On Pope Francis, Cardinal Bernardin, Vatican II, American politics, and the church today

Today, Massimo Faggioli brought this WashPost story to our attention via Facebook:

Conservative Catholics question Pope Francis’s approach

Rattled by Pope Francis’s admonishment to Catholics not to be “obsessed” by doctrine, his stated reluctance to judge gay priests and his apparent willingness to engage just about anyone — including atheists — many conservative Catholics are doing what only recently seemed unthinkable:

They are openly questioning the pope.

Concern among traditionalists began building soon after Francis was elected this spring. Almost immediately, the new pope told non-Catholic and atheist journalists he would bless them silently out of respect. Soon after, he eschewed Vatican practice and included women in a foot-washing ceremony.

The wary traditionalists became critical when, in an interview a few weeks ago, Francis said Catholics shouldn’t be “obsessed” with imposing doctrines, including on gay marriage and abortion….

This was particularly relevant because Dr. Faggioli was our 2013 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin lecturer last week at USC — and the topic of that news story bears upon what he spoke about in his lecture, and what we discussed in a panel discussion I moderated earlier in the day.

I’ve mentioned this lecture series in past years. (You may recall when E.J. Dionne gave the lecture a couple of years back.) I’ve been on the panel that runs it for more than a decade, along with members of the Religious Studies department at the university, some clergy (Catholic and non), some members of the Bernardin family and Patricia Moore Pastides, USC’s first lady (and my fellow parishioner at St. Peter’s). Cardinal Bernardin, for those who don’t remember him, is easily the most distinguished churchman ever to come out of Columbia. He was born here, grew up in my parish, attended USC, then went on to be come the most influential member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1980s.

Our committee’s goal is to establish the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Chair in Ethical, Moral, and Religious Studies at USC. We moved a huge step toward achieving that this past year, with a $1 million gift from former USC President John Palms and wife Norma, more than half of which goes toward the chair.

Dr. Faggioli’s topic was, “Bernardin’s Common Ground Initiative: Can it Survive Current Political Cultures?

Before I share what he said, I should explain the Common Ground initiative, which the cardinal launched as he was dying of cancer in the mid-90s. It’s founding document, “Called to be Catholic,” was written by the cardinal in the summer of 1996, and began:

Will the Catholic Church in the United States enter the new millennium as a church of promise, augmented by the faith of rising generations and able to be a leavening force in our culture? Or will it become a church on the defensive, torn by dissension and weakened in its core structures? The outcome, we believe, depends on whether American Catholicism can confront an array of challenges with honesty and imagination and whether the church can reverse the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership. American Catholics must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively – a common ground centered on faith in Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition, and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation…

The cardinal was trying to bridge left and right within the church, calling on Catholics of all stripes to listen respectfully to each other. He was addressing the same long-standing conflict described in today’s WashPost story:

Some Catholics feel Francis is resurfacing fights that followed the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Conservatives felt liberal Catholics misinterpreted the Council’s intention and took “open” too far.

The last two popes seemed to agree, making a priority of establishing “Catholic identity” among people and institutions by emphasizing the importance of crystal-clear doctrine,particularly on issues around human reproduction and marriage.

“The angry screaming debates in parishes — I don’t want to go there again,” said Lawler. “Things were calming down.”…

With some Catholics thinking that Pope Francis’ recent remarks will bring back those “screaming debates,” Dr. Faggioli’s lecture was particularly timely.

Massimo Faggioli

Massimo Faggioli

A central theme in his talk that had not occurred to me before was this: In the days of Vatican II and before it, Catholicism was largely a European phenomenon. Today, the American church is so dominant that what happens here has repercussions in his home country of Italy, and everywhere else.

In reading “Called to be Catholic” and its companion document from later that year, “Faithful and Hopeful: The Catholic Common Ground Project,” I can’t help but feel that the cardinal was talking about American politics rather than internal church matters:

The problem of dissent today is not so much the voicing of serious criticism but the popularity of dismissive,demagogic, ‘cute’ commentary, dwelling on alleged motives,exploiting stereotypes, creating stock villains, employing reliable‘laugh lines’ The kind of responsible disagreement of which I speak must not include‘caricatures’ that‘undermine the Church as a community of faith’by assuming Church authorities to be ‘generally ignorant,self-serving,and narrow-minded’ It takes no more than a cursory reading of the more militant segments of the Catholic press, on both ends of the theological and ideological spectrum, to reveal how widespread, and how corrosive,such caricatures have become….

I figured that was just my bias, based on my experience.

But Dr. Faggioli sees that as highly relevant. In fact, he says the American style of political discourse, which in many ways is quite alien to the European mind, has profoundly influenced dialogue, or the lack thereof, within the church.

Well, it’s taken me a lot to get this far, because there’s so much to explain along the way — which is why I haven’t written about the lecture and panel last week before now.

So from here on, I’ll just hit a few highlights:

  • After Dr. Faggioli had indicated, during our panel discussion, that we now had a Vatican II pope after two strict doctrinalists whose appointments had reshaped the U.S. Conference into something very different from what Cardinal Bernardin knew, I asked whether Francis and the largely conservative American bishops were headed for conflict. The other two panelists — political scientist Steven Millies and Fr. Jeff Kirby of the Diocese of Charleston — said they didn’t think so, and I thought their reasoning was both strong and ironic: Their point is that because Pope Francis is less down-from-above, more collegial, more into subsidiarity, he would act more like the bishop of Rome than supreme pontiff, and leave American bishops alone to run their dioceses their way. Dr. Faggioli disagreed, saying conflict is inevitable. I think he’s right.
  • Our speaker provided insight into the interview the pope gave with Jesuit journals — the one that caused such a sensation last month. He’s almost uniquely qualified to do so, as he was one of the people who translated the interview into English, and therefore influenced what the rest of us read. Today’s WashPost story quotes a conservative activist as complaining that “now we’ve got a guy who doesn’t seem to think clear expression is important.” On the contrary, Dr. Faggioli says, the pope was very carefully controlling what he said. He saw some of the rough drafts of the pope’s remarks as well as what appeared eventually, and the pontiff was taking great care. Not only that, but in talking to the Jesuit journals, Pope Francis was deliberately bypassing the Vatican bureaucracy — which is filled with his predecessor’s people. Bottom line, the pontiff knows what he’s saying, and he’s not letting the usual filters get in the way.
  • That said, this pope has one weakness in communicating what he means: His Italian is excellent, says Dr. Faggioli, but his English? Not so much. Worse, he lacks understanding of “the Anglo-Saxon mindset.” Our speaker said the pontiff apparently didn’t fully anticipate exactly how obsessively every word he spoke would be parsed by fussy, picky Americans. (And in keeping with our speaker’s theme, if Americans interpret things a certain way, that influences the perception of the rest of the world.) If he had, there are a couple of different words he might have chosen in that interview.

There was a lot more, but it’s a miracle if any of y’all have read this far, so I’ll stop for now. Dr. Faggioli indicated that his lecture, or part of it, might be available online soon. When it is, I’ll give y’all a link…

The panel -- Fr. Kirby, Dr. Faggioli, your correspondent, and Dr. Millies. No, I don't know why my tongue is sticking out...

The panel — Fr. Kirby, Dr. Faggioli, your correspondent, and Dr. Millies. No, I don’t know why my tongue is sticking out. I meant no disrespect.

2 thoughts on “On Pope Francis, Cardinal Bernardin, Vatican II, American politics, and the church today

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    As for how the new pope is playing among the American clergy, all I have to go on is what Fr. Kirby had to say last week, and the reaction of my own pastor, Gary Linsky. Fr. Linsky is new to St. Peter’s, having just retired from the Air Force. He replaces Msgr. Leigh Lehocky, who was the only pastor I had known in all these years at St. Peter’s.

    Fr. Linsky published a brief reflection on the Bernardin lecture in Sunday’s bulletin. An excerpt:

    Pope Francis wants us to understand that Catholic identity cannot be reduced to three issues: opposition to abortion, contraception and gay marriage! The word Catholic means universal and therefore is, by definition, far greater. Further, even when confronted with likely sin, rather than demonize, Francis points out Jesus sought to change hearts and therefore behavior by demonstrating and emphasizing in his teaching, love and mercy. A specific example of this would be the woman caught in adultery. Did Jesus say the alleged sin was not a sin? No, but he also observed the motivation of those pointing their fingers in an attempt to show their moral superiorities.

    Being a Catholic today requires humility and openness to conversion. Pope Francis has not changed the teaching of the Church; far from it. However, he is challenging our attitude and identity. He wishes that we be known NOT for what we oppose but for our LOVE. In this way, we can embrace ourselves as sinners and other sinners as well and lead to a more realistic interaction and conversion of the world.

    Cardinal Bernardin’s Common Ground initiative was denounced by some as liberal hog-wash, and being in the middle when the world around you is deeply polarized can be an uncomfortable place. But that is where I believe Pope Francis would want us to be and where I seek to lead you, this flock entrusted to my care, the people of Saint Peter’s in Columbia, South Carolina!

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