poor and the hungry are a majority.  A church of well-educated men and women who manage their incomes well and plan their families by using contraception and, in a pinch, abortion—that kind of world has no use for popes.

Loving the poor is code for needing the poor, the uneducated, the disillusioned.  Those poor no longer live, primarily,  in Europe and increasingly not in North America.  They live below the equator, in Africa, parts of South America, the southern Atlantic and the Pacific. That is where the church is strongest, because it is also where superstition is the strongest.  These Catholics do not need to be taught the doctrine of the Church.  They don’t need (or even like) Latin masses. They believe in simplest terms that Jesus is God, that Mary is his Mother, that priests have magical power, and that when they die, if they are saved, they will go heaven and live forever. They pray these things in their own language and they sing about them to the strumming of untuned guitars and marimbas. They want to feel loved, and to feel compassion.  No one can fault people for that. I certainly don’t.

I do not even believe that the Church conspires to keep them in this state.  The difficulty for Catholicism throughout history has been how to lift many  people up intellectually and then keep them in the walls once they are lifted. A former priest teacher of mine (who left his order about five years after my high school graduation to become a social worker) once put it simply: people who need bread don’t need a lecture on transsubstantiation.  The ironic outcome of Catholic “education,” including my own, has been to show people the world that scholar-priests, philosophers, and theologians helped bring into existence—a world of serious thought, questions, and solutions—and then to ask them to choose faith instead. A rather grim reversal of Plato’s Allegory.

Benedict’s failed attempt was to call people back to the smart Church and to that world.  Francis will be satisfied with the nostrum:  Have faith—prefer faith.  If you have any insight beyond that, good for you. Odd for a member of a religious order that is not especially known for its faith-based initiatives.

And just for the banal, persona-shaping media, this also has to be said.   When it comes to this pope “reforming” the papacy: No.  This pope will be even more adamant in opposing birth control, abortion, a new definition of marriage, the relaxation of priestly celibacy, and women’s ordination.  The Church has certainly and frequently called for social justice, but when it gets right down to it, they have benefited from poverty and ignorance.  The very survival of the church depends on it.  A smart church, European-style, is an empty church. Rome is not naïve about this.  If simplicity is the PR campaign they need to increase numbers, then simplicity, not complex theological dicta, it will be.

That is the kind of Francis this Francis has to be.  If he saves a few birds and trees in the process and preaches peace to the choir, that is fine and good.  But there will be no dramatic change here—just a reassertion of the medieval “pro-life” social values and the interfering sexual politics of his predecessors, going back to Paul VI, the pope who issued Humanae Vitae condemning contraception as intrinsically opposed to the will of God.

Paul VI had a tough time smiling.  When he did, he only managed to look as if the laxative was working..  This pope has a broad and winning smile.  But what he is selling is the same used car.

In the wake oe Election 2012, it is time to get serious about secularism and humanism again. One thing for sure, Congress won’t.

The New Oxonian

It has been forty six years since Harvey Cox was made famous by a book called The Secular City.

I’m sure people read it—they certainly bought it–but apparently very few people took it to heart. It was famous for being famous, had an untidy thesis and worst of all did not prominently take on the topic its title promised: the secularization of American life. It was dazzling, intellectually promiscuous, and energetic, much like its author, a “village Baptist” come to Harvard.

And it was an extended broadside against the death of God theologians who then dominated the covers of Time and Newsweek and whose shelf-life, after the initial shock of the new, did not amount to a decade.

No one could quite make out what they wanted God to be, so the thought that he was dead turned out to be something of a consolation. “Now,” I remember…

View original post 1,260 more words