Thursday, March 14, 2013

Francis I: a caretaker pope

Very few things drive traffic away from this blog quite as much as blogging about Catholic stuff.

Oh well.

My first feelings at the announcement was cautious optimism tempered by some very troubling concerns.

Given the age of the last two popes, it is painfully obvious that the cardinals are not interested in a long pontificate any time soon. My sense of this is that there is a lot of factionalism among the cardinals. That shouldn't surprise us as that is an inevitable result of the resolving of a bipolar crisis. For years we had a polarizing struggle between conservatives and liberals that began during the pontificate of Paul VI. That struggle made each side of the struggle look more homogenous than it really was. Now that the liberals are trounced, the fault lines between various groups of conservatives are becoming more evident.

The primary consequence of this is that if you put a bunch of the current crop of cardinals in a room and make them elect a pope, their first instinct is going to be to try to elect a a guy who perfectly reflects their hopes. When it (rapidly) becomes obvious to them that they can't do that, they will start looking at the frontrunners to see which option looks the least threatening. And thus you get an older pope with only one lung.

Anyway, here is what I worry about.

The first issue is economics

There is some good news: Francis I is politically savvy. He recognizes that liberation theology and similar movements are disastrous for developing countries. (In our Orwellian age, to say a country is "developing" actually means that it has failed to develop,) Even better, he has a record of standing up to these groups.

On the other hand, Francis does not seem to have spent a lot of effort figuring out why markets and economies that succeed do so. His views on the subject strike me as well-meaning but naive. Unfortunately, there is a deeply entrenched and deeply corrupt poverty industry in the Catholic church. Equally unfortunately, the church's social teaching is a mess.

The prognosis is mixed: Francis will have the courage to stand up to the corrupt poverty industry but is unlikely to do fix the deeply flawed social teachings of the church.

The second issue is liturgy

This one is more complicated. Francis is reported to be hostile to the traditional Latin mass. If that is true it can spin out in different ways. (Update: It may not be true. It looks more as if he isn't sufficiently supportive for some hard-core fans of the TLM.)

To be honest, while I love the TLM, I have some serious reservations about some of its fans. I think that a hermeneutic of continuity means that the Novus Ordo will be celebrated in a more solemn and reverent fashion and that it will incorporate more of the beautiful culture that has grown up around the mass over the centuries, including some prayers and singing in Latin. But I don't see returning to the TLM.

I think a lot of advocates for the TLM don't want a hermeneutic of continuity (which is to say an ongoing conversation between the past and present). What they want is the TLM restored as the mass of the Catholic church. And that isn't going to happen. Furthermore, it would be a very bad thing if it did.

In addition, I've long thought that a more beautiful Novus Ordo, which can be achieved, would render the TLM unnecessary within a generation. On top of which, I don't think that multiplying the number of rites available within the church is a good idea. I don't think it will ever be possible to have only one, but adding new rites is something that should be done with extreme caution. If you really believe "lex orandi, lex credendi", and I do, then you have to see that multiplying the forms of lex orandi will innevitably cause disunity downstream as well.

The third issue is cleaning up the Vatican bureaucracy

If I am right about the essentially defensive posture of the voting Cardinals, then pessimism follows in this area. At some point very soon, someone is going to sit down and brief Francis about how bad things really are. We all suspect that they are very bad but we don't really know, nor do we know where the bodies are buried.

As with the sex scandals, the primary problem is not the corrupt officials themselves but the others who chose to not stop them. And I would not exclude the possibility that really cleaning up the mess might not entail revealing that a certain very beloved figure or two might not have stood by and watched while very bad things indeed took place. I wouldn't even discount the possibility that certain very beloved figures didn't later choose to cover up rather than reform corrupt institutions.

I don't know any of this, of course. It's what I worry about. I worry quite a bit about it.

The fourth issue and final issue is that name

Saint Francis of Assisi* is a beloved figure both inside and outside the Catholic church. I'll be blunt, there is a lot of romantic and superstitious nonsense that has accumulated around the man. I always worry when I see people waxing poetic about this saint.

There is an old legend about the student riots of 1968. The story goes that the students, having taken over the streets, ran to one of the Marxist professors they idolized and asked him what they should do next. It rapidly became clear he didn't have a clue. When you peel away the mythology, the real life of Saint Francis seems to have been like that. He seems to have been very good at inspiring people to embrace ideals and not so good at running the new shop he inspired them all to join. I don't think he is the model to pick. To be honest, I've always thought Anthony of Padua the more impressive figure.

* It occurs to me that I have not seen any evidence that Francis of Assisi  was the inspiration for the name. I, like everyone else, just assumed it was. But, given that Francis is a Jesuit, it is entirely possible he had Francis Xavier in mind.

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