Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Ambiguous codes, Catholic media powerplays and the Franciscan tsunami

I keep reading comments by various ecclesiastical commentators or bigwigs - everyone from Mark Shea and Jeff Mirus to Archbishops Timothy Dolan and Vincent Nichols - all affirming most heartily that Francis is very straight when it comes to doctrine and the teachings of the Church. Of course, they would claim to be reacting to the liberal or hard-conservative readings of the papal interview. Those who try to harness Francis to their liberal cause are on a hiding to nothing, they say.

But there is something deeper here which makes their campaign rather difficult to manage, and it just comes back (once again) to Pope Francis's use of language. The fact is that unwittingly he often expresses himself in the codes that liberal Catholics use. When he says, for example: The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently, he does so apparently without a thought for the connotations of such a proposition. But in a liberal mind, that is simply code for, Don't worry about the doctrine, God loves ya. When he says, The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules, your liberal Catholic knows just what kind of rules this can be applied to. I could give you another half a dozen examples, but anyone who has read the interview will see that what I'm saying is true. Francis uses - unwittingly, I'm sure - multiple citations from the liberal Catholic phrase book. Another blogger here - one not tainted with my leprous associations - says something similar.

That is another reason why the liberal media thinks it has understood Francis. When, for example, Francis says,

I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

that little rhetorical question at the end speaks volumes to the liberal world. To them, this is not an impasse, and surely, they think, it cannot be an impasse to jolly old Francis either. After all, Francis is such an optimist! He wouldn't be asking this question if he were at an impasse, right?

Others will argue that there are enough remarks in the interview to prove that he is not intending to posit a liberal solution to such a dilemma. He criticizes the lax confessor who says something is not a sin, and - how often have we heard this one in the last week? - says he is a 'son of the Church'. But here's the thing. My wife would regard me with the highest suspicion if I tenderly held the hand of one of my female friends, however much I protested my fidelity: not because she doubts my words but because I would have used a code which is often used to mean something else. I understand that those butch Mujahideen who fought years against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, would walk through the mountains holding hands with each other, much to the amusement of their CIA or SAS trainers; transport them into Manchester's Gay Village and the possibility for cultural misunderstandings could not be higher! (Watch out, some numbskull is now going to say I'm arguing that Francis is gay). Likewise, the more Francis multiplies his use of what in the western context seems unmistakeably to be the liberal code, the more I find myself double-checking everything he says, even when he says something really quite good (like his remarks today about catechetics). I'm not alone in feeling this way.


In my view, it is precisely because of such ambiguities, that we now see an interpretive powerplay unfolding within the Church's media. It is happening here in the UK, as it is happening elsewhere. Of course, it is about Francis and about what Francis means. On the liberal wing, The Tablet is spinning for all it is worth. On the conservative wing, so too is The Catholic Herald.

I'll leave it to others to talk about The Tablet. I never buy a copy and you cannot read much of it online. Proof of the spin on the Herald's side, however, is to be found in their editorial piece this week in which they reflect on the papal interview. Like many other parties, they are now joining in the chorus initiated by Francis which asserts that the world cannot hear the Gospel because of the disjointed and persistent doctrinal tub thumping of the Catholic hordes. I find myself incredulous before such claims, living as I do in the doctrine-lite paradise of England and Wales. Irish Catholicism has been even more doctrine-lite than the English version, even if they have a historical problem with sex. Francis might just about be forgiven for making a wild generalisation; I'm afraid we must resign ourselves to his frequent sloppiness. But it is curious to find all kinds of people rushing to affirm that this putative doctrinal imbalance - this caricature which is the work of the Church's enemies, which is only weakly illustrated by very isolated excesses, and which is being confused with an accurate assessment of the Church's tactics - has done damage to their own house.

Fr Z this evening publishes the words of Rod Dreher, a man who tragically left the Roman communion, who claims just the opposite: one of the things that drove him out is that in twenty years, for every word he has heard about doctrine, he heard 10,000 more about love - and very often love in the declensions provided by fashionable psychology. Still, I should not have to remind the Catholic Herald about the doctrinal mess prevailing in England and Wales. We all know the score. We all know how profoundly ignorant of Catholic doctrine - and thereby incapable of doctrinal tub thumping of any kind - most English Catholics are.

So, let us ask then: why is the Herald now buying into this falsehood, or let's be kind and call it this almost useless generalisation? Because whatever happens now, it and other conservatives must make a powerplay to get the Francis narrative under their control. It knows he is using the liberal codes. It is smart enough to know how damaging that could be. So it is working might and main, and in the process, it must concede this perverse generalisation on which the liberals are going to trade for years to come; it just has to try to hawk the right solution to it. If the liberal version of Francis prevails in the UK - I say prevail, but I should say comes to graft itself onto the doctrine-lite version of Catholicism that we all know in these isles - that would be a disaster. The fact that the Herald is prepared to pay the price - the price of asserting doctrinal imbalance or overemphasis in a national context where the doctrinal volume has been set almost on mute for decades; the words the Herald uses are "in Ireland and even closer to home" - is proof of how very dangerous the situation is. Lose control of the Francis narrative at your peril. If Francis wasn't using a liberal code so often of course, the game would not be half as difficult.


Meanwhile, the Franciscan tsunami is washing over us. Somewhere in it is a rather beautiful message about love of God but I find it is spoiled by a lot of flotsam, not to mention the understandable screams of those who are terrified of its unwitting and possibly enduring damage to orthodox projects under construction. Whatever else might survive now, I have a sense that what Paul Virilio calls the synchronization of collective emotion is going to consign people like me - and other lingering doubters, however modestly they express themselves - to the outer darkness. And if you don't believe me, perhaps you have never tried crossing a rainbow-stole wearing priest in crappy sandals talking about love. The chances are that such creatures are coming back (I know some never went away)... and they'll be able to cite a liberal code-talking pope to support them (except when he is teaching full-fat doctrine).

Oh yes, after a conservative ultramontane, hell hath no fury like a selectively ultramontane liberal.


Liam Ronan said...

Damn fine piece of cogent writing my friend. Salute!
My gut warns me there is something much more menacing afoot here and we are about to see it played out.
Pray the Rosary and keep the Faith.

Salve, sancta parens! said...

The last time I read about tsunamis, 19,000 people died in Japan and 300,000 people died in Indonesia. Tsunamis spell disaster.

Anagnostis said...

Rod Dreher left the Roman communion years ago. He was Orthodox at least a year before me, but his conversion was certainly not influential on mine. I never understood how disgust with modern Catholicism took one any closer to being Orthodox, and I don't think his continuing preoccupation with Roman stuff is a particularly healthy indication. I am at least secure in the knowledge of having departed in the reign of a Pope I loved and appreciated. Why on earth should an uncongenial Pope make the slightest difference to the content of one's faith? Uncongenial Popes are as inevitable as death and taxes.

Ches said...

Thanks, I have corrected the error. (Been wondering if you'd show up).

Anagnostis said...

I heard all the shouting from next door. I was concerned. I'm not going to stick my bugle in, though, except to remark that none of this gives me any satisfaction whatsoever. What a series of nightmares, rolled into one.