Pope Francis is right: Read all the Dostoevsky you can

You may have heard by now what the Pope had to say on the plane flight back from Brazil, and he’s absolutely right: He told the reporters they should “read and reread” Dostoevsky.

Or maybe you missed it. Most of the news stories about his informal papal bull session have been about what he said about gay priests. That didn’t seem as newsworthy to me, but then unlike much of the world, I didn’t think that the church hated gay people. What those remarks told us is that this pope is personally very different from the last pope, which is a good thing. In terms of style and orientation and emphasis, we’ve gone from a Grand Inquisitor to a parish priest, with all the best things such a pastoral role suggests — loving, welcoming, kindly, caring deeply about the “least of these.”

As we go along, I expect a lot of people who think the church is hateful will be pleasantly surprised. For me, it will be pleasant, but less of a surprise.

Here’s another prediction — this pope is going to get good press, so he’s going to seem like a nicer, friendlier guy, whatever he says. Why do I say that? Because he’ll walk to the back of the plane or bus or whatever and bat the breeze with the media types, no holds barred. John Paul II did that, and you know what good press “John Paul the Great” got. Whereas Herr Benedict only took prepared, screened questions. Reporters love a guy who’s generous with access, and spontaneous. It has always puzzled some people why the press was historically so kind to John McCain. He did the same thing, long before there was such a thing as the “Straight Talk Express.” And the press loved him for it.

The WSJ story was headlined, “Pope Signals Openness to Gay Priests.” It probably would have captured him in a nutshell if it had just said, “Pope Signals Openness,” period.

But while I was sort of kidding about the Dostoevsky thing as big news, I’d like to know more of what he said about that. This pope has made news mentioning Dostoevsky previously, in a recent encyclical. But since that document was put together on the previous pope’s watch, no one knew for sure whether it signaled a particular interest in the Russian master on the part of Francis.

The Holy Father says, read more of this guy.

The Holy Father says, read more of this guy.

Anyway, his comment — however sketchily reported — about reading Dostoevsky does what the previous pope was so good at. It’s made me feel guilty. I read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov when I was in college (the first as a class assignment, the second on my own), but haven’t reread either since then, and have never gotten around to such other masterpieces as The Idiot (which was specifically mentioned in the encyclical).

I suspect the pope recommended such reading because Dostoevsky is way, way deep on moral issues. Which is why I should have read him more by now. Yet I haven’t, while reading O’Brian’s novels about the Napoleonic Wars over and over and over and over (on my fifth time through the earlier novels now). Ditto with John le Carre.

What’s really awful is that I go around citing Crime and Punishment all the time, thereby giving an artificial impression that I’m way, way deep, too. Or maybe not. People can probably see through that…

But I hereby resolve to do better. I downloaded The Idiot to my iPad this morning. That counts for something, right? I feel more serious already, almost profound.

Isn’t it cool how, in ebook form at least, all the greatest literature is free now?

41 thoughts on “Pope Francis is right: Read all the Dostoevsky you can

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    I had wanted to include a quote from Mel Brooks that I read years and years ago, in much the same vein as what the pope said, only somewhat less reverently. But I couldn’t find it.

    It went something like this: “I’d like to go dig up Dostoevsky, shake his bony hand, and say, ‘Way to go, you brilliant son of a bitch!'”

  2. Steve Gordy

    I’m currently slogging my way through The Idiot. Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are up next. It’s tough going, but when you’re writing about Russia, Dostoevsky is indispensable.

      1. Steve Gordy

        My novel-in-progress The Lazarov Legacy is about a vendetta against the family of a general in the Tsar’s army. At least one of the general’s killers is a Raskolnikov type of guy.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, actually, the two things are unrelated. What was new, as I understand it, was Benedict articulating an overt policy of discouraging celibate homosexuals from becoming priests — which he did with a priest shortage just as severe as we have now.

      What Francis has done is say something consistent with the way the church has actually behaved in the past. There have always been celibate homosexual priests, along with the celibate heterosexuals — both before, and during, the current priest shortage.

          1. C J Watson

            A priest is supposed to be celibate. If a priest is celibate, why does his sexual orientation matter?

          2. Mark Stewart

            One can be more clued in and more open at the same time. Benedict seemed like such a colossal caricature of one long out of touch and accustomed to intrigues and insider games.

            This Pope appears to be charting the opposite course. That can be both genuine and calculated. I’m not going to knock the guy for being realistic and positive. If it is a game, it is the furtherance of sensible policy.

  3. Doug Ross

    Does the Catholic Church consider homosexuality a sin? That seems to be the only question that needs answering.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Apparently homosexual orientation is okay with this pope, but homosexual acts are still verboten. Because Jesus said….what’s that, he said nothing about homosexual sex?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Not just “with this pope.” As I say, it’s not a departure.

        But seriously, folks… I’m starting to worry that I will be accused of bringing up a Kulturkampf topic in order to generate traffic (I’ve been accused of it before).

        But I really, truly, was interested in the Dostoevsky thing. And I really want to know more about what he said about that…

        Maybe we should all read “The Idiot” together, and have a discussion about it. That would be cool…

        OK, not “cool,” but interesting.

      2. bud

        I don’t think he said anything about celibate clergy either. So how did that become a basic tenet of the Catholic church?

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          I believe it came about because until the middle of the last millennium, inheritance was by blood descent. You could not will your property away. The bishop owned the property. If he had children, they would inherit of right.

  4. Kathleen

    Historians out there: Bud’s query is an interesting one and deserves a serious response.

    My reaction to the pope’s comments, as reported, was “Finally, a parish priest as a parish priest should be but too seldom is.” This may not be what everyone thinks the church needs, but what we need isn’t always what we want,

  5. Herb

    It became a basic tenet because of its basis in biblical teaching. Jesus didn’t have to say what anyone within 1st century Judaism would have perfectly understood. Ian McKellen understands it perfectly, which is why he goes around in hotels ripping Leviticus 18 out of Gideon Bibles.
    Jesus confirmed OT teaching implicitly by supporting and quoting the OT Canon of his day (though as a Protestant, I would be quick to point out that the Jewish OT Canon he verified did not contain the Apocrypha–these were confirmed by the Council of Trent in reaction to the Protestant Reformation). I realize that liberal theologians of various denominations have tried to reinterpret foundational, apostolic teaching of the Church to make homosexual practice OK, but it is a case of re-shaping truth to fit the culture.
    Pope Francis said it very well, and graciously. Christian teaching has not changed; it does not change to fit whatever thinking may be currently popular. Its standards are not based on that.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      But, I understand from theologians, what the OT forbade was coerced homosexual sex, which everyone understood.

      And if we are in OT land, wearing clothing of mixed fibers?

    2. Steve Gordy

      If you stick to the New Testament (Leviticus is a truly unique book), I believe that a lot of what St. Paul fulminated against was the extent to which Graeco-Roman values (tolerance of homosexuality among the leadership class) undermined traditional Jewish family values. As Paul reminds us, he was well versed in the Levitical law.

  6. Herb

    It might be added that OT teaching on homosexual practice was obvious to the Apostle Paul as well, but it was less obvious within Graeco-Roman culture, which is why he had to explain biblical teaching to the largely Gentile audience within the churches he founded. There are some really good studies of the culture of the times that still try to say that Paul never knew the kind of loving homosexual relationships we have today–one that I greatly respect is Sarah Ruden’s work (Duke University) but I think she overdoes it. NT scholar NT Wright is more accurate on this subject (see about 5:30 on this video clip.
    Which is not to say that Christians can’t disagree lovingly with practicing gays, which I think was the Pope’s main point, and I”m glad he made it. I can only wish that myself and my fellow practicing evangelicals would follow and practice his thought more.

  7. Herb

    @Kathryn–Old Testament law is always fulfilled in Christ, the question is, how? With regard to ritual purity, such as the type of clothing one wears, it is fulfilled by virtue of the fact that, since the Spirit indwells the Church, a purity is available that transcends outward, cultural practices–the NT is full of examples of that. Fulfillment of OT law in Christ with regard to sexual standards is based upon the Creation story (Jesus always goes back to that in interpreting what marriage means), and what is the natural, created order. As Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan) puts it, marriage needs the ‘glories of the male and female’ to ultimately function.
    I realize that many theologians disagree with this view, but I still think they are trying shape the truth by forming it through modern culture, which I would contend is neither right, nor ultimately safe.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Jesus’s bottom line was love, and so many LGBTQ believers have been profoundly hurt by their church’s stance towards them. Where is the Christ in that?
      Since the pope seems to acknowledge that people are created with different orientations, how can treating them like pariahs or even just “less than” be right?

    2. Mark Stewart

      Let’s not forget the serpent and the apple. Seems like the story of creation was one of those “and times they will be trying” sorts of things.

      As I understand it, the Old Testement is pretty much a summation of 10,000+ years of cultural development in the golden crescent. We are probably, as humans, as imperfect today as we ever were. If that is the case, the more literal we get about things, the more didactic we become and the farther we move from real understanding.

  8. Herb

    ‘Jesus’ bottom line was love’–which is a statement often made, but hardly much definition given to it–it has to be unpacked. It is too easily assumed that he intended to set aside OT Law, when in fact he stated categorically he intended nothing of the sort, but rather to fulfill it. That’s a totally different thing, as NT teaching develops.
    As for OT understanding developing, I don’t see how that says anything about whether it is authoritative or not. I’m not really interested as much in how Dostoevsky did his writing as much as I am in the final result, and what it has to say. For Christians, Jesus made OT authoritative by his acceptance of it within the parameters of fulfillment in his own person. What one can’t do is contradict it, and still call it ‘interpretation’, or some kind of ‘real understanding.’ Just call it contradiction, or ‘disagreement,’ or ‘rejection’, or whatever, if that’s what it is.

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    Jesus was not about casting out the outcasts. He embraced whores and lepers. Why do those who claim to follow him seize on so many opportunities to throw shade on the traditionally outcast?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I don’t even know what that means. It just sounds like one of those vague, dismissive comments that are so common in this era in which anti-Catholicism is one of the few socially acceptable prejudices.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          I am not particularly prejudiced against the Catholic Church. They do a lot of good work! Any institution that promulgates sexist policies, like forbidding women the priesthood, though, is subject to my disdain.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Well, you know, not all lepers are women.

            It’s really hard for me to communicate my ambivalence on the whole women-as-priests thing.

            If I were in charge, knowing what I know at this moment (in other words, not having ever had that responsibility and not knowing what I would conclude after a careful discernment process), women could probably be priests.

            But I don’t think of women NOT being priests as some sort of injustice. I mean, I can’t be a priest, either, and that’s cool — I have my roles I can play in the church (all of which are not only open to women, but mostly filled by women).

            I’m just not oriented that way as I look out on society. When I look at a lot of these “barrier” issues, I just don’t think in terms of what individuals “get to do” or don’t “get to do.” Take women in combat. Is that something that society needs, or is it not? If so, hand them a rifle and send them out. If not, don’t. And if we don’t, I really don’t think it’s cruel and unusual punishment not to “let” somebody go get shot at. I just don’t see it as a “rights” thing.

            I feel sort of the same way about the priesthood, only with an extra twist. I’m concerned that feminists see this, as they do so many things, as a matter of who has POWER. Because you know, people who want to be priests because they want power are people who should not be priests, regardless of gender.

            Of course, I’ve never wanted to be a priest, so the emotional element of what it would feel like to want to be one and be barred from it (instead of NOT wanting to be one, and being barred from it, as in my case). In any case, I (and all the women who play these same roles) “get to do” most of the things a priest does. I administer the Eucharist. I read the Gospel (in Spanish) at Mass. If I have to, I can baptize people (I think) and administer last rites — I’m pretty sure any Catholic can.

            I just don’t have the title, or the executive power over a parish (although I used to chair the parish council, which is the next best thing).

            I’m just rambling now…

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            It occurs to me that some might find my parenthetical caveat above (“in other words, not having ever had that responsibility and not knowing what I would conclude after a careful discernment process”) puzzling.

            But I learned something, over and over, as editorial page editor.

            I learned that some opinions I had held previously — things I THOUGHT I had thought through — really didn’t hold up when I had to study them and then set out persuasive arguments, for thousands of people to read and try to shoot holes in. Once it was my JOB to have these opinions, I dug in and thought about them a lot harder, and reached a deeper understanding.

            So if I were in charge of what Cheech and Chong termed “the whole Catholic-a Church, with the priests and the nuns and the little bambinos-a,” I might reach conclusions, after extensive prayerful study, that would be different from the ones I more lightly hold now…

            I hope that makes sense.

            This discernment process I’m talking about works in politics, too. It’s something that inspires great respect in me as an admirer of representative democracy, but stirs great ire in populists.

            When people get into office, if they are honest and open-minded, their perspectives change. They come to understand issues better. Populists call this being “corrupted by the system.” But the fact is, a person who is living with issues day in and day out and having to debate them, and encountering the arguments of people from many different viewpoints, will, if he is intelligent and open-minded, come to a deeper and often different understanding.

            A good example is the way Barack Obama was so critical, as a candidate, of many of the ways George Bush conducted the war on terror. Then, once in office, once he actually had RESPONSIBILITY for these things, and saw how they worked in actuality, and had to face the consequences of what might happen if he discontinued the policies… kept right on with the policies in place, time and again.

            Having the responsibility, actually having to deal with a thing day in and day out, changes your perspective, and that is actually a GOOD thing.

  10. Kathryn Fenner

    You cannot be a priest, at this time, because of a choice you made. My sister-in-law is a most excellent Lutheran pastor. She would have, no doubt, made an excellent priest, but that was never open to her. Y’all’s loss.

    Of course, privileged person that you are, you don’t see a problem that some people don’t get to be things solely because of accidents of birth.

  11. Herb

    @Kathryn–Jesus nearly always adds a statement similar to ‘go and sin no more’ when dealing with ‘outcasts.’ That implies two things: 1) He labels certain activities as ‘sinful’; 2) he doesn’t condone such, but calls us to leave it behind. It is easy to say that Jesus was all about ‘love.’ But not love of self; quite the opposite. I never can figure out how we seem to make Jesus into this easy-going guy who a) accepts everybody as they are and b) leaves us happily that way. The former is certainly true; the latter is definitely not.

  12. Herb

    We seem to be always assuming that a particular church’s position on leadership is a matter of personal opinion. But that is not the assumption that a church makes. Rather:
    a) ‘church’ comes from a root meaning ‘belonging to the Lord’, i.e., God’s people. ‘You are not your own, you are bought with a price.’
    b) The Church has always held that the authority of Christ and the apostles he chose are primary. We don’t decide how the church is to be led; he does.
    c) The NT does contain statements that seem to indicate the church leadership should be primarily male–based on Creation. Personally, I don’t agree with the way that biblical exegesis is often understood at every point, but it is an understandable position, and church leaders who hold to it are probably not doing so because they are sexist, but because they are trying to be obedient to Christ. We may disagree with them, but calling them prejudiced isn’t really fair.

    Bonhoeffer’s obedience to Christ was counter-cultural; we seem to be easily assuming ours can follow whatever cultural values we want to adopt.

  13. Herb

    One of my favorite websites is getreligion.org. They have had some excellent pieces on the ridiculous way the new pope is being covered in the press, as though his positions are substantially different from those of his predecessor. They aren’t. The church cannot simply move whichever way the cultural wind is blowing.

  14. Herb

    I was born with a tendency to do all kinds of wrong–probably not necessarily the same inclinations as some particular other individual, but wrong nonetheless. Can I just excuse myself by saying I’m just living the way I was born?
    I don’t understand; supposedly Jesus is a Savior, to save his people from their sins, as the Gospel writer (Matthew) puts it, based on OT teaching. If I don’t need saving, but am just fine the way I was born, then why bother?
    We seem to always be wanting to reduce Christ’s demands on His followers down to to the point of making them palatable for our generation–whether that is our attitude towards wealth, or hospitality, or whatever. I’m not at all certain that is a good option.

  15. Stephen M. Bauer

    Your criticisms of Pope Benedict are as absurd as they are bigoted. It seems that you have accepted without question comments made in secular media outlets, which have an affinity for quoting the most extremist labeling of Ratzinger/Benedict. Have your read any of his encyclicals? I suggest that you do. Your slander of Benedict destroys the credibility of everything you say afterwards.

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