This week, Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register published a major sit-down interview with Bishop Bernard Fellay, leader of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, the headline from which was Fellay’s diagnosis that a deal for reunion with Rome is close, coupled with his insistence the society won’t betray its principles to get it.
There was a delicious throw-away line on a different topic, however, which shouldn’t get lost.
At one stage, Pentin asked Fellay about the pope’s repeated denunciations of “doctors of the law” and “fundamentalists,” wondering if Fellay takes those jibes as directed at his society or traditionalists generally. In response, Fellay said he’s asked around Rome what the pope means by that language.
“The answer I got most was ‘conservative Americans!’” Fellay, who’s Swiss, laughingly told Pentin. “So really, frankly, I don’t know.”
One might suspect Fellay was deflecting, except for this: He’s absolutely, one hundred percent right about what one typically hears in Rome on the subject of who leaves this pope cold.
By now, it’s clear that one defining feature both of Francis’ personality and his approach to governance – which shouldn’t be at all surprising, when you think about it – is a distinct ambivalence about the United States and about Americans.
First of all, Francis is Latin American, and resentment of the U.S. is sort of mother’s milk across the region. Latin Americans grow up learning about the U.S. role in coups in Honduras, Chile, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere, and there’s a pervasive belief that the political and economic deck has been stacked to ensure that wealth flows north and hardship stays in the south.
Latin Americans also tend to have long memories, and many still recall moments such as Ronald Reagan’s famous reaction upon returning from a 1982 trip to the region: “You’d be surprised … they’re all individual countries.” The fact that national differences could strike a U.S. president as a revelation still rings in Latin American ears as proof of our capacity for condescension.
Moreover, Latin American bishops tend to feel a gut-level streak of skepticism about the United States that sometimes disposes them to even fairly far-out conspiracy theories.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, for instance, is an urbane, polyglot sophisticate who leads the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisors. Yet back in 2002, when the sex abuse scandals first broke out in the United States, he openly suggested that the crisis was being ginned up by the Jewish-dominated media in the United States to divert attention from the Church’s support for Palestinian statehood.
Rodriguez later walked back from that claim, but it’s indicative of the climate.
Francis also has personal reasons for mixed emotions. He’s well aware that the most overt blowback he’s faced since his election, both inside and outside the Church, has stemmed from the United States.
Repeatedly, he’s been forced by reporters to respond to Rush Limbaugh calling him a Marxist. On a flight on the way back to Rome from Paraguay last July, he acknowledged hearing that “there were some criticisms from the United States” about his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’. Ecclesiastically, there’s no more visible icon of resistance to some of reforming elements of the pontiff’s agenda than American Cardinal Raymond Burke.
It’s probably natural, therefore, that Francis doesn’t always feel warm and fuzzy about the Stars and Stripes.
That ambivalence shows up, for instance, in the fact that American influence in the Vatican today is at a low ebb, with no major Vatican department currently led by someone from the States.
It’s equally telling that the American prelate who’s closest to Francis, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, is known around Rome as il cardinale meno americano degli americani – “the least American of the American cardinals.” (A bearded Capuchin, O’Malley strikes Catholics around the world, and especially in Italy, more as a doppelgänger of Padre Pio than a typical American.)
Prior to his election Francis had never set foot in the United States, making him the only pope in the last eighty years other than St. John XXIII who had never been to America before taking office — and, of course, it would have been far more difficult for Angelo Roncalli to get here in the 1940s or 50s than Jorge Mario Bergoglio in, say, the 1980s or 90s.
Today, when Francis talks about “interests” and “powers” and “forces” behind global political and economic systems he finds unjust, those often appear to be code words for the United States – and that, for the record, was before Donald Trump became a major party candidate for president.
Of course, Francis pulled off a massively successful trip to the United States last September, he has sky-high approval ratings in the country, he remains a darling of the American media, and there’s great grassroots excitement about him in many quarters of the American church.
People close to Francis also say his U.S. trip last year helped him to better distinguish between ordinary Americans and “the system.”
Further, if American stock is down in the Vatican today, it’s arguably no more than turnabout as fair play, since the perception under John Paul and Benedict was that Americans got more than their fair share of papal love.
All that may be true, but the fact remains that for Americans in the Pope Francis era, there’s a basic reality to confront: If you want to be on this pontiff’s A-list, you have to earn it, because your passport just isn’t going to help.