The Francis Effect…and Gorby-mania

The Francis Effect…and Gorby-mania

[December 27, 2013]


Pope Francis has captured the world’s imagination less than ten months after his March 13, 2013 election:

TIME’s Person of the Year;

The New Yorker’s recent 9,000 word profile by prominent Catholic author James Carroll;

Person of the Year from The Advocate, a gay-rights monthly; and

Rock-star crowds at Wednesday General Audiences in Rome.

Those of a certain age recall the Gorby-mania that swept us up in the mid-1980s after the Politburo’s surprise selection in March, 1985 of Mikhail Sergeyevitch Gorbachev (barely 54) as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

This came after almost twenty years of sclerotic leadership by Leonid Brezhnev (whose IQ was smaller than his wife’s bra size), followed briefly by two forgotten hacks in the Kremlin’s curia (ok, Yuri Andropov and Konstantine Chernenko, if you insist).

[Footnote: today is the 34th anniversary of the USSR’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, one of Brezhnev’s few proactive decisions, and a geopolitical blunder that Gorbachev reversed after a costly and fruitless decade of fighting.]

Gorby” was selected by TIME as ‘Man of the Decade’ in early 1990. But two years later he resigned as head of state upon the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Sic transit gloria Gorby.

What are the lessons learned, apart from the obvious one, i.e. the curse that descends on many athletes who grace the cover of TIME’s Sports Illustrated publication?

That faith-based empires, whether the USSR, the Church or TIME Inc. itself, are increasingly vulnerable to instability caused by the pervasive effects of media that democratize information and move it globally at warp speed (faster, actually).

Media paradigm shifts are not kind to empires that seek to control information flows. The catalyst for the Reformation in the 16th century is generally considered to have been the introduction of the movable-type printing press in Europe in 1450 (‘introduction’, not ‘invention’, since this was old stuff in Asia).

The TIME story, probably the most widely read assessment of this young papacy in the U.S., is important as a shaper of popular attitudes. Generally, it is (as intended) a wide-ranging review of a papacy with great promise, made accessible by minimizing the clerical-speak; and by touching on most (but not all) important issues, but to varying degrees.

IMO, however, two important themes that run throughout the article that should have been developed much further:

Bergoglio’s formation as a Argentine Jesuit, entering the seminary in 1956 and taking final vows in 1970, with his priestly local service spanning more than five decades; and

The vexing issues facing the Church, dating back to Pope Paul’s encyclical on birth control in 1968.

In addition the TIME article has a fascinating centerfold (not that kind, please) with a graphic on the Church’s presence in major continental regions. It may come as a surprise that the U.S. Catholics account for only 5% of the global Catholic flock, which – strangely – tracks almost precisely with the U.S. share of global population, also 5%. This would have been worth more commentary because demographics, religious and secular, are important shapers of the future. But in the interest of brevity (not my default setting) I will leave this for a later post.

The Argentine Years of Jorge Mario Bergoglio

(Don’t cry for me Argentina, I’m the one who should cry)

A few aspects of Bergoglio’s formation are touched upon, but would have benefited from more analysis (The Economist), and less coloratura (People Magazine):

His late blooming vocation and final orders,

His selection of the Society of Jesus,

The turbulent political/economic context of Argentina.

Unlike most priestly vocations, including many American clerics who process directly from high school to the seminary (or even earlier, into the junior seminary in their mid-teens), Bergoglio entered the Jesuit novitiate at age 21, and did not take final vows until 1973 – in his mid-30s. Par for the grueling Jesuit apprenticeship course before final vows, which means that young Bergoglio was probably a full decade older than the typical diocesan priest at ordination. Contrast this depth of life experience and maturity with that of many seminary graduates in their early 20s.

Regarding his chosen priestly path as a Jesuit, with all due respect in the closed universe of Catholic religious training the difference between a diocesan recruit and a Jesuit novice is something like what separates an Army private from an aspiring Navy SEAL.

Over almost five centuries since the order’s founding by a convalescent Spanish soldier, the Jesuits’ discipline and single-mindedness have been become the stuff of legend. And these were probably factors in banning of the order by several nations, as well as by one pope (Clement XIV in 1773).

The Jesuits’ well-honed ability to reason, parse and dissect has given several languages an adjective that is not altogether flattering. From the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “Jesuitical…given to intrigue or equivocation.” TIME sanitizes all this into a casual phrase, “a very canny operator’.

But the Jesuits’ masterful use of words and dialectics suggests that the statements of the first-ever Jesuit pope should be assessed very carefully; count the syllables. It also suggests that being mindful of the enormous reach of his words, some of his off-the-cuff comments (“a braccio”) may actually be the product of well-rehearsed spontaneity.

Interestingly, Francis’ most discussed statements do not come from his 48,000-word Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, but from comments delivered in extra-papal settings, notably,

Who am I to judge;” in a flight from Brazil to Italy; and

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods;” summer interview Jesuit publication La Civilta’ Cattolica.

Perhaps his most surprising comment, at least for the conservative wing of the episcopate and the flock, was something not featured in TIME, but picked up in Carroll’s New Yorker article. In correspondence with one of Italy’s most prominent atheists, co-founder and editor of L’espresso (no, not the caffe; but the leading weekly for the Italian secular left), Francis wrote:

I would not speak about ‘absolute’ truths even for believers…Truth is a relationship. As such, each of us receives the truth…according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life…

Finally, what about Bergoglio’s 76 years of life experience in Argentina until his elevation to the papacy?

The history of Argentina since World War II is not a happy one. Coming out of that global conflict as a neutral with a strong economy that benefited from lucrative trade with belligerents on both sides, but none of the shattering human and material losses of many of the warring nations, it might have been thought that Argentina would thrive in the postwar era, blessed by economic prosperity and political stability.

Not so…its political economy is a puzzlement to the experts, considering the nation’s rich resource endowment and its potential. But that has not materialized, judging by chronic government instability and economic crises.

Politically, Argentina has had a sequence of just about every imaginable regime, excluding perhaps the Leninist model of a ‘peoples democracy’, but including fragile democracies; military juntas; and bouts of populism pushed to Peronista extremes. This eclectic mixture – and especially the recurring bouts of Peronismo – has shaped Francis’ views on economics, to the audible dismay of Rush Limbaugh et al.

The widows of two presidents of Argentina have risen to national leadership:

Not Evita, as Broadway fans might conclude, but Juan Peron’s second wife, Isabel Martinez de Peron; and

The incumbent president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, known as CFK.

The mid-1970s to early 1980s were especially bad, with a Dirty War marking the years of the military dictatorship, 1976 through 1983. Perhaps ironically, it was another woman who brought about the junta’s eventual downfall: The Iron Lady herself, Maggie Thatcher.

During many of these years of near civil war, Bergoglio served a six-year term as leader of the Jesuit order in Argentina, from 1973 through 1979. Given the strength of the Church in Argentina, the important role of the Jesuits, and the viciousness of the urban warfare that erupted at the time, it was probably impossible for Father Bergoglio, S.J. to come through this period without criticism.

Retrospectively, he has acknowledged ‘errors’ and ‘sins’, and criticized his own leadership in fairly scathing terms. From Carroll’s profile, quoting Francis self-assessment:

My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems…”

Francis is not the only Catholic prelate to have been scarred by the terrible moral choices that arise under the circumstances of civil war. But he is perhaps unique in having accepted fulsomely his personal responsibility.

And it is a damn sight better than anything that was ever heard from such American luminaries as Bernard Law, Justin Rigali and Roger Mahony regarding clerical sex abuse during their diocesan watches in Boston, Philly and LA.

Beyond that, and what is missing from the soft-focus of the TIME article, is the fact that someone, endowed with ex cathedra infallibility (a piece of dogma jammed through in very dubious fashion by Pope Pius IX at the tail end of his Ecumenical Council of 1870), can man up to a human failing.

Those Pesky Pelvic Issues (plus a few profane ones)

we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage…

Predictably, some in the American hierarchy are trying to explain this away…media distortion, out of context, wait for clarification, give him more time, and other weasel words of this genre.

But a few bishops have ventured into outright criticism of Christ’s vicar on earth, notably Rhode Island’s Bishop Thomas Tobin, perhaps emboldened by the fact that his diocese, the Ocean State, has the highest percentage of Catholics in the U.S. (59%):

Our commitment to human life is important. Some have said that this commitment can be an obsession” (Boston Globe, December 10, 2013).

Whatever your position on this wrenching issue, it has to be said without any irony that Tobin’s unambiguous statement is decidedly more honorable than some of the sotto voce sniping by other American prelates. But not as laughable as a couple of bizarre statements from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, emphasizing issues the pope would de-emphasize on “Meet the Press”:

“[the Church was being] caricatured as anti-gay;”

Sure, nothing wrong with caricaturing a multitude of Catholics as “intrinsically disordered’, I guess. But attenzione, prelates who live in stained-glass rectories should be careful.

And this other Dolan dictum:

The Church has been “out-marketed” on the issue of same-sex marriage by Hollywood.

How ‘New York’ of Sua Eminenza, just get the packaging right and our product will sell itself; no need to worry about content.

But who will bear the cost of a full-blooded marketing campaign, with Super Bowl XLVIII advertising rates above $4 million for 30 seconds?

Non es problema; just sell off a Chelsea church for the $50 million in the executed purchase-and-sale; that’ll buy you more than six minutes of prime time.

Or maybe list for sale a Little Italy Catholic School; ask for $29 million, and make the announcement on Christmas Eve, while the flock is distracted by religion and family…

Francis has convened a Bishops Synod for October, 2014, an Extraordinary General Sessions to discuss “challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.

Think of a Bishops Synod as the venue for a robust doctrinal debate, with opposing viewpoints swaddled in expressions of esteem and collegiality; something like a convention of Massachusetts Democrats, but minus the profound spirituality of those proceedings.

Until the Synod meets next fall, one may expect more papal comments delivered in a variety of settings. In addition to what has been said, and what will be signaled, attention should also be paid to what is not put up for discussion.

In this regard, one of the major disappointments since March 13, 2013, may be the issue of women. TIME quotes Francis on this,

The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions

Well, again with all due respect, then why are there only Mens Rooms at the Conclave?

TIME tries to come off fair-and-balanced by reporting that

the real significance of these new horizons [for women who expect equal protection and rights] will likely come in countries where the stakes for women are far higher that just the question of ordination.”

These stakes include female genital mutilation and access to university education for women.

But TIME forgets that bestowing kudos for merely opposing an egregious crime is literally grotesque, out of proportion. The basic problem for the Church remains its female dilemma, Madonna or whore?

Rafaello solved this in the 16th century by painting ethereal Madonnas for his Vatican patrons, while saving his lusty masterpiece, La Fornarina (The Bakeress), for one of Rome’s wealthy families.

Today that dichotomy simply does not work. Yet the attitudes of the senior clergy remain mired in the distant past, and that is something that Francis will have to address. The ridiculous epitome of this was witnessed in Boston during the 2004 Lenten season, when the recently installed archbishop declined to wash the feet of women, although his unlamented predecessor – Bernard Law – had no such compunctions. The archbishop’s damage control consisted in a pledge ‘to seek guidance on whether he should wash women’s feet’ on his next trip to Rome, months away. But Eccellenza, if you have to ask, why bother?

Getting beyond the efforts of elderly, self-described celibate clerics to instruct us on how to control the Eros demons of our lesser natures, just a couple of profane (and somewhat sordid) issues should be noted, Bishop Bling and – yes – the Vatican Bank.

TIME gives the livin’ large bishop of Limburg, Germany, a bit of ink, reporting that Franz-Peter Tebart van-Elst, was suspended for overseeing a

“…$42.5 million renovation of the church residence that includes a $20,500 bathtub…”

But the suspension is not the whole story. What is publicly known at present is that he remains ‘suspended’ but not removed from office, with his episcopal see being administered by his designated deputy. Behind the scenes there is a tug-of-war between a German clerical mafia based in Rome, and shielding the bishop; against others within the hierarchy of Germany who would like to see the bishop ousted from office.

Concerning the Vatican Bank (“IOR”), all is quiet in the TIME article; there is merely a fleeting mention, upfront, of the Vatican’s “immense wealth,” but nothing about the IOR; strange, but consistent with the unspoken elephant-in-the-room approach taken in Rome.

As of now some things have happened, and some important things have not happened:

➢ The option of getting the Holy See out of the banking business seems to be off-the-table;

➢ A flurry of progress has been reported, with the IOR moving towards compliance with European Union transparency standards, tightened criteria for accepting depositors, and rapid reporting of suspicious transactions;

➢ A new Direttore Generale has been named, Rolando Marranci, promoted up from the ranks where he served as deputy DG; and

➢ Yet another Vatican overseer for the IOR, layered on top of the various commissions and prelates: the pope’s own private secretary, Monsignor Alfred Wuereb (from Malta) to watch over things…The Maltese Falcon, so to speak.

However, two rather important things have not happened:

➢ Former secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, remains the ‘president’ of the bank’s Commissione Cardinalizia, its supervisory board; this is the body that ratified the appointment of Dr. Marranci as the new DG;

➢ And ‘Suitcase Scarano’, Monsignor Nunzio Scarano arrested in June at a Rome airport with €20 million cash in his valise, is still in a Rome jail.


The TIME article highlights the “tone and temperament” of Francis, while granting that “he has not changed the words.”

This tension between style and substance, presentation and message, is a recurring theme among observers.

But perhaps it is more illuminating to consider the arc of Mikhail Gorbachev as a would-be reformer from 1985 to 1991. First of all, there is no doubt that Gorbachev was a life-long product of the Soviet system, not someone infiltrated by the capitalist West to destroy the USSR…the Politburo needed no help in that regard.

The pillars of his policy were glasnost (transparency) and perestroika (restructuring); not unlike Francis’ efforts at clearer messaging, and his Council of Eight for restructuring the curia.

‘Suspicious Minds’ in the West thought that Gorby’s new policies were just a Commie trick, at least until the late 1980s.

But what many observers, inside and outside, missed was the fact that pent-up centrifugal forces within the Soviet Union’s republics could not be controlled by gradual, piece-meal reforms; and the die-hard Communists could not accept even meager concessions.

So the philosophical debate between style and substance may miss the point that in a rigidly controlled empire, secular or faith-based, an effort from the top to accommodate long-standing grievances through symbols and gestures may unleash forces beyond one’s control or imagining.

From Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it

decides to reform.