Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pope Francis the Sarcastic

I don't really expect much from popes. My attitude is that the papacy has been going on for well nigh two millennia and about 265 or so on the traditional listing (the number varies depending on whether you count pope-elects who died shortly after election and things like that), and if you set aside martyr-popes, you can still quite literally count all the truly great popes, the ones truly great as popes, on one hand -- St. Leo I, St. Gregory I, Gregory VII, Benedict XIV, and Leo XIII -- with perhaps another hand or two for popes like St. Agatho or Eugene IV or Pius IX who did very, very well with the hand they were dealt. It's a long history of mediocrity, sometimes the mediocrity of holy men and sometimes the mediocrity of not-holy men, a history of men of whom the best one can say is that they weren't too incompetent in handling the problems they faced. (In fairness, too, papal reigns historically have tended to be quite short; if you're pope for only a year or two, it's unlikely that you will do much more than fill the office.) I actually think that this is a good thing, all told. If you play chess with the devil, it is foolish to try to outmaneuver him, because you can't; you play to last, not to win, because there is a bigger checkmate being set up in the Game of Games, and your job is just not to be stupid or wicked in your part of it. Some men can't help themselves and will be great regardless; but the task of a pope is just to keep on keeping on, just preventing things from getting too unruly, and the more the pope can't do that, the more obviously something has gone very, very wrong.

Which is just a long way of saying that I don't expect much from popes; I don't think it's fair to do so, and I think that when we have to expect a lot from a pope it can only be because all the rest of us have failed miserably at something we were supposed to get right. So, equally, I don't expect much from Francis and think it dangerous and doubtful to do so. I didn't expect much from John Paul II or Benedict XVI, either; and despite their fans I think they both end up very much mid-tier popes in terms of how much overall benefit the Church: lots and lots of mistakes, but they were also dealing with some difficult problems.

In our world of image and flash, though, it's weird how some of this plays out. Pope Francis gets very different press from that which Benedict XVI got, despite the fact that Francis repeatedly refers back to the ideas of his predecessor -- the three people he quotes most are Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, and almost always when he says something striking he is summarizing one of the three. Benedict XVI was an introverted academic, whose favorite thing was academic discussion; he was non-confrontational and was always talking about how we all need to talk together. This is not what really comes across in much of his press, which treats him as cold and unfriendly and authoritarian. Pope Francis, on the other hand, is an extraverted social activist, peremptory in his communication style, who constantly tells people that they are wrong, and you would think from the press about him that he was not constantly scolding people for not doing as well as they should. Pope Francis likes the idea of dialogue, but it's going to be a pretty heated dialogue. And when you look at it all more closely, there's no doubt that this is what is going on. No matter how fluffy they try to present him as, he's a bit of spitfire.

In any case, Laurence England has a good discussion of a feature of Pope Francis's style that you can find buried -- but only buried -- in most of the press: the fact that he is constantly insulting people.

Indeed, here's some of the names the Pope has actually called people: "pickled pepper-faced Christians," "closed, sad, trapped Christians," "defeated Christians," “liquid Christians,” "creed-reciting, parrot Christians," and, finally, those "watered-down faith, weak-hoped Christians."

Catholics who focus on church traditions are "museum mummies," the Pope says. Nuns who fail to inspire faith in the church are "old maids," and the Vatican hierarchy has at times been "the leprosy of the papacy," in Francis' words.

Indeed, men of the cloth face the brunt of Francis' fulminations. He has called some of them “vain” butterflies, “smarmy” idolators and “priest-tycoons.” He’s described some seminarians as potential “little monsters.”

Anyone who has talked with enough people from Central or South America has almost certainly come across the trait, since while not universal, it is a very common Latin American cultural characteristic. People don't just say that something is incorrect or misleading; they call it lies, and if they disagree very strongly with you, they will call you a liar. There's no malice in it at all; it's just a lot more acceptable to talk this way than it would be in most English-speaking circles, where we feel the influence of the old longstanding British tendency to criticize as indirectly as possible. (There's an old joke that the difference between an English academic and a continental European academic is that when the English academic is absolutely certain of something, he will say, "It seems to be the case that one should accept this conclusion," while the European, when he thinks that something is probably true, will say, "It is patently obvious that we should accept this conclusion." It's the same sort of difference.)

It's amusing how colorful some of Francis's insults are, and England's discussion is quite good.


  1. Enbrethiliel2:12 PM


    I tend not to pay much attention to what comes out of the Vatican (and to feel a trifle impatient with those who do), so I can't properly appreciate this "new" analysis, but I like your assessment of the papacy and view of the popes. =)

  2. branemrys5:24 PM

    It seems to me that a lot of the paying-attention to what comes out of the Vatican is a symptom of the sort of impatience the modern world tends to cultivate. Many of our ancestors would have gone months, years, sometimes, perhaps, decades, without hearing anything from or about the Holy See; the papacy's important, but its importance quite clearly does not consist in anyone's having to pay constant attention to it. The latter starts getting dangerously near mere gossip.

  3. Timotheos11:23 PM

    I think something like this has happened to our Presidents also. It used to be that the President wasn't hounded every waking moment like he is now, and I think that has something to do with our gossip culture.


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