|Really? Pope Francis is no better|
than Sarah Palin? Really?
What do Pope Francis and Sarah Palin have in common? One would think very little. Francis is intelligent, well-informed, articulate, has proved himself over the years of his various posts to be a man of compassion, insight, and leadership. Sarah Palin, well, to give a pig the lipstick due her, Sarah can disembowel a moose and that probably isn’t in Francis’ skill-set though he does seem to be a quick learner.
I had my annual physical the other day and my physician, a devout Catholic who would by no means be a raving liberal but who, nonetheless, is intelligent and a critical thinker, told me of an article he had read comparing the Pope who overturned the gloomy papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to the loose canon who torpedoed the John McCain candidacy. I couldn’t possibly figure out what the grounds for such a comparison could be, and the good Doctor couldn’t remember exactly where he had read it, so I googled “Pope Francis Sarah Palin” and found, among other things, an article in The Guardian by Kristina Keneally in which the author set up the requite strawman to produce her article, writing: “Think Sarah Palin, or Kevin Rudd: people who confuse popularity with leadership, or celebrity with substance.” I am not familiar enough with Australian politics to get the Kevin Rudd analogy (and I am too lazy at this point to do some research), but is that all we can say about Francis’ papacy: that he confuses popularity for leadership or celebrity with substance?
Ms. Keneally writes on: “But has Francis really changed the church? If the pope moves on in two or three years, what will he have left behind? A church more welcoming of the talents of all its members, more accepting of all those who love God and live faithful lives, and a safer place for children, or a just a string of Instagram pictures, warm memories and the latent fizz of lost celebrity? I pray it is the former. I pray the Holy Spirit is moving.”
I think Ms. Keneally has fallen into that journalistic pit of allowing her feelings to set the criterion for her judgment. We are all fearful of what will come after Francis. As I have written elsewhere in this blog, it is unlikely that the Cardinal-electors will choose a pope who is as “out in front” as is Francis. I don’t think the Burke model will prevail, but it is almost inevitable that the next pontiff will represent some retreat from Francis’ progressive agenda. And that is the problem with government by absolute monarchy rather than government by bureaucratic institution—be that institution a democratic republic or a politburo or whatever. The papacy, as we know it, finds its direction in the character of the reigning pope and while a pope may need time to shift his curia to follow his philosophy, when the pope changes, the genius of the papacy changes.
It has taken Francis time to steer the barque of Peter towards the rising sun of the gospel rather than the cold moon of self-protecting institutionalism that was guiding the Church through the long dark night of post-Conciliar reactionism. And Francis is trying to do it in ways that will outlast his inevitably short time at the helm. Francis could simply arbitrarily declare that the divorced and remarried are welcome at the Eucharist, that he is happy to have transgendered people taking part in Vatican ceremonies, and that he has no intention of judging gays or anyone else for that matter. But when Francis moves into his retirement suite at Mater Ecclesiae or is gathered to his predecessors in the crypt of the Vatican Basilica, it can all change. If, however, he takes the time and patience to steer his agenda through the sort of minimal-level representative machinery that has so far developed in the Catholic Church, it will be far harder to reverse. It is a gamble. There is no guarantee the Synod Bishops this fall will go with Francis’ agenda. In fact, there is a lot of opposition to the Francis program from our own America bishops. And the krazies are using their Gideon agenda, banging pots and blowing horns in an attempt to convince the Bishops that the vast majority of the faithful are solidly behind those who want no change in current Church discipline. It is easy for us to become discouraged and think the Francis agenda will fail unless the Pope just steps in and decrees the changes unilaterally, but if this new tone of an evangelical Catholicism is to take root and grow, quickness needs to be sacrificed for thoroughness, product for process.
So let’s take a look from another perspective. Ms. Kineally does give the Holy Father due credit for what he has already accomplished. She admits she has been a bit harsh and she admits that
Francis has taken a meat cleaver to the Vatican Bank, delivered a scathing assessment of the Curia, shut down a witch-hunt inquiry into the US Catholic nuns’ leadership group, and got the world to pay attention to issues like boat people and financial inequality. Later this year he will publish an encyclical on climate change. Because of these actions, the American conservative Catholics are not happy with him.
This is not a bad list of accomplishments for two years. But a new pope can come along and reopen the witch-hunt on Joan Chittester, Elizabeth Johnson, and other women who disprove the old Neo-Scholastic theory that women have souls but not intellect; can turn our attention away from immigrants, climate change, and income inequality to focus on the glories of Gregorian chant; and re-instate Cardinal Burke as the omniscient justiciar of all matters pontifical, ecclesiastical, and canonical. (That last one actually sounds like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta character—I can just see His Eminence doing his little jig as he goes through his patter song.) What will last from this pontificate is that which the Pope gets done “through the proper channels” to leave his mark. John XXIII’s legacy is not in his charm, his wit, or even his cordiality to those of no and other faiths; his legacy is in his Council. Francis has only a short time, but he has to do his agenda right. As for Sarah—perhaps she and Burke could enjoy a nice lunch together one day reminiscing about their 15 minutes of fame.