Pope Francis and the ambivalence of popularity

Pope Francis and the ambivalence of popularity

If Pope Francis were the President of the United States, he would now be on the other side of his first midterm election, having marked his two-year anniversary on March 13, and all indications are his party would have done exceptionally well. The pope’s poll numbers remain sky-high, with the

If Pope Francis were the President of the United States, he would now be on the other side of his first midterm election, having marked his two-year anniversary on March 13, and all indications are his party would have done exceptionally well.

The pope’s poll numbers remain sky-high, with the most recent Pew Forum study putting his approval rating among American Catholics at 90 percent. While a president would probably take that and run, being pope is a bit more complicated.

For one thing, a pope is expected to be not an electoral dynamo, but a living saint. As “House of Cards” proves definitively, Americans long ago abandoned the conceit that our civic leaders are or should be paragons of virtue.

For another, a pope has the whole world to think about. Of the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics on the planet, only about 70 million are Americans, representing a little less than 6 percent of the global Catholic population.

Nowhere, however, is the complexity of being pope more obvious than the ambivalence over popularity.

For one thing, there’s a swath of the Catholic Church, both in America and elsewhere, that cringes when a pope enjoys strong appeal in the outside world, especially in secular circles of opinion. The logic unfolds like this:

• Premise: Secularism is hostile to the Catholic faith.
• Premise: Anyone who upholds the Catholic faith is bound to be despised by secularists.
• Q.E.D.: Anyone popular with secularists is a danger to the faith.

Last October, a Catholic theologian who writes on apocalyptic themes, meaning descriptions of the end-times in the Bible’s Book of Revelations, published an open letter to Pope Francis questioning his doctrinal orthodoxy. It featured this warning: “No matter what other good you do, no matter what other humanitarian engagement you promote, or popularity contest you win, if you lead the faithful astray, you will be nothing more than a false pope.”

For this kind of believer, one bedrock of the faith is a saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Such Catholics are never more comfortable than when a pope is under attack, and never more alarmed than when the world applauds. Most will be inclined to suspect that the world has misunderstood the pope if it likes what it sees, not that the pope has erred, but there are enough who cut the other way to create a problem.

At the opposite end of the Catholic spectrum, there are some progressives who always rued what they described as a populist “cult of personality” under Pope St. John Paul II, feeling that it reinforced what they saw as his unwarranted claims to papal power.

In their nastier moments, and usually off the record, some clergy and theologians would compare the adoring crowds John Paul II drew for almost 27 years to party rallies staged by some of history’s great demagogues, such as Mussolini or Ceaușescu.

Liberals don’t tend to have the same beef with Francis, because they support more of what they take to be his agenda, but who knows how long that will last?

Papal popularity is a mixed blessing in yet another sense, because it can bog down efforts to put the divided Christian family back together.

Pope Francis has made ecumenism, meaning the press for Christian unity, one of the cornerstones of his agenda, and he’s moved the ball.

He’s made Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the “first among equals” of Orthodox leaders, his partner in diplomacy; he’s signaled a willingness to meet the head of the Russian Orthodox Church any time, any place; and he sat down with a delegation of Evangelical ministers last June, even swapping high-fives with American televangelist James Robison after speaking of the need for a personal relationship with Jesus.

Part of the reason these leaders beat a path to Francis’ door is precisely his popularity, because they grasp that he has the biggest bully pulpit of any spiritual potentate in the world and there’s no choice but to engage him.

Yet that same popularity can also deepen suspicions. The Russian Orthodox, for instance, have long feared that reunion with Rome would ultimately mean being placed under the thumb of an imperial papacy, no matter what theological or structural assurances the Vatican might offer.

Watching Francis elicit hosannas from the media, and seeing him draw rapturous crowds of 3 million in Brazil and a stunning 6 million to 7 million in the Philippines – in the teeth of a tropical storm, no less – probably doesn’t help abate those concerns.

At some level, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has to know that if he’s in the same room with Francis, he’s never going to be an equal in anything other than a theoretical sense, even in Russia itself.

Trawl the Evangelical blogosphere sometime, and you’ll find that such concerns are hardly restricted to the Orthodox.

Of course, any of the gaggle of presidential hopefuls for 2016 would probably say that managing astronomic popularity is a headache he or she would love to have. Moreover, the genius of Francis is that one element of his appeal is a reputation for humility, so it’s tough to accuse him of gloating.

Still, the mere fact that Francis has to think about a down side to winning hearts and minds clearly illustrates one point: Being pope isn’t anybody’s idea of a walk in the park.

Skirmishing over the Synod of Bishops

This week nearly 500 Catholic priests in England and Wales signed a public letter asking the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops on the family in October to reject calls to allow Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church to receive Communion, urging the synod to issue a “clear and firm proclamation” upholding Church teaching on marriage.

The letter was published in the Catholic Herald, with 461 priests affixing their names, including some of the country’s highest-profile clerics. It reflects the fact that debate over the divorced and remarried was a flashpoint at the last synod, driven by a proposal by German Cardinal Walter Kasper to relax the traditional ban.

The priests’ initiative brought an indirect rebuke from Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who’s generally seen as favorable to a more permissive line. In an interview last October, Nichols faulted the concluding document from the first summit on the family for not going far enough towards “respect”, “welcome” and “value” for gays and lesbians.

“The pastoral experience and concern of all priests in these matters are of great importance and are welcomed by the bishops,” Nichols said in response to the open letter. “It is my understanding that this has been taken up in every diocese, and that channels of communication have been established.”

In effect, Nichols then asked his priests to keep their thoughts out of the newspapers.

“This dialogue, between priests and their bishop, is not best conducted through the press,” his statement said.

That exchange builds on recent swipes from fellow German cardinals directed at Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, president of the German bishops’ conference, who recently hinted that Germany may forge ahead on welcoming the divorced and remarried back to Communion regardless of what the Synod of Bishops decides.

“Each conference of bishops is responsible for pastoral care in its cultural context, and must preach the Gospel in its own original way,” Marx said in February/ He was among the champions of the progressive line on divorce and remarriage last October.

“We cannot wait for a synod to tell us how we have to shape pastoral care for marriage and family here,” said Marx, who will be one of Germany’s three representatives at the looming synod.

In an interview this week with a French publication, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s doctrinal czar, fired back.

“The president of an episcopal conference is nothing more than a technical moderator, and he does not have any particular magisterial authority due to this title,” he said.

The claim that a bishops’ conference could make its own decisions on matters concerning the family and marriage, Müller said, is “an absolutely anti-Catholic idea that does not respect the Catholicity of the Church.”

In a similar vein, retired German Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, a former high-ranking Vatican official close to the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, said in an open letter said that Marx’s comments were more suited “to the counter of a bar” than serious theological conversation.

American Cardinal Raymond Burke, another champion of traditional Catholic doctrine, gave an interview in late January that appeared this week in LifeSite News, a go-to source for the most ardent defenders of traditional Catholic positions in the wars of culture, warning that “confusion is spreading in an alarming way” about where the Church stands.

In a recent analysis, Italian Vatican writer Sandro Magister noted that Pope Francis has introduced some fresh blood into the synod process this time around, including the vice president of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, a body known for an articulate and forceful defense of traditional positions.

Yet for every seeming “no” vote on Communion for the divorced and remarried, there’s also someone out there leaning “yes.”

In mid-March, Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle of the Philippines was in the United Kingdom to speak at a Catholic gathering, and he publicly rejected a one-size-fits-all solution.

“Every situation for those who are divorced and remarried is quite unique,” Tagle said. “My position at the moment is to ask, ‘Can we take every case seriously and are there, in the tradition of the Church, paths towards addressing each case individually?’ This is one issue that I hope people will appreciate is not easy to say ‘no’ or to say ‘yes’ to. We cannot give one formula for all.”

Tagle, it should be noted, isn’t just any prelate. He’s the Catholic rock star of Asia, and his stock is even higher today after having organized a wildly successful papal outing to his country in January. (More on that below.)

It remains unclear what all this bodes in terms of how Pope Francis will eventually resolve the debate over Communion for the divorced and remarried. Logically speaking, he would seem to have three options:

• Say “yes”
• Say “no”
• Call for more study

Facing a divided Church, conventional wisdom would tag option three as the smart bet. Given Francis’ penchant for surprise, however, any prediction seems premature.

One thing that does seem certain is that the year-long interval between the last Synod of Bishops and Round Two has not yet served to produce consensus. If anything it’s given partisans time to organize, suggesting that the clashes that erupted last time may have been just an appetizer for the main course this October.

Does Tagle have a date with history?

Speaking of Tagle, Europe’s largest bookmaker, the Ireland-based firm of Paddy Power, currently has him installed as a 6-1 favorite to be the next pope. The outfit had to be happy with Francis’ recent allusions to a short papacy, which may have driven some gamblers to get in on the action now.

(Proving that Paddy Power has a sense of humor, they also installed Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, as a 666-1 contender. For those unfamiliar with the Book of Revelation, 666 is the “mark of the beast,” often taken as code for the Anti-Christ.)

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston is in fifth place, with 10-1 odds, after a three-way tie at 8-1 among Cardinals Peter Turkson of Ghana, Angelo Scola of Italy, and Marc Ouellet of Canada, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.

To be clear, I’m probably the last guy who should be offering this sort of forecast.

Yes, Time magazine dubbed me in 2013 as “the man who picked the pope” because Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was among 22 candidates I profiled before the vote, but anyone who read the piece would know I clearly had him on my “B” list. More glaringly, my 1999 biography of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger listed four reasons he would never be pope. He went on to log eight years as Benedict XVI.

It’s safe to say, therefore, that nobody would be well-advised to consult me before filling out a betting slip. For that matter, there’s good reason to be dubious of Paddy Power, since in neither of the last two conclaves was their top contender the man actually elected.

If it somehow did happen to be Tagle, however, the level of excitement could make history.

Here’s why. When Pope John Paul II visited Manila in 1995, he drew a crowd estimated at 5 million people. At the time it was the largest turnout ever at a single papal event, and among the largest peaceful gatherings of any sort.

Francis shattered that record in January, drawing an estimated 6 million to 7 million, which is stunning not only because of the foul weather that day, but also because it was the feast of Santo Niño, the Philippines’ most popular devotion. A separate observance drew another 1 million to 3 million people to a different island 350 miles away.

All told, therefore, almost 10 million Filipinos attended a major Catholic event somewhere in the country on Jan. 18, 2015.

Now imagine that Tagle, who’s already wildly popular among his countrymen and capable of generating vast crowds, is elected the first Filipino pope. Imagine, too, that a year or two into a successful reign, he schedules his first homecoming.

Where would Paddy Power set the over/under, one wonders, on crowd size for that trip?

Consulting Wikipedia, the largest peaceful gatherings in history are reckoned to be 30 million for a Hindu festival in Allahabad, India, on Feb. 10, 2013, and 20 million for a Shi’a Muslim observance in Karbala, Iraq, in December 2013.

On the contemporary Catholic landscape, it’s hard to imagine any figure with a better shot at topping those marks than a beloved native son Filipino pope.

Naturally, popes aren’t elected to break records. Still, if Tagle were to be tapped, it would be difficult to suppress a little gut-level Catholic pride watching him contend for the title of all-time crowd size champion.

And, of course, if he were to succeed, it would create a whole new chapter in the complicated story papal popularity.

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