The Corner

How to Think about Pope Francis

Herewith, a suggestion.

A lot of people are complaining that Pope Francis’s comment about gays (the famous/notorious “who am I to judge”) represents nothing new. I think these complaints miss the point of what’s happening here. Of course, Christianity has always taught that one must love the sinner, because we are all sinners and stand in need of the grace of God. Of course, Christianity has always stressed the importance of mercy, charity, and pastoral care. There is no difference between Bergoglio and Ratzinger on this. But what’s different, indeed revolutionary, about Pope Francis is that he has managed to convince a great many in the secular media that he isn’t lying when he says these things!

I remember back in the old days, Jerry Falwell used to interrupt his speeches against homosexuality with the statement, Don’t get me wrong, I love the homosexuals. The secular culture would roll its collective eyes, and think, What a lying creep Falwell is. But because I shared Jerry’s basic faith commitment — I was not a fundamentalist/inerrantist Baptist, as he was, but I accepted Jesus Christ — I believed that he was sincere. He was either a) telling the literal truth, that he loved the gays, or b) saying what he was trying to make literally true (i.e., to the extent that, in the depths of his heart, he didn’t actually love the gays, he knew that this was a fault in him, that God wanted him to love the gays and that he needed to do better on this).

So along comes Pope Francis, making the exact same basic point as Falwell and Ratzinger — but saying it in a way that breaks through the hostility that’s out there against the Christian message.

At the very beginning of one of his most important books, Ratzinger movingly recounted Kierkegaard’s parable of the clown who tried to save a burning village. The clown, who was there with a visiting circus, saw that a serious fire had started — so he ran through the village trying to warn people. But the more he shouted, the less seriously the townspeople took him. Look at that clown, jumping up and down shouting that there’s a fire! Isn’t he hilarious? And the town burned . . . Which offers a pretty good analogy to the predicament of the Christian in a hostile secular world.

Ratzinger gets it. For this reason, I suspect that, while it’s somewhat unfair that Bergoglio is being played off against Ratzinger, Ratzinger himself, in his retirement, is not resentful of his successor’s popularity. I rather picture him watching the TV reports on Bergoglio, and saying, “Yes! Zat is exactly vat I vas trying to say.” Because what’s important to Ratzinger, as to any sincere advocate, is not who gets the credit — but that the message gets through. Christianity is a religion not of hate but of forgiveness. People will disagree with this or that specific moral teaching of this or that specific Christian denomination, but they need to know that what’s crucial in Christianity is the offer of redemption. All the specific arguments about whether it’s okay to drink, or dance, or be gay, or whatever, are pointless unless people are open to this central truth. Christians mean it when they say they, and God, love the world; and the attention Pope Francis is getting shows that the world may just be ready to give them a hearing.

UPDATE: Elizabeth Scalia has written that the Pope’s remarks are part of his strategic attempt to jujitsu the media. Some Traditionalist Catholics have responded by basically accusing her of naïveté and Pollyannaism. (Here is an example. Please do NOT go to the Traditionalist webpage at this link if you are easily offended. And please know that I do not endorse the writer’s attacks on gays, or his praise of Mussolini, or many others among his, shall we say, interesting, views. I merely offer the link as a particularly pithy illustration of the flak Lizzie Scalia is getting.)

I think Scalia is almost 100 percent right. The only point on which I would demur is that, by saying the Pope is “using” the media, and leading a blog post on the subject with a quote from Sun Tzu, she can be understood to be suggesting a rather calculated, Machiavellian attempt at manipulation on his part. I don’t get that impression from the Pope; I think he’s just being himself, doing what comes naturally to his personality — and that this happens to be an approach that works. Some of the Traditionalists pick up on the Sun Tzu stuff and think it shows Scalia is naïve – doesn’t she get the fact that it’s the media who are using the Pope, and not the other way around? But this is to buy into a false choice. Of course the media are engaging in spin to promote their own views. It was ever thus; what’s different is that this time, the religious side is getting through, too.


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