Does a change in tone matter when it comes to the pope?

Here is Will Saletan calling Pope Francis a liberal.  Here are some of Andrew Sullivan’s readers exploding with joy over the pope’s recent interview:

Wow! I wondered if Pope Francis could possibly be for real.  He seems the absolute embodiment of what I always thought the Catholic Church was supposed to be about – promoting the ideas and teachings of Jesus, not running a corrupt organization without a shred of mercy, divine or otherwise.  Pope Francis is having a tremendous pull on me.  I rejected the Church long ago, but I’m drawn to this man and what he has to say.  I hear a voice inside me that says “yes”.

I have always been of two minds about this sort of thing.  On the one hand, the new guy is saying a lot of good things–the kind of things I had my fictional pope saying in Pontiff. On the other hand, the Church has a long long history of being dogmatic and authoritarian and, after thirty plus years of John Paul and Benedict, it is run by people who like it that way.  What is likely to change, besides tone?  And is tone enough?

The leader of the archdiocese of Boston is named Sean O’Malley, and he seems like a terrific guy.  He even has a blog!  In the blog he has a heartwarming anecdote about a relief worker distributing food to starving Africans.

At the end of the line, the last person was a little nine year old girl. All that was left was one banana. They handed it to her. She peeled the banana and gave half each to her younger brother and sister. Then she licked the banana peel. The relief worker said at that moment he began to believe in God.

Let’s all be like that little girl!  But, you know, the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control may be part of the reason why there were too many people in that line, and not enough food.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, in addition to not being so obsessed with birth control and homosexuality and abortion, as Francis put it in his interview, the Church could start remedying the damage those obsessions have already done to the world. I’m not optimistic.

“Pontiff” and Pope Francis; thrillers and reality

Life is kinda boring.  That’s why thriller writers are required to amp things up.  There are some vague parallels between Pope John in my novel Pontiff and Pope Francis in the real world.  Both were elected to the papacy at least somewhat for geopolitical reasons–my Pope John because he was an African; Pope Francis because he’s from South America.  In both cases the new papacy seems to some to be a breath of fresh air after the previous pope: liberals get their hopes up, conservatives start fretting.

But that’s about where the comparisons run out of steam.  In real life, Pope Francis has said some things that have gotten liberal hearts a-flutter, but on closer inspection they don’t represent any kind of real change in policy or dogma, just a slight change in emphasis, maybe just a rhetorical device.  His recent remarks on gays are an example. It’s nice that he doesn’t want to judge gays; on the other hand, his remarks didn’t hint at changing the Church’s stance on the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, as traditional Catholics (almost gleefully) point out. A change in rhetoric is interesting (and may conceivably affect someone’s life for the better), but it doesn’t make for a thriller.

Anyway, here’s the big speech I give to the new Pope John about change in the Church.  He has been asking a bunch of cardinals what they think is the biggest challenge facing the Church–they mention obedience, money, the decline in vocations.  Then his secretary of state, Cardinal Valli, asks him what he thinks.  We see the scene through the eyes of Cardinal Riccielli, who is head of the Vatican Bank.  (It was the scandal around the Vatican Bank that Pope Francis was addressing in his remarks on gays.  The Vatican Bank is one area where life is as interesting as fiction.)

What would Valli say when his turn came? Riccielli expected that others were wondering the same thing. Many of them looked to Valli for guidance, for a sense of how to deal with their new leader. But Valli was saying nothing. Finally the pope asked him directly. “Cardinal Valli, surely you have some thoughts on the challenges facing the Church. Would you share them with us?”

And Valli slowly shook his head in response. “Holiness, what I think is of utterly no importance. All that matters is what you think. I ask you to share your thoughts with us.”

The room was silent. Would the pope think Valli was being impertinent? The pope continued to smile, staring at Valli with his large brown eyes, and finally he nodded, almost imperceptibly. “Of course, your Eminence,” he said, so softly this time that Riccielli had to lean forward to hear. “I am not a philosopher, though. I am not a theologian. Some would even say that I am not an especially worldly man. I have spent too much time fighting minor battles in a faraway land. So I am not prepared to make any grand pronouncements. I do want to listen, and learn.

“But I will say this. I believe that the Church’s problem is not that its members are insufficiently obedient to its teachings, but that the Church is insufficiently responsive to the needs of its members. We are in many respects a powerful and effective body, but too many people no longer listen to us; for too many people, we no longer matter. And if we do matter, it is because they believe we are an obstacle to the fulfillment of their humanity and the true expression of their faith.

“I believe this has happened because the Church has become too focused on matters that are not central to the truths we espouse: the reality of Our Lord’s death and resurrection, and our witness to it in this world.

“I have had to counsel a young priest in tears as he petitioned to be laicized. He loved the Church, loved his vocation, but the burden of celibacy was just too great. He was sinning, and he did not want to sin. We have seen far too much of this lately.

“I have talked to young mothers terrified that they would become pregnant again and be forced to bear children they could not afford to feed.

“I have visited AIDS clinics and listened as doctors told me how many of those ravaged people I saw would have remained healthy if the Church had eased its prohibition against the use of condoms.

“We cannot be blind to the very real consequences of our actions and pronouncements. And we must try to find a way back into the hearts of our people. That is what I think I must do as pope.”

Silence again. The uncomfortable silence, Riccielli realized, of people whose worst nightmares have just come true. Krajcek looked as if he were about to have a stroke. Valli stared at his hands and said nothing in response. Did he regret asking the question? No, they needed to hear this, even if most of them disagreed profoundly.

It was left to Rattner to break the silence—Rattner, the sallow, outspoken Austrian, whose resignation from his congregation had been tendered and accepted, and who therefore had nothing to lose. “The Church is not involved in a popularity contest, your Holiness,” he observed. “We have a sacred obligation to protect the Deposit of Faith, and not to bend with every wind that blows.”

Krajcek revived enough to add, “The Church’s positions on contraception, abortion, clerical celibacy—they are long settled. If they cause some people pain—well, perhaps that is because God’s law is not always easy, and people today are always looking for the easy way out.”

Pope John shrugged. “As I said, I am making no grand pronouncements. I wish only to share some of my thoughts. I don’t ask for your agreement, I ask only that you hear me out, and keep an open mind.”

Keep an open mind. Did the pope think this was merely an abstract theological discussion? Riccielli wondered. Didn’t he realize that his every utterance in this room would be dissected and interpreted like a passage from Revelation, that they would go flying to the far corners of Christendom, repeated and amplified and distorted? In his soft-spoken way he had all but declared war on most of these men, challenging their most basic beliefs, their views of themselves and their Church. They were not likely to keep an open mind.

No one seemed inclined to offer further challenges, however. Were they too shocked? Or too frightened of what he might say next? Rufio offered some pious babble in an attempt to improve the mood, but he didn’t get much response. Finally the pope thanked everyone profusely and brought the meeting to a close.

And this is the setup for the thrillery stuff that follows.


When I was a lad I had a missal that I very much liked.  At the back of the missal were prayers you could say, presumably during the boring parts of Mass.  Next to each prayer was the indulgence you would get for saying the prayer–that is, the number of days that would be reduced from the time you’d have to spend in purgatory for your sins. (Here is way more than you want to know about indulgences.)

I could never figure out the rating system — why was one prayer worth more than another?  And some prayers gave you a plenary indulgence — full time off.  Why would you bother saying a prayer that only gave you 100 days off, if you could say one that would get you out of purgatory for good?  I was a very literal-minded kid.

Now we hear that you can get a plenary indulgence for following Pope Francis’s Twitter feed. This has generated snark from the usual suspects.  And I can’t really disagree with the snark.  Shouldn’t indulgences have disappeared like 500 years ago?  The Wikipedia article shows that, as with most theological issues, the modern Catholic church has tried to become more sophisticated, which is to say, vaguer, with respect to the meaning of indulgences.  But it can’t seem to quit them.

What I tend to focus on, though, are the people whose job it is to come up with the rules for indulgences.  The classification of prayers by years and days has been done away with, but somebody has to figure out exactly what the rules are for indulgences.  For example, Wikipedia says reading Sacred Scripture for half an hour can get you a plenary indulgence on any day, but only once a day.  Who came up with half an hour, as opposed to, I dunno, an hour?  Who decided you could only get a plenary indulgence once a day, as opposed to once a week?  As with the Vatican office that determines who is suitable for canonization, smart people are spending their lives going to work each day and figuring this stuff out.  Such a waste.

The pope washes women’s feet — should I care?

Pope Francis keeps breaking with tradition, and that makes the conservatives unhappy.  Should liberals therefore be happy?  Don’t see why.  By their fruits shall ye know them, as someone famous once said.  Not by their symbolic gestures.

Meanwhile Boston College has stopped students from distributing free condoms on  campus, and other Catholic colleges say they’d do the same thing.

“One of the teachings of our faith is that contraception is morally unacceptable,” said ­Victor Nakas, a spokesman for Catholic University. “Since condoms are a form of contraception, we do not permit their distribution on campus.”

If Pope Francis were to say, “Hey, let the kids distribute condoms if they want.  It’s a free country,” now that would be interesting.    But don’t hold your breath.

Hope everyone has a happy Holy Saturday!

New pope, same as the old pope

In my novel Pontiff I imagined a deadlocked conclave electing an African cardinal known mainly for standing up to his country’s evil dictator.  No one had any idea about his theology or politics.

Complications ensue.

Nothing like this happened today.  Much will be made of Pope Francis’s humility and humanity and learning.  He took the bus to work!  He’s an accomplished theologian (whatever that may mean)!  He washed the feet of AIDS victims (or something)!  He’s critical of capitalism!

But this is all beside the point.  The doctrines are the same.  The attitudes are the same.  Here he is blaming the Argentine gay marriage law on the devil:

Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just it’s form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God… Let’s look to St. Joseph, Mary, and the Child to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment… May they support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.

According to Wikipedia, he believes that adoption by same-sex couples is a form of discrimination against children and opposed the free distribution of contraceptives in Argentina.

The only way the Church is going to change is if the new pope appoints cardinals who are doctrinally more diverse than the current batch.  You decide if that’s good for the world (and the Church) or not.