Now, That’s Audacious

Ross Douthat takes the temperature of Roman Catholicism in the era of Francis:

In fact the conflicting inquisitions, liberal and conservative, are the all-but-inevitable result of the pope’s decisions to stir the church’s tensions into civil war again, and then to fight for the liberal side using ambiguous statements and unofficial interventions rather than the explicit powers of his office. Indeed, when Professor Faggioli complains about a “Catholic social media that has completely bypassed” the way the “Catholic Church has worked for centuries,” he might just as easily be describing Pope Francis, whose personalized style has made the lines of authority within the church maddeningly unclear.

On issues large and small, Francis has decentralized authority informally while retaining all the formal powers of his office and encouraged theological envelope-pushing without changing the official boundaries of what counts as Catholic teaching and what does not. This has effectively created two different versions of that teaching — the one on the books versus the one that the pope offers in his winks and nods — to which different Catholics can appeal.

In this environment, anyone who wishes to know what the pope really thinks is better off ignoring official Vatican offices and instead listening to the coterie of papal advisers who take to Twitter to snipe against his critics.

But even that kind of Kremlinology doesn’t completely clarify the pope’s intentions, which is why Francis’s liberalizing allies are frequently impatient with him and sometimes get out ahead of his intentions and find themselves reined in.

As a result the only Catholic certainty now is uncertainty.

What does that kind of uncertainty do to the narrative of so many converts that you go to Rome for the authority and certainty of timeless truth? Part of what it does is expose that unity and certainty are good in theory, and then comes a specific pope with all the authority and charism of the theory (they did not go away when Francis became pope — they inhere in the office). Protestants at least are honest about our disagreements. Roman Catholics cannot be:

This is a situation calculated to make everyone feel self-righteous and self-justified, to complain about toxic rhetoric while flinging insults frequently themselves.

It also places Catholic institutions — schools and parishes and universities and diocesan shops — in a very difficult position. The temptation, already evident, will be to shy away from conflict, to self-segregate theologically (liberal speakers to liberal campuses and parishes, vice versa for conservatives) and avoid even acknowledging the conflict.

But this approach is foolish. When the Supreme Pontiff is allowing argument to flourish and public division to increase, it does no good for institutions to pretend that none of this is happening — as though the average Catholic will somehow not notice that the leaders of the church are increasingly opposed to one another. (The poison of online debate is itself partially a reaction to this public pretense of tranquillity.)

All the more reason for my contention that Roman Catholicism would be better off without the papacy.

10 thoughts on “Now, That’s Audacious

  1. Well, if you are Bryan Cross and the true church is a Platonic construct that exists only in the world of forms, not even a bad pope is incompatible with the truth of Rome. That and I’m sure you’re somehow begging the question.


  2. This tends to enforce my thought that there is probably a wide gulf between what goes on (shenanigans included) in far-away Rome and what happens in any city or town’s local Catholic church, where retail Catholicism is practiced. Does the average Roman Catholic really pay all that much attention to Rome?


  3. Richard, Roman Catholics put the Rome in Roman Catholic. The average one pays attention at least the way Americans follow POTUS. If he’s on your team, then the papacy is great. If not, the church sky is falling. Francis has his fans. John Paul II had his.


  4. The pope of the pope’s tweets:

    I am an expert in marketing and technology, I move in those two worlds. From the point of view of the consistency of the Pope Francis brand, I believe that at this moment, it’s the most authentic of all the world leaders.

    If the world had a line-up like a football team, on the one hand, you have a gentleman called Vladimir Putin in Russia, one in North Korea who every day gives us a new scare. You have the British with Theresa May, who’s a little withdrawn and has a somewhat hesitant leadership, and then in the United States there’s Donald Trump, who is rather random in his way of exercising leadership.

    Taking into account the global line-up, we can say that we’ve had times with more credible leaders.

    In this era, in which institutions have suffered a huge loss of credibility, the pope is not only the most consistent leader but, for me, the only authentic one. I see two reasons for this, particularly in a world as complex as the one we live in now, in which we have a lot of information on what’s going on, but we really have no idea what’s happening. We’ve never had so much information, but we’ve never been so baffled.

    The first reason is that the pope is a man who, when he presented his vision of the Church to the cardinals in the congregations prior to the conclave that elected him, back in 2013, he did so with a piece of paper in his hand and in less than four minutes. And I have read, even in Crux, that this is what helped the cardinals decide when the time came to cast votes.
    It was a super-simple plan: A poor church for the poor, a church that goes out of herself, that gives herself to the world. It’s a message that everyone can understand, and that is of universal application.

    It’s not the same to say “Make America Great Again,” which is addressed to a white majority in America, as Trump does, than to say that the Church needs to get out, to reach all.

    Second, Pope Francis embodies his plan. When the pope speaks of poverty, he is manifesting it in a thousand personal ways. And I like to compare it with a way of designing software design: “What you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG). This means that when you take a photo with your phone, what you see on your screen is very similar to what you photographed.
    I believe that the pope is what people see. He speaks of poverty because he has been poor first. If he speaks of mercy, it is because he has first been merciful to the people.
    And there’s another expression I like to apply to this pope, which is, “show don’t tell.” His leadership model is based on example. He’s able to explain a government program by doing a concrete thing. For instance, when he goes to a jail on Holy Week and washes the feet of the inmates, including Muslims. This is a tremendously explanatory gesture that embodies his pontificate.


  5. ‘Despise’ is a pretty dramatic word. Especially given neither pope remained faithful to tradition. JPII had the Assisi events, BXVI his evolution and Balthasarian hopes, and Francis now has his everything else. No pope now wants to be a buzz kill when World Youth Days are now the big events and we are beholden to wanting to seem modern.


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