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A Pope Who’s Not About Us

The Catholic theologian Larry Chapp has some really good thoughts about Pope Francis and his interview. Excerpts: First, my first visceral reaction, as many of my friends know, was unvarnished anger. And there is still something in me that finds this situation galling, but in many ways I do not think what angers me is […]

The Catholic theologian Larry Chapp has some really good thoughts about Pope Francis and his interview. Excerpts:

First, my first visceral reaction, as many of my friends know, was unvarnished anger. And there is still something in me that finds this situation galling, but in many ways I do not think what angers me is in any way the Pope’s fault, nor should it be. The biggest issue I have with the interview is not with what the Pope said but with the reaction of the Left in America to that interview. I am an orthodox Catholic theologian in an American cultural setting. That colors my analysis, but I need to be aware that the cultural background of Pope Francis is different from mine. More on that in a bit. But I loathe and despise liberal American Catholicism of the James Martin/Nancy Pelosi type and I think I have good reasons for feeling that way. Quite frankly, I find that kind of “Catholicism” vapid, unintelligent, manipulative, and often vicious. And so the fact that the Pope’s words have emboldened those types and, in their eyes and in the eyes of the Western press, vindicated them, makes me want to wretch. As I have said, it now puts orthodox Catholics involved in the fight for our culture on the defensive. It makes them seem now that they are “disobeying the Pope”, and that Benedict and JPII were awful, and all that bunk. The fact of the matter is this: culture is freaking important damn it. So all of this talk about how the Pope is asking us to move beyond the “culture wars” plays right into the hands of the liberal narrative that “hot button” culture war issues are merely “political” grabs for power lacking in substance or rootedness in a truly Gospel-based and evangelical witness. It plays into the narrative that the Church should either change its teaching on those issues or just drop them and focus instead on philanthropic gestures. This is patent nonsense. The American bishops must now step up to the plate and not just cave-in to that narrative. They must now act as true shepherds and teachers and take the Pope’s call for a change in tone and translate that intelligently for American Catholics in a way that does not throw good people like Robert George under the bus.

But on second thought, Chapp says that the key to understanding Francis is that he is a Latin American, not a European or North American. The issues Latin American Catholicism faces are different from what European and North American Catholicism faces. The greatest challenge Catholicism in Latin America faces is competition from Protestant churches. Chapp:

 And the allure of those sects to many southern hemisphere Catholics is precisely their simplicity of message (very non-doctrinal), their emphasis on faith, Christ, the Bible, prayer and communal fellowship. They also do not foreground issues like contraception and divorce. They are also non-clericalistic and very informal, offering to many Catholics what seems to be a kind of liberation from the very juridical and hierarchical and morality-focused Catholic Church of Latin America. And many Catholics in the southern hemisphere are poor, or at least are surrounded by a culture filled with the poor. And let’s face it, historically, the Catholic Church in Latin America was an “established Church” with close ties to the State, the rich, the ruling classes. Liberation theology started to shift that, but its defects, which even Francis opposed, scuttled their effectiveness.

Maybe, says Chapp, this pope is doing what we’ve all known that some future pope was bound to do one of these days: shift the papacy’s focus away from a rapidly secularizing Europe and Latin America, towards the Global South, where Christianity’s future lies. If conservative/orthodox Catholics in the US feel abandoned, Chapp says, well, that might just be how it’s going to be. Read the whole thing on Chapp’s Facebook feed. I appreciated his insights so much. I think the Pope’s interview really does reinvigorate the Catholic Left in the US, alas, but then again, Francis is the pope of the whole world, not just North America.

UPDATE: Or maybe not. From the combox:

Mr. Dreher, I’m Latin American (Brazilian) and, let me tell you, this explanation is bunk.

The “very juridical and hierarchical and morality-focused Catholic Church of Latin America” has not existed for fifty years. It was replaced by exactly the Church that Pope Francis seems to want. The results have not been impressive, to say the least. There’s no reason to think that more of the same will give different results.

The section that describes the new Evangelical Protestants as not putting the culture war agenda in the foreground is, again, precisely backwards. They do precisely that which Mr Chapp says they don’t. They are very, very morally strict, which is why they grow so fast in the poorest areas: they give order to the disordered lives of the very poor, who come from generations of poverty and broken homes and have never known anything better. They take a huge portion of the poor’s meagre income in tithes and “gifts”… and even then the poor are better off in these churches, because the order the church gives, much like a military boot camp, helps them to plan for the future, educate themselves, not fall into drugs, not have multiple children out of wedlock, etc.

And this is not just inwards. The politicians elected by the Evangelicals are at the forefront of the resistance to homosexual “marriage”, to abortion, and most of the left’s culture war agenda. In my own country, abortion would have been legalized a few years ago if not for the resistance organized by the Evangelical politician-preachers across almost all parties – a fight in which, by the way, the Catholic hierarchy was entirely silent. If the Church retreats from these issues, the pull of the Evangelical Protestant churches will only INCREASE throughout Latin America.

To sum up, as we say here, when “the Church chose the poor, the poor chose the Protestants”.

UPDATE.2: First Things editor Rusty Reno has some mild praise for Pope Francis and his interview, but doesn’t blame the secular media for emphasizing all the progressivist-friendly stuff in the interview. Reno, who taught at a Jesuit university, says this is more or less how Jesuits talk, and one isn’t necessarily biased to read an agenda into the pope’s words, even those that sound relatively anodyne. Excerpts:

Such comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame. It’s one in which Catholics loyal to the magisterium are “juridical” and “small-minded.” They fear change, lacking the courage to live “on the margins.” I heard these and other dismissive characterizations again and again during my twenty years teaching at a Jesuit university. One of my colleagues insisted again and again that the greatest challenge we face in the classroom is “Catholic fundamentalism,” when in fact very few students today even know the Church’s teachings, much less hold them with an undue ardency.


But Pope Francis has been undisciplined in his rhetoric, casually using standard modern formulations, ones that are used to beat up on faithful Catholics—“audacity and courage” means those who question Church teachings, the juxtaposition of the “small-minded” traditionalists to the brave and open liberals who are “in dialogue”, and so forth. This gives everything he says progressive connotations. As a consequence, American readers, and perhaps European ones as well, intuitively read a progressivism into Pope Francis’ statements about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. Thus the headlines.

This is not helpful, at least not in the field hospital of the American Church. We face a secular culture that has a doctrine of Unconditional Surrender. It will not accept “talking less” about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. The only acceptable outcome is agreement—or silence. Dialogue? Catholic higher education has been doing that for fifty years, and the result has been the secularization of the vast majority of colleges and universities. Today at Fordham or Georgetown, the only people talking about contraception, gay rights, or gay marriage are the advocates.

Yesterday:’Spirit Of Vatican II’::Today:’Spirit of Pope Francis’

UPDATE.3: Rorate Caeli translates the Sunday newspaper column by Juan Manuel de Prada, a Spanish Catholic writer who, the blog says, suffered professionally for standing up for the unpopular teachings of the Church. And then he read Pope Francis’s interview. Now what? Excerpt:

I who am the most senseless man in the world spent many years delivering myself joyfully into martyrdom, in a battle with the world that left me in shreds, with my literary career thrown in the wastebasket and turned into the laughing stock of all my colleagues; and I made this daily exercise of immolation joyfully, because I considered that my obligation was not to please the world, but to fight it until my last breath.

Where there were nests yesteryear there are no birds this year, Don Quixote tells us, when he comes back to his senses. I am unaware if I was insane before; but today, reading a certain interview that kicked up a dust cloud, I felt that I played the fool during all these years.

And, following the example of the distinguished interviewee, I will dedicate myself from this day forward to pleasing and flattering the world, in order to avoid its condemnation.



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