After 20 years on the lecture circuit I thought I’d heard it all, but last Saturday proved I can still be surprised when an audience member rose to angrily accuse me of channeling Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

The occasion was the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, where, among other things, I offered predictions for Pope Francis in 2015. One was that if the United Nations Security Council authorizes an anti-ISIS military coalition in which Muslim states participate, then despite his yearning to be a “Peace Pope”, Francis would likely support it.

Quite clearly, that forecast didn’t sit well with everyone.

One gentleman passionately insisted the pontiff would never do such a thing. In his words, I was sketching a hawkish stance better suited to former US defense secretary Rumsfeld and ex-vice president Cheney than history’s first pope named for Catholicism’s most iconic peace-making saint.

I certainly understand why, on the face of it, the idea of Pope Francis backing any military action seems implausible.

When it comes to the Middle East, it’s in the Vatican’s DNA to oppose any military intervention. Moreover, Francis himself obviously aspires to ending conflict, not stoking it, as his role in opposing Western strikes in Syria in 2013 made clear, as well as his historic peace prayer with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents last June.

Yet there are three compelling reasons to believe that ISIS may end up as the trigger for a towering historical irony: a “Peace Pope” endorsing the use of force.

1. Francis has made the plight of persecuted Christians and other minority groups a cornerstone of his social and political agenda.
The pontiff rarely misses an opportunity to speak about their suffering, recently accusing the world of “trying to hide” the fact that Christians are at risk. He sees an “ecumenism of blood” at the heart of efforts to achieve greater Christian unity. Most recently, he cited the new Christian martyrs – such as the 21 Coptics beheaded by ISIS in Libya in February and the Pakistani Christians killed by Taliban suicide bombers last week — as victims of an unjust death penalty applied by “totalitarian regimes and groups of fanatics.”

When asked about ISIS, Francis has said repeatedly that it’s “legitimate to stop an unjust aggressor,” though always with careful limits — such as the need for an international warrant and the avoidance of methods that endanger civilians — and a clear preference for non-violent solutions. In a recent letter rejecting the death penalty, he distinguished it from “proportionately repelling an aggression that’s underway in order to prevent the aggressor causing harm.”

In that context, if there is a carefully circumscribed mobilization with clear international support, including Muslim nations in a leading role, and it’s specifically designed to provide protection to suffering Christians and other minorities, it would likely be difficult for Francis to justify withholding his blessing.

2. Unlike other conflict situations, his own bishops are calling for the world to move against ISIS.
In February, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil, Iraq, spoke to the British Parliament and basically demanded boots on the ground.

“It is hard for a Catholic bishop to say that we have to advocate a military action, but we have to go for that. There is no other option,” Warda told a meeting in the House of Lords.

“Military action is needed, a powerful one where they could really get those people out of these villages so that our people and others can return,” he said.

Warda told the British lawmakers that the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia are insufficiently well-trained or equipped to defeat ISIS.

“Someone has to do the fighting,” he said.

Around the same time, the Synod of the Chaldean Catholic Church called for an international force to “liberate the occupied territories” of Iraq from the Islamic State.

Meeting in Baghdad, the bishops urged international leaders to “put in place the necessary measures to protect Christians and other Iraqis, so they all return to their homes and live in safety and dignity.”

Not every prelate is necessarily on the same page. Last week, the Greek Melkite Patriarch of Damascus, Gregoire III Laham, called the idea of an intervention in Syria “reckless.” Given Laham’s closeness to the Syrian government, however, he was likely referring to an effort to dislodge President Bashar al-Assad, not a coalition whose aim would be limited to curbing ISIS attacks.

3. Senior Vatican diplomats are moving in the direction of overt support for military force.
In a recent interview with Crux, Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative to the UN in Geneva, said, “We have to stop this kind of genocide.”

“Otherwise we’ll be crying out in the future about why we didn’t so something, why we allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen,” Tomasi said.

When popes and Vatican diplomats opposed the use of force in the Middle East in the past, one compelling reason was concern for the aftermath. The fear was that intervention would rip the lid off sectarian tensions and make life worse, especially for the Christian minority.

Today that calculus no longer applies, because the nightmare scenario is here. As a result, both local bishops and Vatican diplomats increasingly seem to regard a military response to ISIS as the least appalling of the bad options available.

No, Pope Francis will never join Dick Cheney in the ranks of neo-con hawks. He just might, however, join Pope John Paul II in reluctantly acknowledging that on rare occasions, a “humanitarian intervention,” backed up by force, may be the only way to defend people who otherwise have no hope.

What’s it mean to be an ex-Cardinal?

Catholic theology holds that once a priest or bishop, always a priest or bishop. The sacrament is permanent, and even a priest or bishop who’s been laicized, meaning returned to the lay state, is believed to remain a priest or bishop in the eyes of God. (That’s why, for instance, a laicized priest has both the right and the duty to hear the confession of a Catholic in danger of death.)

It’s not the same thing for a cardinal, because while one is “ordained” a priest or bishop, one is “created” a cardinal by an act of a pope. The office isn’t believed to belong to the divine structure of the Church, but rather betokens a cleric with a special personal bond to the pontiff.

Proof of the point is that a pope could abolish the entire College of Cardinals without altering the fundamental nature of the Church. By way of contrast, abolishing the office of priest or bishop is probably on the short list of things a pope just couldn’t do.

Because a pope bestows the status of a cardinal, a pope can take it away. Doing so, however, is exceedingly rare. The last time it happened was in 1927, when French Cardinal Louis Billot was compelled to renounce his red hat by Pope Pius XI over Billot’s refusal to back down in his support for Action Français, a far-right French monarchist movement.

All of this is background to Friday’s announcement that Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, who was swept up in a sexual misconduct scandal in 2013, has renounced the “rights and privileges” of being a cardinal.

O’Brien was accused of having sexual relations with a handful of priests and former priests in the 1980s, charges he initially denied, but fairly quickly acknowledged as the evidence mounted. Because at least one of those men claimed the relationship was coercive, the affair became part of the broader controversy in Catholicism over sexual abuse.

The revelations came amid Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation in early 2013 and the run-up to the election of his successor, forcing O’Brien to announce that he would not take part in that conclave. He has not functioned as a cardinal since, and Friday’s statement makes his withdrawal from public life formal.

A statement issued by the Catholic Church in Scotland said that O’Brien would continue to live outside Scotland until such time as his age and infirmity required that the situation be reviewed.

His case is different from Billot, because O’Brien technically will remain a cardinal and will retain the title, whereas Billot returned to being a Jesuit priest. (Even the Vatican statement on Friday referred to him as “His Eminence Cardinal Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien.”)

The bottom line is that while an ex-cardinal is possible, that’s not quite what we have in O’Brien. He occupies a basically new niche on the ecclesiastical landscape: A titular cardinal, meaning one in name only. Whether that will fully satisfy those most skeptical about the Church’s commitment to accountability remains to be seen.

Thoughts on the pope’s US visit

Here are two basically unrelated thoughts, linked only by the fact that both concern Pope Francis’ looming visit to the United States in September.

One is motivated by a March 9 decision by the US Supreme Court to vacate a lower court ruling that had upheld the Obama administration’s contraception mandate as part of health care reform with regard to the University of Notre Dame. The Supreme Court directed the Seventh Circuit Court of appeals to reconsider in light of the higher court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, which struck down the mandates for closely held for-profit companies.

The March 9 decision was the latest in a string of hints from the Supreme Court that the mandates ultimately won’t pass constitutional muster, at least as things stand, if another case reaches it.

Given that the handwriting seems to be on the wall, the Obama administration may want to find a political compromise that would take the mandates off the table before the pope comes to town, avoiding a potential flashpoint, and looking ahead to 2016 elections in which the “Catholic vote” will once again be in play.

In fact, The New York Times reported Friday that Hillary Rodham Clinton is already reaching out to Catholics: She met last week with New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and sat near the Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, at a St. Patrick’s Day-themed luncheon.

It will be intriguing to see how things evolve between now and September, which may be a preview of how the Democrats intend to approach Catholic outreach in the next election cycle.

Second, many Catholics are already curious about what message Pope Francis will bring to the United States in late September when he visits Washington, New York, and then Philadelphia for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.

It’s an understandable curiosity, especially since it’s clear that some aspects of Francis’ agenda, from immigrant rights and climate change to criticism of efforts to “redefine” the family, are politically combustible here.

It’s important to remember, however, that this is not only Francis’ first visit to the United States as pope, but the first of his life. There’s a sense that he’s probably coming less to speak than to listen and to learn.

Like many Latin Americans, Francis has an innate sense of the political and cultural importance of the United States, combined with a degree of ambivalence about how the United States sometimes chooses to exercise that power. He certainly knows the checkered history of American intervention in the region. That hardly adds up to explicit anti-Americanism, but it does suggest a bit of reserve.

Francis also freely admits he doesn’t know much about the country, and wants to use this trip to form some impressions.

As a result, the outing could have one of two results: Francis could come away confirmed in his instinctive coolness about the United States, or edified by what he sees and hears.

Never underestimate the power of a papal trip to shape a pontiff’s impressions of the country he’s visiting.

When John Paul II came to Denver for World Youth Day in 1993, the run-up was dominated by predictions of protest, backlash, disappointingly small turnout, and an overall embarrassment. In the end, the crowds were large and enthusiastic, and the event was considered a success.

By all accounts, John Paul came away thinking that the dynamic and entrepreneurial Church in America might be part of the solution rather than the problem.

Francis’ 2015 venture could have the same impact on his thinking, assuming that American Catholics put their best foot forward. What that might look like is well worth pondering during the six months left between now and then.

Pope Benedict’s last word

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the longtime aide to Pope Benedict XVI who today acts as Prefect of the Papal Household while continuing to live with his mentor, recently gave an interesting interview to the Italian publication Oggi.

Among other things, Gänswein confessed regret for his role in the notorious Vatican leaks affair, which featured rafters of supposedly confidential Vatican documents showing up in the Italian press.

“I felt, in a sense, responsible for not having adequately supervised, for giving confidence to those who did not deserve it,” he said.

Gänswein was the supervisor for Paolo Gabriele, the Italian layman and former papal butler who acknowledged being the mole and who was pardoned by Benedict after conviction by a Vatican court.

Perhaps the most interesting nugget from the interview is Gänswein’s confirmation that Pope Benedict is not authoring any new theological works because, he says, “he has no more strength to write.”

As a result, Gänswein said, the emeritus pope’s final work will remain his three-volume study of Jesus of Nazareth, which appeared while he was still in office.

Assuming that’s correct, it means that the last word Benedict XVI will ever publish as a theologian came with Volume 3, on the infancy narratives, which appeared in 2012. In the English version, the last paragraph of that book – and hence of the theological career of Joseph Ratzinger – is as follows.

“It becomes quite apparent that he [Christ] is true man and true God, as the Church’s faith expresses it. The interplay between the two is something that we cannot ultimately define. It remains a mystery, and yet it emerges quite concretely in the short narrative about the twelve-year-old Jesus. At the same time, this story opens a door to the figure of Jesus as a whole, which is what the Gospels go on to recount.”

I’d say that’s a fitting way to go out, for two reasons.

First, it illustrates that Benedict was never quite the harsh dogmatic figure of popular myth. He believes that Church teaching marks out some fixed boundaries, but within those limits he’s always had a keen appreciation for mystery.

Part of that is a streak of personal humility, both as a person and a thinker, for which the emeritus pope rarely gets enough credit. Covering him for the better part of a quarter-century, I often had the impression that Ratzinger was actually less sweeping in his pronouncements, not to mention less strident, than some of his critics on both the left and the right.

Second, his last word was an affirmation of the “true man and true God” formula, and in some ways, one could analyze the most tumultuous moments of his career from beginning to end as one long defense of that traditional Christian assertion.

That was the heart of a controversial 2000 Vatican document which he produced, “Dominus Iesus,” concerning the relationship between Christianity and other world religions, and it was also the central issue in one way or another in virtually every disciplinary case that arose on his watch as the Vatican’s doctrinal czar.

Theological minds far more refined than my own have long insisted that the heart of Benedict’s thinking pivots on Christology. If the paragraph above indeed turns out to be his last word, then he’ll likely see it as an appropriate farewell.