Sunday, March 29, 2015


Pope Francis and the ambivalence of popularity

PLUS: Skirmishing over the Synod of Bishops, and does Cardinal Tagle have a date with history?
If Pope Francis were the President of the United States, he would now be on the other side of his first midterm election, having marked his two-year anniversary on March 13, and all indications are his party would have done exceptionally well.

The pope’s poll numbers remain sky-high, with the most recent Pew Forum study putting his approval rating among American Catholics at 90 percent. While a president would probably take that and run, being pope is a bit more complicated.

For one thing, a pope is expected to be not an electoral dynamo, but a living saint. As “House of Cards” proves definitively, Americans long ago abandoned the conceit that our civic leaders are or should be paragons of virtue.

For another, a pope has the whole world to think about. Of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics on the planet, only about 70 million are Americans, representing a little less than 6 percent of the global Catholic population.

Nowhere, however, is the complexity of being pope more obvious than the ambivalence over popularity.

For one thing, there’s a swath of the Catholic Church, both in America and elsewhere, that cringes when a pope enjoys strong appeal in the outside world, especially in secular circles of opinion. The logic unfolds like this:
• Premise: Secularism is hostile to the Catholic faith.
• Premise: Anyone who upholds the Catholic faith is bound to be despised by secularists.
• Q.E.D.: Anyone popular with secularists is a danger to the faith.

Last October, a Catholic theologian who writes on apocalyptic themes, meaning descriptions of the end-times in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, published an open letter to Pope Francis questioning his doctrinal orthodoxy. It featured this warning: “No matter what other good you do, no matter what other humanitarian engagement you promote, or popularity contest you win, if you lead the faithful astray, you will be nothing more than a false pope.”

For this kind of believer, one bedrock of the faith is a saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
Such Catholics are never more comfortable than when a pope is under attack, and never more alarmed than when the world applauds. Most will be inclined to suspect that the world has misunderstood the pope if it likes what it sees, not that the pope has erred, but there are enough who cut the other way to create a problem.

At the opposite end of the Catholic spectrum, there are some progressives who always rued what they described as a populist “cult of personality” under Pope St. John Paul II, feeling that it reinforced what they saw as his unwarranted claims to papal power.
In their nastier moments, and usually off the record, some clergy and theologians would compare the adoring crowds John Paul II drew for almost 27 years to party rallies staged by some of history’s great  demagogues, such as Mussolini or Ceaușescu. [not to mention Eva Peron!]
Liberals don’t tend to have the same beef with Francis, because they support more of what they take to be his agenda, but who knows how long that will last?

Papal popularity is a mixed blessing in yet another sense, because it can bog down efforts to put the divided Christian family back together.

Pope Francis has made ecumenism, meaning the press for Christian unity, one of the cornerstones of his agenda, and he’s moved the ball.

He’s made Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the “first among equals” of Orthodox leaders, his partner in diplomacy; he’s signaled a willingness to meet the head of the Russian Orthodox Church any time, any place; and he sat down with a delegation of Evangelical ministers last June, even swapping high-fives with American televangelist James Robinson after speaking of the need for a personal relationship with Jesus.

Part of the reason these leaders beat a path to Francis’ door is precisely his popularity, because they grasp that he has the biggest bully pulpit of any spiritual potentate in the world and there’s no choice but to engage him.

Yet that same popularity can also deepen suspicions. The Russian Orthodox, for instance, have long feared that reunion with Rome would ultimately mean being placed under the thumb of an imperial papacy, no matter what theological or structural assurances the Vatican might offer.

Watching Francis elicit hosannas from the media, and seeing him draw rapturous crowds of 3 million in Brazil and a stunning 6 million to 7 million in the Philippines – in the teeth of a tropical storm, no less – probably doesn’t help abate those concerns.

At some level, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has to know that if he’s in the same room with Francis, he’s never going to be an equal in anything other than a theoretical sense, even in Russia itself.
Trawl the Evangelical blogosphere sometime, and you’ll find that such concerns are hardly restricted to the Orthodox.

Of course, any of the gaggle of presidential hopefuls for 2016 would probably say that managing astronomic popularity is a headache he or she would love to have. Moreover, the genius of Francis is that one element of his appeal is a reputation for humility, so it’s tough to accuse him of gloating.
Still, the mere fact that Francis has to think about a down side to winning hearts and minds clearly illustrates one point: Being pope isn’t anybody’s idea of a walk in the park.

Skirmishing over the Synod of Bishops

This week nearly 500 Catholic priests in England and Wales signed a public letter asking the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops on the family in October to reject calls to allow Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church to receive Communion, urging the synod to issue a “clear and firm proclamation” upholding Church teaching on marriage.

The letter was published in the Catholic Herald, with 461 priests affixing their names, including some of the country’s highest-profile clerics. It reflects the fact that debate over the divorced and remarried was a flashpoint at the last synod, driven by a proposal by German Cardinal Walter Kasper to relax the traditional ban.

The priests’ initiative brought an indirect rebuke from Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who’s generally seen as favorable to a more permissive line. In an interview last October, Nichols faulted the concluding document from the first summit on the family for not going far enough towards “respect”, “welcome” and “value” for gays and lesbians.

“The pastoral experience and concern of all priests in these matters are of great importance and are welcomed by the bishops,” Nichols said in response to the open letter. “It is my understanding that this has been taken up in every diocese, and that channels of communication have been established.”
In effect, Nichols then asked his priests to keep their thoughts out of the newspapers.

“This dialogue, between priests and their bishop, is not best conducted through the press,” his statement said.

That exchange builds on recent swipes from fellow German cardinals directed at Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, president of the German bishops’ conference, who recently hinted that Germany may forge ahead on welcoming the divorced and remarried back to Communion regardless of what the Synod of Bishops decides.

“Each conference of bishops is responsible for pastoral care in its cultural context, and must preach the Gospel in its own original way,” Marx said in February/ He was among the champions of the progressive line on divorce and remarriage last October.

“We cannot wait for a synod to tell us how we have to shape pastoral care for marriage and family here,” said Marx, who will be one of Germany’s three representatives at the looming synod.

In an interview this week with a French publication, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, fired back.

“The president of an episcopal conference is nothing more than a technical moderator, and he does not have any particular magisterial authority due to this title,” he said.

The claim that a bishops’ conference could make its own decisions on matters concerning the family and marriage, Müller said, is “an absolutely anti-Catholic idea that does not respect the Catholicity of the Church.”

In a similar vein, retired German Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, a former high-ranking Vatican official close to the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, said in an open letter said that Marx’s comments were more suited “to the counter of a bar” than serious theological conversation.

American Cardinal Raymond Burke, another champion of traditional Catholic doctrine, gave an interview in late January that appeared this week in LifeSite News, a go-to source for the most ardent defenders of traditional Catholic positions in the wars of culture, warning that “confusion is spreading in an alarming way” about where the Church stands.

In a recent analysis, Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister noted that Pope Francis has introduced some fresh blood into the synod process this time around, including the vice president of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, a body known for an articulate and forceful defense of traditional positions.

Yet for every seeming “no” vote on Communion for the divorced and remarried, there’s also someone out there leaning “yes.”

In mid-March, Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle of the Philippines was in the United Kingdom to speak at a Catholic gathering, and he publicly rejected a one-size-fits-all solution.

“Every situation for those who are divorced and remarried is quite unique,” Tagle said. “My position at the moment is to ask, ‘Can we take every case seriously and are there, in the tradition of the Church, paths towards addressing each case individually?’ This is one issue that I hope people will appreciate is not easy to say ‘no’ or to say ‘yes’ to. We cannot give one formula for all.”

Tagle, it should be noted, isn’t just any prelate. He’s the Catholic rock star of Asia, and his stock is even higher today after having organized a wildly successful papal outing to his country in January.

It remains unclear what all this bodes in terms of how Pope Francis will eventually resolve the debate over Communion for the divorced and remarried. Logically speaking, he would seem to have three options:
• Say “yes”
• Say “no”
• Call for more study

Facing a divided Church, conventional wisdom would tag option three as the smart bet. Given Francis’ penchant for surprise, however, any prediction seems premature.

One thing that does seem certain is that the year-long interval between the last Synod of Bishops and Round Two has not yet served to produce consensus. If anything it’s given partisans time to organize, suggesting that the clashes that erupted last time may have been just an appetizer for the main course this October.


MR said...

As Sandro Magister said, Francis has recently "thrown quite a damper on the expectations for change" on communion for the remarried. John Allen seems to have, rather conveniently, ignored that.

rcg said...

This article has a passive-aggressive feel to it. Of course the most likely outcome is more stuffy. Not only is that the standard MO for the Church it makes good sense. For, LO! And Behold! There are doctrinal and canon law avenues the allow for divorce and homosexual people to be in communion already present. Not everyone will be allowed back. But not everyone should be allowed to marry. Ironically, that is part of the answer, I think. We have allowed marriage to become so casual a sacrament (like Communion) that annulment would be a low hurdle for many if we honestly delve into the state of mind of the participants, including the clergy participating in preparation.

If Tagle is asking the questions from the position of true sophisted understanding of Church teaching and Law, them good for him. If he is asking it to maintain his popularity and status, then woe be unto him.

Anonymous said...

The important thing about Pope Francis is that he makes me feel good about being Catholic! For too long we have been repressed by a church that wants to control us. All the stuff in the catechism is meaningless, unless we feel the love. Love, love, love, love, love. It's all right here:

Daniel said...

Father, when you say you sometimes feel the same way, I assume you're referring to the line about conservatives cringing at Francis's popularity.

I refer you to the Pew Survey of a couple weeks back that said Francis is now "nearly as popular" in the US as John Paul II.

just curious: Did you cringe at John Paul's popularity also? Or is this a new thing?

"Francis is now nearly as popular as Saint John Paul II, who was pope from 1978 until his death in 2005. Widely considered one of the most charismatic and impactful pontiffs of the modern era, John Paul II was viewed favorably by 93% of American Catholics in 1990 and again in 1996."

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

I did not like the cult of the personality of St. John Paul II and I don't like the quick canonization of all these modern popes. I despise the cult of the personality for any bishop, priest or deacon and I particularly despise the cult of modern celebrity especially with this current pope.

Pope Benedict and his more austere personality and his reliance on the trappings and institution of the papacy is more to my liking. The institution of the papcy and respecting its trappings takes more humility and Pope Benedict's papacy was far more humble in terms of his "motel six" personality!

Cletus Ordo said...

I was one of those people caught up in the cult of personality of John Paul II. He was elected when I started college and he captured me because I thought he would put the kibosh on a lot of the silliness that started under Paul VI. I was particularly elated at his appointment of Ratzinger at CDF. As I got older, I took a hard look at some of his writings, many of his episcopal appointments (like Mahony and Bernardin) and began to re-evaluate my enthusiasm. I was grew increasingly disenchanted with his mode of letting his subordinates do everything while he was on an endless world tour.

In retrospect, I don't think he was a bad pope. But I also don't think he was as great a pope as some would characterize him. He did some great things and knew how to use his strengths, especially with the media, but he also made some mistakes. Some were not really his fault (but based on bad advice by his handlers) and, if anything, I see he was human.

If there is anything I DO regret about his papacy, it was my youthful exuberance of getting caught up in the whole "he can do no wrong" mode of thinking. Maybe that is why, like Fr. McDonald, I too do not like the cult of personality when applied to any pope, bishop, priest, rock star, conductor, film actor or college professor. I am also wary of these rushed canonizations.

That said, there WAS one thing different about Pope John Paul's popularity: Most Catholics seemed to love him and just ignored what he said. In the case of Francis, everyone seems to love him BECAUSE of what he says and the gist of what he says (or what the media is telling us he says) is that "The old rules no longer apply and I am going to remake the Catholic Church into something that requires no effort or sacrifice."

Please Lord, let me be wrong.

Daniel said...

Thank you, Father, a fair answer to my smart-alecky question.
I have long felt that Francis has more in common with JP2 than either has with Benedict -- but as an admirer of both men, I think that's a good thing.
I'm also a little quizzical about the rapid beatifications -- especially John XXIII, since his legacy is so widely questioned nowadays.
But if patience and civility with your gaggle of persnickety wise guys is a saintly virtue, you'll be on the list some day. Not too soon, we hope.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe there was a cult following of St John Paul The Great at all. I think he was genuinely loved because of the great physical suffering he endured though his papacy, his obvious love for Our Lord and devotion to Our Lady and who could forget his tireless defence of the unborn?

To me St John Paul brought the Church back from the brink when there was next to no adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and it was being said there was too much devotion to Our Lady. Many say they felt that they knew him, although they had never met him. That is exactly how I felt.

Pope Benedict on the other hand I see as very humble and unassumping but an intellectual giant. He has been very misunderstood and a victim of the press. Because of his gentle demeanour I love him and that love continues to grow.

Pope Francis on the other hand, from the time he walked out on to the balcony, I have felt no warmth towards. I feel he is muddled and his confused, changeble statements make me unable to feel the security I once felt with St John Paul The Great and Benedict XVI. Also, I feel a lot of his public persona is cultivated. I don't get a feeling of genuine warmth from him. Others I know have expressed similar sentiments.

John Nolan said...

The greater the man, the more obvious his flaws. Winston Churchill is a prime example of this.

JP II was a global celebrity but was by no means popular with the liberal episcopacy. It should be remembered that the issues being pushed by Kasper and company were being pushed at the Synod on the family thirty-five years ago by Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Worlock. (Vincent Nichols was there as bag-carrier to the Cardinal).

If Hume's official biographer is to be believed, Hume and Worlock were dismayed by JP II's hard-line attitude and decided that the only way forward was to make the Church in England more-or-less autonomous.

Православный физик said...

The only Popes that have been in my lifetime are JPII, Benedict XVI and Francis...

JPII did indeed have a personality cult, many did feel he could do no wrong (within my generation) and although most people ignored what he said, people did have a genuine love for him. He was an actor and one could tell that by his very outgoing self and wanting to be with the people. He never compromised on the Faith, but there was a genuineness to him that people noticed and attracted accordingly.

Benedict XVI, shy, introverted, and did not try to be someone that he wasn't. He spoke, and did not try to treat the youth like idiots, and for this I'd say it's one of he reasons he was admired. He fed the people truth, and people listened. One could argue, that JPII helped prepped the soil for listening or what not. He tried to not make himself the center of attention, and for this, I also thought he was listened to.

Francis, however, I think is doing a lot of this "for the public" in other words, I really don't think he's all that extroverted, warm, and everything that he's portrayed as in the media. There are very few naturally extroverted scientists. (Of which I am definitely not an extroverted scientist)....For this I can't say that I'm all attentive towards Francis, because whether willingly or unwillingly he's trying to be someone that he isn't, and I see right through it. You can see it in the almost daily insults to the Faithful, in how he deals with those that do not agree with him, he's hardly a warm person. Nothing against that of course, but it's much better for any person to be who they are, and not be someone that they're not....

Francis in spite of the various ambiguities in speaking does say some good things. His popularity is with all the wrong people, and that I think is a HUGE problem.

Marie said...

Allen writes: "Yet for every seeming 'no' vote on Communion for the divorced and remarried, there’s also someone out there leaning 'yes'... Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle of the Philippines ...publicly rejected a one-size-fits-all solution."

I'm sorry to say this, but at this point, whatever Cardinal Tagle says about divorce and remarriage should be taken as "academic."

There is no divorce in the Philippines; there's what is called "legal separation" with no provision for remarriage.

Since it is "remarriage" [sex outside of a legal marriage] that places a person in the state of mortal sin, a legally separated person may still receive communion provided he/she remains chaste. Better yet, reconcile with his/her spouse, even if it's just "for the sake of the children."

Even a widow is not allowed to remarry within the first year of her husband's death, purportedly to establish a child's paternity, in case the widow is found to be pregnant before her husband's first death anniversary.

Of course there's always the threat of congress passing a bill of divorcement, given that surveys have shown six out of every 10 Filipino adults favoring divorce. But so far, such a proposal has always been defeated in legislature.

Cardinal Tagle's pondering of the issue may just be a preparation for the battle ahead. A case-to-case basis of tackling the matter may call for simpler and more efficient marriage counseling and tribunal procedures and maybe the so-called "internal forum." Nobody at this point knows what Cardinal Tagle is thinking.

But not to lose heart. Tagle is not the only warrior in this battle. At least two well-respected Churchmen have already started their fight for the country's soul.

Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales [Archbishop Emeritus of Manila]: “Even if it is 99 percent surveyed favor divorce, what is wrong is wrong. Those who argue that the Church should change its stand on divorce are asking the institution to overrule God, and are ignoring what's in the Bible...There are just too many bright people nowadays.”

Archbishop Emeritus of Lingayen-Dagupan Oscar Cruz: "Those who argue that the Church should change her teachings on divorce are asking the impossible. The Bible says what God has joined together let no man put asunder. The Church is duty bound to observe and to promote the teachings of Her founder, and Her founder teaches that marriage is sacred.”