Saturday, February 22, 2014

Francis vs. Benedict: Thunderdome Edition


Pictured: the relevant Thunderdome.

I wanted to do a piece on Pope Benedict and Pope Francis in celebration of the Solemnity of the Throne of Peter -- for us in the Anglican Use, it is a Solemnity, not just a Feast like it is for most Catholics. (The Anglican Use is a sort of subgenre of Catholicism: of Anglican origin, having entered full communion with the Bishop of Rome, but preserving certain elements of the Anglican patrimony; so, our prayers and rituals owe a lot to the Book of Common Prayer, complete with thees and thous. Here in the US, the overarching group of Anglican Use Catholics is the Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter, which is a little like a diocese, but I am already being a dangerously dull person.)


Ain't no Mass like an Anglican Use Mass 'cause an Anglican 
Use Mass don't stop. Seriously, our liturgies take like two hours.

We are, of course, nearing the first anniversary of Benedict's famous abdication, the first of its kind in six hundred years; and the anniversary of Francis' accession is approaching as well, so it seemed appropriate on those grounds too.

Pope Francis has been famously popular with a surprisingly large swath of people, including a stunning multitude of non-Catholics. It's not every Supreme Pontiff who receives the threefold tiara of gracing the covers of Time, Rolling Stone, and The Advocate. The journalistic narrative to date represents him as the hero and symbol of a new, changing Church, one finally ready to listen to the world.* Pope Benedict, by contrast, only seems to have been popular with fairly traditional, observant Catholics, and was disliked -- even denounced -- from many quarters: accused of complicity in the abuse scandals, charged with supporting and increasing Catholic homophobia, damned as the very symbol of irrational and intolerant dogmatism -- even accused quite literally of being an anti-Semite and a former, and presumably impenitent, Nazi.


Plus he always did kinda look like Darth Sidious.

In short, Benedict was the symbol of everything wrong with the hidebound, reactionary Church, and Francis is the deliverer. To give you an idea of the contrast between these two men from their own words, here are six quotations from sermons, encyclicals, books, and so forth. See if you can guess which ones are from Pope Francis and which are from Pope Benedict.

1. "With great precision, albeit with a certain one-sided bias, Marx described the situation of his time, and with great analytical skill he spelled out the paths leading to revolution -- and not only theoretically ... His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination."

2. "The rabbi does not speak from his own resources. He is not a professor, analyzing and reflecting on the Word of God in an intellectual way. No, he makes present the Word that God addressed and addresses to Israel. God speaks through Moses today."

3. "Seen from the viewpoint of the Cross, it becomes clear that Jesus was the kind of person who transcends all normal standards and who cannot be explained in normal terms. It would otherwise be incomprehensible for groups hostile to one another, Jews and Romans, believers and atheists, to join together to rid themselves of this remarkable prophet. He just did not fit into any of the ready-made categories people use, and therefore they had to clear him out of the way."

4. "Secularism and fundamentalism exclude the possibility of fruitful dialogue and effective cooperation between reason and religious faith. Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith; this also holds true for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent. For its part, religion always needs to be purified by reason in order to show its authentically human face. Any breach in this dialogue comes only at an enormous price to human development."

5. "Let us be blunt, even at the risk of being misunderstood: the true Christian is not the denominational party member but he who through being a Christian has become truly human; not he who slavishly observes a system of norms, thinking as he does so only of himself, but he who has become freed to simple human goodness."

6. "There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality."

So! Which are from the German and which are from the Argentinian? [Insert Jeopardy music here] Ha, trick question, of course -- they're all Benedict.**


Good beer, good composers, good Catholic families, and hilarious lunatics who spent 
all their money on state-bankrupting castles. Is there anything Bavaria doesn't excel in?

I've honestly begun to believe that Pope Benedict XVI's media-based critics fall chiefly into two categories: those who are critical of Catholicism as such, and those who have not actually read anything he's written. After all, we live in a world where Upworthy is a thing (as if people relying on the New York Times or government press releases wasn't a sufficient source of intellectual jackfuckery). I doubt that most of the journalists who wrote about Benedict, except those actually working for papers like L'Osservatore Romano, read almost anything that he wrote or said, let alone in context, let alone understood it; after all, he is a German academic theologian by trade, and he can be a demanding read. Who has the time for, uh, "journalistic rigor"? Much more cost-effective to give people something they can be pleasantly shocked about, one that the facts will at any rate not immediately dispel. The trend is continuing with Pope Francis, of course, except that the misconstructions the press puts on this pontiff are much more appealing. And, since we are predisposed to accept the summaries of others about things we're not interested in -- and not many people who aren't themselves devoted Catholics could sincerely profess interest in reading papal documents -- why would anyone bother to dig deeper?

Having already read some of his writings before he was elected Pope, and having continued to read them since, I'm very much tempted to laugh when people call him an anti-Semite -- of the small collection of his writings that I own, you could pick up any one at random and find, not just him quoting and analyzing the Tanakh with a manifestly studious love of it, but speaking highly of Judaism as such and explaining Christian ideas in terms of Judaism. (Introduction to Christianity and The Spirit of the Liturgy are two outstanding examples of this.)

And despite his reputation as the brutal enforcer of orthodoxy***, his Christian sources are equally eclectic. For instance, he regularly references Luther, and with great respect. Okay, he is German, perhaps he couldn't avoid that. But he most certainly could have avoided his regular respectful references to theologians like Adolf von Harnack, Albert Schweitzer, and Teilhard de Chardin, all of whom exemplified and in some degree brought about that very theological liberalism which Pope Benedict was so largely credited with persecuting, and did spend much energy counteracting. Yet he interacts seriously with their ideas -- often without agreement, but never without courtesy. All I can say is, if he was an anti-Semite or a theological tyrant, there is no evidence of it whatsoever, and it could be detected only by an omega-level telepath.


Not even close to strong enough.

The charge that he was a Nazi seems to be based on the fact that he was enrolled as a young man in the Hitler Youth. The people who point this out seem to neglect (or perhaps aren't aware of) the fact that all men and women his age were enrolled in the Hitler Youth by law; though we have his own testimony that a sympathetic teacher allowed him to avoid attending the meetings based on a technicality. That "involvement" is really the only evidence that anyone can set forth in support of the claim that he was or had ever been a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer -- which is not, on the face of it, a credible claim.

For the Ratzingers were a well-known Catholic Bavarian family. The Bavarians were less sympathetic to National Socialism than many other Germans -- indeed, much of the German resistance was centered there, notably the White Rose movement at the University of Munich -- while the Catholic Church was actively persecuted by the Third Reich.


Turns out German Catholics kind of hated being murdered to death.****

Thousands of priests, monks, and nuns were arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to concentration camps (Dachau particularly); Catholic schools and press, along with the Catholic Youth League, were all suppressed by the early years of the war, if not sooner; former leaders of the defunct Catholic Center Party, notably Erich Klausener, an outspoken critic of the Nazis, were murdered on the Night of the Long Knives. The notion that Joseph Ratzinger, who had been enrolled in a junior seminary (until it was closed by the Nazi government), and who spent decades as a coworker and close friend of Blessed John Paul II, a Polish man who made a point of reaching out to the Jewish people, allowed himself to be enrolled in the Hitler Youth because of voelkisch enthusiasm -- well, it sounds oddly like horse shit.

The claim that Pope Benedict was soft on abuse is, to anyone with access to the facts, still more preposterous. Indeed, I can't think even of facts that could be reasonably misinterpreted to get that conclusion. He did oppose violating the sanctity of the confessional to get evidence for cases of abuse, but that isn't exactly new (and even apart from the violation of religious freedom that would be involved, would people go to the confessional with a crime they knew could be reported?). Benedict was, if anything, a complete hawk on the subject of predation. Unlike his wise and saintly, but in this instance imperfect, predecessor, he was not hoodwinked by the diseased and manipulative Marcial Maciel Degollado, the notorious predator who founded the Legionaries of Christ; and he also succeeded in getting many abuse cases transferred from the normal ecclesiastical courts, the Roman Rota, which tend to move at the speed of a snail with bad asthma, to his own jurisdiction, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has considerably more despatch. Even the Huffington Post has noticed his efforts, and indeed his results -- though it does complain of the fact that the Church assigns no jail terms, despite the fact that Pope Benedict reiterated the already-existing rule that abusers must be reported to local civil authorities, because the Church kind of doesn't have any jails, and our society would surely be the first to object if she did.


First they complain about witches being burnt at the stake, then they complain about witches 
not being burnt at the stake. Maybe if we just gave witches a really bad sunburn at the stake ...

He has also been charged with homophobia -- notably for approving the document and decision that made "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" an impediment to receiving Holy Orders. However, having finally read the thing, it sounds to me (particularly given the emphasis it lays upon actions, and the appropriate distinction it draws between actions and inclinations) as though "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" might well signify a persistent problem with gay porn and masturbation, even if the man in question succeeds at the "don't have sex with dudes" part of chastity. If that's the case, this isn't fundamentally different from the requirements laid upon heterosexual men discerning the priesthood, and would simply be a clarification. Even if I'm wrong, and it's referring to homosexual attractions generally -- well, I'm not concerned to insist that everything Pope Benedict ever said or did was perfect; I am, furthermore, in the comfortable position of never having to deal with the smallest consequences of putting gay men, closeted or otherwise, into seminaries full of other men; and there are more important violations of the human dignity of LGBT people, like Ugandan or Iranian gays being slightly murdered for, um, existing -- something the Church has spoken out against on more than one occasion. Let's maintain a sense of proportion. And in any case these are the guidelines laid down for the local Bishop, for, as the Vatican document itself reiterates, it's primarily his job, not Rome's, to approve candidates (or not) for Holy Orders.*****


Canon law: surprisingly similar to the pirates' code.

So if Pope Benedict wasn't the Palpatine he looked, why did everybody think he was? Well, there are a few reasons. Personally, I'm inclined to think that a major one was quite simply that he is German. Despite the fact that we're distant enough from National Socialism to merely laugh at it, I think we have inherited a subtle but considerable prejudice against the German people.

There is also the brute fact that anti-Catholicism never quite died in this country, though it has gone from being a predominantly post-Puritan phenomenon with racist undertones (anti-Irish &c.), to being a predominantly secular phenomenon with undertones inherited from the Sexual Revolution; and the Catholic Church's refusal to settle neatly into our politico-economic categories exacerbates things still further. The appointment of a man who had the charge of maintaining the doctrinal purity of a religion that has always been an ideological "other" in this country was bound to bring that out, especially in a country where there is so much dissent within the Church itself, and where catechesis has been so poor for two generations.

And we must concede, also, that Blessed John Paul was a tough act to follow -- anybody would look bad after twenty-five years of one of the most active, charismatic pontiffs in two thousand years. Benedict was an intellectual, self-effacing sort, and one who was already a tired, elderly man; he had wanted to retire while John Paul II was still Pope. The amount of traveling and public speaking Pope Benedict did manage was a feat in itself.

There is also the problem of Benedict's humility. Francis has been much praised for his humility, and justly; but his is what we might describe as an extraverted humility. Benedict was always an introvert, an academic, a contemplative. He never defended himself against his critics, though he had no shortage; and he withdrew of his own free will from one of the most prominent positions on earth, and has succeeded in remaining in almost total obscurity since then. None of that is calculated to defend his reputation, though it does, to my mind, reveal a man of profound humility, one whose mind is on the task God has for him rather than upon what other people think of him.

Am I, then, devoted to the one, and despise the other? Or is it possible to serve both Benedict and Francis?


"Sure, whatever."

I actually love Pope Francis just as much as I loved Benedict (which was a great relief to me -- I was shocked and saddened when I heard of the latter's abdication, and was afraid that I wouldn't like his successor because I had been so attached to him). But I love them for completely different reasons; they are, after all, completely different men, and different shepherds in consequence. My affection and respect for Benedict remain deep, but I also think that Pope Francis' style is precisely what the Church is in need of now: he has a talent for displaying the joy, the winsomeness, and the simplicity of the gospel, and for refocusing our attention upon essentials.

In other words, Francis' differences are essentially differences in style. That might sound trivial, but I don't believe that it is. In a world of persons, the coinherence of persons, i.e., relationship, is intrinsically important, and style is very largely a description of the manner in which someone relates to others. He has not changed one jot or tittle of Catholic doctrine (nor, on the premises of Catholic doctrine, is he in fact able to do so); but he has brought out and emphasized elements of doctrine that we are apt to forget or ignore -- particularly western Christians, and even more particularly those of us who are not as other men are, or even as this tax collector.

He has, moreover, been willing to risk misunderstanding for the sake of getting a point across. Take his famous comment about gays, that ended with "Who am I to judge?" This was not in point of fact new from a doctrinal point of view; what was new about it was not just the vocabulary, not even just the tone, but the fact that the basic point -- that human beings are primarily human, and that even the Pope should not arrogate to himself the right to judge another man's servant -- was the only thing he concerned himself with establishing, even though he knew that people would misconstrue his words, whether deliberately or by accident.

The reason this is so important is, the sort of Catholic who is apt to get into apologetics is generally the sort who enjoys details for their own sake, and almost invariably the sort who wants to make sure that every jot and tittle is understood by his audience. And as a result, the audience leaves, because they have no reason to be interested in someone whose pedantry obscures his own message. Pope Francis, by contrast, understands that it is the message of the gospel that is primary, and that the details can wait, because they are precisely details, not the sum and substance.

What, then, is my basic point in all this? It is threefold:

1. Don't trust the media to tell you about the Catholic Church (well, or most things, really) -- whether it is liberal or conservative media makes no difference; instead, try and see what sources they're talking about, and then go and read the sources.

2. I loved Pope Benedict! I love Pope Francis! And whether you do too or not, pray for the Pope: his task is huge; if anyone needs it, he does.

3. Everything is better when you can reference Jean Grey somehow.


Remember the days of X1, when this franchise didn't suck?


*"The world" in this context means the Euro-American secular progressive world, there being no other -- at least, no other worth speaking of.

**1 is from the encyclical letter Spe Salvi or Saved In Hope, para. 20; 2 is from The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 64; 3 is from a collection of homilies on the Eucharist titled God Is Near Us; 4 is from the encyclical letter Caritas In Veritate or Charity In Truth, para. 56; 5 is from his Introduction to Christianity, p. 270; 6, which made a splash in some very confused headlines a few years ago, is from an interview His Holiness gave, since published under the title Light of the World.

***As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had been head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican organization that deals with questions of orthodoxy and heresy (descended from the Holy Office, i.e., the Inquisition). Indeed, in a nod to the idea of "cafeteria Catholicism," when he was chosen as the Bishop of Rome in 2005, a quip made the rounds in some circles that "The cafeteria is closed."

****The picture shows Hans and Sophie Scholl, two of the best-known members of the White Rose, a pacifist resistance group. They were judicially murdered for opposing the war in 1943.

*****A lot of people seem to be under the vague impression that the Vatican more or less controls the appointment of all clergy. Even if this were desirable -- which, on the Church's view of subsidiarity, it isn't -- it wouldn't be possible. Speaking of maintaing a sense of proportion, there are about a billion Catholics worldwide, and the Pope has the care of all of them in some sense, and of the Roman Rite (which comprises most of them) especially. Even if the Pope pays less attention to LGBT issues than he ought to -- a thesis I don't propose to defend -- I think he can be excused for that.

5 comments:

  1. THANK YOU!

    Jeez this is one of those silly things that really irritate me because it shows how easily people can be led by what is essentially hype and puffed up nonsense (last week a friend of mine revealed how actually Pope Francis isn't 'nice to gays' at all, citing his opinions on gay marriage/adoption whilst a Bishop in Argentina. I had to laugh because these were the exact quotes that were being used by newspapers like the Guardian and Independent to demonstrate how homophobic and bigoted he was, before they too changed narratives).

    I started taking Catholicism as a serious option, partly due to the influence of Pope Benedict. He seemed to be the perfect example of a genuinely rigorous yet orthodox thinker - not following a line because it needs to be followed, imaginative and yet purposeful, letting the logic lead him where it will instead of holding back in case one gives the appearance of scandal. As an Anglican, in a Church that is obsessed with appearing tolerant, I found it fascinating how the only church leader who could give a reasoned, coherent response to some of the anti-gay laws in Uganda and Nigeria, was this apparently homophobic and bigoted Pope. It was fascinating to contrast his words of warning to those of our own supposedly tolerant Archbishops who hemmed and hawed, too tolerant to take a visible stance.

    Anyway, enough of that. Suffice to say, I wholeheartedly approve of this post!

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  2. Great post, Gabriel! I concur in full with what you say.

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  3. Francis is more of a buffoon than a Pope. I fear for the future of the Church because of him.

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    1. Well, I urge you to keep three things in mind:

      1. The Church (and, for that matter, the papal office) depends upon God, not man. No matter how much damage an individual is capable of doing, the gates of Hell shall not prevail against her. It is in Him and not in any pontiff that our faith rests.

      2. It is unseemly for self-appointed guardians of Catholic orthodoxy, or of Catholic propriety, to publicly insult the Vicar of Christ. This is not to say that prophetic rebuke of clergymen, and even of the Pope, may not at times be appropriate and necessary even from laymen (though I personally think that prophecy ought to come up with a more specific and weightier charge than buffoonery before being assured of its own inspiration). But the response of St. Paul to the injustice of the Sanhedrin in Acts 23.1-5 is noteworthy here.

      3. If His Holiness is a buffoon, what of it? So was St. Francis, the "Jongleur de Dieu." Neither truth nor holiness nor wisdom are to be found in respectability; only in God, who continually consorts with the most disreputable and ridiculous people.

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    2. "2. It is unseemly for self-appointed guardians of Catholic orthodoxy, or of Catholic propriety, to publicly insult the Vicar of Christ."

      Aha, I see. And that's why St. Peter Damian argued so forcefully against that very point. But I doubt you would "approve" of the teachings of this Doctor of the Church.

      "3. If His Holiness is a buffoon, what of it?"
      Much. Buffoons do foolish things.

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