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Rome – Over the last few days, two storylines have played out simultaneously in the American media. One is the death and funeral of Pope Benedict XVI, including the divisions in the Catholic Church Benedict’s unique status in retirement came to symbolize, and the other the gridlock in the House of Representatives over the choice of a new Speaker.
As a thought exercise, it’s worth asking: Are these actually two chapters of the same story, i.e., the increasing inability of great historical institutions to manage their internal diversity?
Let’s begin with the Benedict XVI story, where the late pontiff wasn’t even buried before he was once again being drafted into the culture wars in Catholicism.
For one thing, some Benedict devotees were disenchanted with what they regarded as the excessively low-key approach to his funeral, including a homily from Pope Francis that didn’t contain much by way of personal reflections or tributes to his predecessor.
“Can’t believe what I just heard,” said prominent conservative Rod Dreher in a tweet. “What a disgraceful act. A sign of immense disrespect.” The conservative Italian Catholic web site Silere non possum complained that Benedict was given no more than “a funeral like any other cardinal.”
Then there’s the figure of German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the right-hand man of the late pontiff, who’s given explosive interviews around the death of his mentor and who also has a new tell-all book set for release this month.
In an interview with the German newspaper Die Tagespost, Gänswein said that a 2021 decree by Pope Francis reversing Benedict’s decision to liberalize permission for celebration of the old Latin Mass “hit him pretty hard,” referring to the late pontiff.
“I believe it broke Pope Benedict’s heart” to read the decree, Gänswein said.
In addition, excerpts from the new book include a passage in which Gänswein describes being “shocked and speechless” when Pope Francis told him in 2020 that while he would remain on the books as Prefect of the Papal Household, he wasn’t to come to work anymore starting the next day, he would no longer appear with Francis in public, and in general his only role would be as a caretaker to Benedict XVI.
In effect, Gänswein said, he became “a prefect cut in half.” When he relayed the news to Benedict, he said, the late pontiff responded jokingly by saying, “I think Pope Francis doesn’t trust me any more and wants you to keep an eye on me.”
Gänswein added that the problem “wasn’t so much the coexistence of two popes, one reigning and one emeritus, so much as the birth and development of two fan bases.”
Here’s how veteran Italian journalist Massimo Franco summarized the situation:
“The most radical wings of Catholicism have been taking their mutual differences to extremes for some time, and the most orthodox current of Catholicism is in turmoil. Now that Ratzinger’s moderating deflector is missing, the dam promises to break.”
Meanwhile in the U.S. House, yesterday’s 11th ballot came and went without the election of Representative Kevin McCarthy as Speaker, despite the that he’s served as minority leader since 2019.
The most protracted fight over the speakership since 1859 effectively has brought the House of Representatives to a grinding halt, as hard-right members of the Republican caucus continue to demand an ill-defined set of concessions. Their recalcitrance reflects a lack of faith in McCarthy’s conservative credentials, despite the fact that former President Donald Trump recently called on Republicans to back McCarthy.
Here’s the common term in both the Benedict XVI and the McCarthy dramas.
By design, the Catholic Church is supposed to be the sacrament of the unity of the human family; as James Joyce famously put it in in Finnegan’s Wake, “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody’.” The fact that Catholicism could accommodate a former pontiff while his successor took the church in a different direction should have been a towering expression of its “both/and” genius, something to celebrate rather than lament, yet here we are.
Similarly, the U.S. House of Representatives is supposed to be the “People’s House,” as diverse as the American people themselves. It’s also supposed to be a chamber in which those differences come together to serve the common good, forging national policy that’s stronger because it reflects the best of differing outlooks and instincts.
Once again, however, here we are, with one party so divided that the House itself is struggling to stand.
(As proof that these two stories are bleeding into one another, many wags are already comparing the Speaker’s race to the infamous papal election of Viterbo, which lasted from 1268 to 1271 and produced rules requiring the cardinals to be locked in – hence the term “conclave,” meaning “with a key” – and their food to be rationed until they produced a pope.)
If there is any hope for these two grand institutions to recapture their equilibrium, it may be more at the grassroots than either the leadership or the activist classes.
In the recent US midterm elections, we saw voters generally rejecting candidates at the far edges. For the first time in decades, split-ticket voting, meaning when voters choose a Democrat in one race but a Republican in another, appeared to increase, in contrast to the extreme partisan polarization of recent elections.
Though one swallow does not a summer make, the midterms at least hinted at an American electorate weary of extremism.
Similarly in Catholicism, if you were to survey Catholic faithful around the world, I suspect the overwhelming majority would say they admire both Benedict and Francis, and don’t see their affection for one coming at the expense of their loyalty for the other.
Here’s an interesting fact: According to a Pew Research Center survey in October 2021, three months after Pope Francis issued his decree on the Latin Mass reversing Benedict’s policy, 65 percent of American Catholics didn’t even know he’d done it, despite the best efforts of pundits and partisans to whip them into a frenzy.
The Catholic base, in other words, generally has a healthy disinterest in most matters of church politics, and is therefore capable of loving both a “conservative” and a “liberal” pope without ideological disorientation.
None of that, of course, means divisions in either American politics or Catholicism will disappear magically. It does, however, perhaps offer some hope that in the long run, sanity still has a fighting chance.