Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Humble Pope for the Middle

In all the torrent of commentary which the Pope's now famous interview has inspired, two in particular strike me as especially noteworthy. In today's Sunday New York Times, Frank Bruni has a column called "The Pope's Radical Whisper." Bruni, of course, comes at the papal interview from what might be called an "angry Catholic" and liberal perspective. (The two are by no means synonymous. There are also a bunch of noisy extreme right-wing, angry Catholics too. Neither side seems to have taken seriously Saint Paul's injunction to Timothy in today's 1st reading, to pray "without anger or argument"!)
Thus, like a Tea-Partier perpetually ranting about "Obamacare," Bruni predictably faults the Pope for being insufficiently "progressive" on women's issues. The tendency to read the interview through one's own already established ideological filter also shows up in his praising the Pope for preferring "modest quarters over a monarch's suite." He repeats this commonplace, despite the fact the Francis himself says - in that very interview - that the papal apartment is not "luxurious" and that his main motivation in living at Santa Marta is for community. Besides, Bruni, being a smart political analyst, should surely understand that wherever the Pope lives becomes "a monarch's suite," just as the wherever the President is becomes a "White House."
But that's all beside the point. What is interesting and engaging about Bruni's commentary is not what he says about the Church but how his appreciation of how the Pope's humble attitude applies to our decidedly un-humble contemporary society. Bruni sees the Pope's tone "as a counterpoint to the prevailing sensibility in our country, where humility is endangered if not quite extinct. It's our of sync with all the relentless self-promotion, which has been deemed the very oxygen of success. It sits oddly with the cult of success." He particularly singles out our politics, which "rewards braggarts and bullies, who muscle their way onto center stage with the crazy certainty that they and only they are right, while we in the electorate and the news media lack the fortitude to shut them up or shoo them away." One could hardly have said it better! And I especially like how he spreads the blame around, so that our entire narcissistic, self-referential culture clearly gets its hare of the blame!
Of course, recent popes - Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI among them - have consistently critiqued this contemporary distortion of human values. It is certainly no surprise that our culture - including and especially the news media - have been so unreceptive to these repeated admonishments. So maybe the lesson here is the obvious one. Style matters. Critique must be done lovingly - and must seem to be done lovingly - for it to have any chance of being heard. It is Francis' personal style, his genuineness, his authentic modesty that touches people's hearts and maybe - just maybe - may open some ears to hear his message.
Which brings me to another commentator. On the NCR website this past Friday, John Allen analyzed Pope Francis as "a pope for the Catholic middle." By that, Allen means that what he calls "the liberal wing of the church" will eventually end up being disappointed by the reality that the Pope's "desire to project a more merciful tone" on the sex and gender issues liberals obsess about "isn't the same thing as disagreement" on the substance of Catholic teaching. As for the "Catholic right," it seems evident to Allen that Francis "doesn't intend to use his bully pulpit primarily to fight political battles." What Allen calls "the Catholic middle as the pope's natural constituency" are people who "don't have a chip on their shoulder about authority in the church." That actually says more than it sounds like, since what characterizes both extremes, in my opinion, is simultaneously an authoritarian impulse to remake the world in a certain ideological image combined with a hyper-critical suspicion of existing authorities whenever (which is most of the time) they do not advance their politicized outlook.
Those in Allen's Catholic middle "are people who regard Catholicism fundamentally as a force for good in the world and who long for moderate, accessible and inspirational leadership who can lift up the whole gamut of Catholic thought and life rather than a selective version of it tailored to advance a specific political or theological agenda."
That's a craving for both style and substance. The style sought is "moderate, accessible and inspirational." The substance  is "the whole gamut of Catholic thought and life rather than a selective version of it." So far, Pope Francis seems to excel at both. And therein lies his popular appeal and, may it fervently be hoped, his prospects for actually being heard and eventually being taken seriously by the modern world's multitude of noisemakers.

No comments:

Post a Comment