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The Francis narrative is déjà vu in reverse

PLUS: Will the pope enter Chile’s abortion debate, and is Francis a foreign policy hawk or dove?

By John L. Allen Jr.
Associate editor
I find myself asking these days whether it’s possible to have déjà vu in reverse. That is, can one be gripped by the unshakeable impression of having had an experience before, except that it is, weirdly, both the experience we’ve known and its opposite?

If so, that’s what I’ve got right now vis-à-vis public impressions of the pope.

During the John Paul II years, here’s an exchange I had more times than I can count on the lecture circuit, in TV discussions, at cocktail parties, and in pretty much any other venue in which the pope might surface as a conversation topic.

Questioner: Is John Paul stacking the deck among the bishops with conservatives?

Me: Actually, I wouldn’t really say that John Paul is a “conservative,” at least in the conventional American sense of the term. On some subjects, such as economic justice and ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, he’s fairly progressive, and much of his strongest criticism comes from the right.

Questioner: Uh-huh … so, is he stacking the deck with conservatives?


What I ran up against, in other words, was the power of narrative, that conclusory sense of the shape of things that can precede, and often defy, evidence. At some point, impressions of John Paul as an arch-conservative hardened and became impervious to contradiction or correction.

More and more, it seems we’re reaching a similar point with Pope Francis, in which the narrative of him as a progressive reformer is becoming so set in stone as to be beyond rethinking or nuance.

Here’s today’s version of the dynamic I find in much Catholic conversation.

Questioner: Is Pope Francis really out to get conservatives?

Me: In many ways, Francis himself is a conservative. If you look at his views on abortion as part of a “throw-away culture,” or on the end-times and the Devil, or the way in which he believes the developing world is subject to secular “ideological colonization,” it’s hardly the rhetoric of a liberal.

Questioner: Uh-huh … so, is Pope Francis really out to get conservatives?

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I was at a dinner in Rome last week in which a senior churchman, someone who would conventionally be seen as fairly conservative but who’s struggling to give Francis the benefit of the doubt, wondered aloud whether by this time next year we’ll be in a situation in which “orthodox” or “faithful” Catholics have permanently given up on Francis and gone into overt opposition.

Francis certainly has provided raw material for the narrative of him as a liberal maverick, from his crackdown on the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate to his clipping the wings of Cardinal Raymond Burke and on and on.

Yet consider just three developments that cut in a different direction, all from early 2015.

Charlie Hebdo: Francis stirred the waters in January with comments on the Charlie Hebdo attack, basically saying that nothing can ever justify such violence but that one should expect blowback if you go around insulting people’s religious convictions. It was a rejection of the secular gospel of free speech as an absolute good, giving people license to say the vilest things about religion and then posturing as if doing so is somehow a virtue.

(As a footnote, William Donohue of the Catholic League got into hot water for saying essentially the same thing, and he’s nobody’s idea of a liberal firebrand.)

Ideological colonization: During a mid-January trip to the Philippines, Francis delivered a strong attack on efforts to “redefine” marriage and twice blasted the “ideological colonization” of poor nations, basically meaning efforts by Western governments and NGO to force the developing world to adopt a liberal sexual ethic by making it a condition of aid programs.

Francis sent word to the press corps flying back with him to Rome that he wanted to talk about ideological colonization during his airborne news conference, the first time he’d planted a question on one of his trips and thus a signal of how important the subject is to him.

Natural Family Planning: Even the pope’s celebrated recent line about Catholics not having to “breed like rabbits,” which irked many tradition-minded Catholics because it seemed to resurrect an old anti-Catholic slur, was actually offered by Francis in defense of Natural Family Planning.

Sometimes called the “rhythm method,” Natural Family Planning is the Catholic alternative to artificial birth control, designed to space out births by following the body’s natural cycles of fertility and infertility. It’s a passion for the Church’s most ardent pro-life activists, and often seen as archaic, if not a bit embarrassing, by more liberal folks.

None of these recent episodes, in other words, are what one would typically expect from a “liberal” or “progressive” pope.

The fact that a broad swath of opinion, inside and outside the Catholic Church, persists in framing Francis in those terms may say more about the power of narrative than it does about the actual content of the pontiff’s agenda.

Whether things develop into hardened opposition to Francis from the Catholic right to some extent will depend on him, perhaps especially after he decides to do on the vexing question of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics after it’s debated again at the Synod of Bishops on the family in October.

On the other hand, it also will depend to some extent on whether Catholics at the grassroots permit the reality of Francis to shape their narratives about him, or whether they allow their adamant sense of reverse déjà vu to overwhelm reality.

Will the pope enter Chile’s abortion debate?

In the abstract, one might think that having a popular pope who’s got street credibility in secular circles might make politicians less likely to take on the Catholic Church, perhaps especially in the pope’s own backyard in Latin America.

A recent set of developments in Chile, however, suggest that may not be the case, and that eventually Pope Francis may feel compelled to respond.

On Jan. 31, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet introduced a bill to legalize abortion in cases of rape or threats to the life of either the baby or the mother. At the moment, abortion is totally banned in Chile and punishable by up to five years in prison.

In remarks to a local newspaper, the dean of Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University, which also operates a health care network, vowed that abortions will never be performed at Catholic facilities no matter what the law says, insisting that “this is definitive.”

In response, a national deputy for Bachelet’s Socialist Party raised the specter of public appropriation of private Catholic hospitals in the country, saying that “just as members of parliament aren’t above the law, neither are the small priests nor universities.”

By “small priests,” Deputy Marcelo Schilling was using a derogatory construction that means something equivalent to “those damn priests.”

Schilling later said he was “kind of joking” about the idea of nationalizing Catholic hospitals, but did warn that any private health-care provider which refuses to comply with national law might face sanctions, including the loss of public funding.

For his part, the dean of the Catholic university, Ignacio Sanchez, has called Schilling’s comments “completely totalitarian, intolerant, contrary to any democracy and the expression of ideas.”

So far, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati Andrello of Santiago has stayed out of the crossfire, though he did comment in May 2014 when Bachelet first floated the idea of legalizing abortion and at the same time announced that she wanted to introduce a bill strengthening protections for pets.

“With all the respect pets deserve, I believe the life of a human person and child is more important,” Ezzati said at the time.

In general, however, Ezzati is seen as a political and theological moderate who’s called for greater dialogue on contentious social issues.

Especially given that Pope Francis has announced plans to visit Latin America later this year, traveling to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay, it’s striking that Bachelet and her team would choose right now to pick a fight with the Church over what’s long been considered its signature social concern.

Perhaps it’s simply that Bachelet believes now is the right time to move on an issue to which she’s long been committed. On the other hand, it’s hard not to imagine that she would at least have considered how Francis might react, and perhaps impressions about his generally tolerant outlook gave her confidence that whatever blowback she runs into from local bishops will be manageable.

It will be interesting to see how things play out, and in particular whether Francis will feel compelled to get involved in an issue playing out in the part of the world where his social and political reach presumably ought to be the greatest.

Is Francis a foreign policy hawk or dove?

Above, I ticked off some recent developments that don’t quite fit the narrative of Francis as a liberal. The foreign policy front, however, has provided a couple of moments recently that reinforce that narrative, augmenting impressions of Francis and his team as doves.

Yet complicating the picture, the pope’s top diplomat also went on record this week in favor of anti-ISIS military action in Libya, a striking departure from the Vatican’s typical “hands off” stance when it comes to interventions in the Middle East.

The first twist came Feb. 4, when Pope Francis irritated many Ukrainians, including members of his own Greek Catholic flock there, by referring to the violence in the eastern part of the country as “fratricidal.”

Given the conviction of most Ukrainians that the violence is actually being fomented by Russia, the comment grated. Some attributed it to a weak-kneed ecumenical policy in the Vatican of catering to Russian Orthodox sensitivities.

Francis received the Catholic bishops of Ukraine in audience on Friday, telling them “the Holy See is at your side.” He didn’t repeat the “fratricidal” comment, though it’s striking that in a 1,300-word talk, he never referred to “outside forces” or “foreign aggression,” which are the categories through which most Ukrainians would frame the situation.

In another remark that might strike some Ukrainians as hinting at appeasement, the pope also told the bishops on Friday that the Vatican is studying “how to meet the pastoral necessities of those ecclesiastical structures that have found themselves facing new juridical questions.”

That could be read to imply that responsibility for the Church’s footprint in Crimea might be transferred to a Catholic diocese in Russia rather than remaining under the jurisdiction of Ukraine, which many might see as legitimizing Russia’s claims on the territory.

Next up was China.

A Feb. 18 essay from retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze Kiun of Hong Kong, who’s now 83, complained about comments made by the pope’s top diplomat, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who had suggested that a deal for diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing may be close.

“Yes, the prospects are promising,” Parolin was quoted as saying in a late December interview with Rivista San Francesco. “Both sides are willing to talk.”

Zen, who’s long been a hero to hawks on China’s human rights and religious freedom record, was remarkably open in calling Parolin’s line bunk.

“Among my friends, who for a long time have remained concerned with what happens to the Church in China, there is a sense of disbelief,” Zen said immediately after quoting Parolin.

“We find it difficult to go along with this optimism, they say,” Zen wrote. “We do not see any sign that would encourage the hope that the Chinese Communists are about to change their restrictive religious policy.”

Zen likewise criticized a talk Parolin talk gave in praise of the late Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who had pioneered the Vatican’s policy of Ostpolitik, or engagement, in dealing with Communist Eastern Europe.

“This attitude does little to allay our fears and help our confidence,” Zen wrote, noting that Parolin had spoken critically of “gladiators … who like to show themselves in the political arena,” language that Zen obviously felt cut a little close to home.

Zen also pointed to two bishops — Cosma Shi Enxiang of Yixian and Su Zhimin of Baoding, both of whom were arrested by Chinese authorities (in Enxiang’s case, 14 years ago) with no further word on where they are, what condition they’re in, or even if they’re still alive.

“When we see these two venerable bishops deprived of the most fundamental right of human dignity, it is difficult for us to imagine that the representatives of the Holy See can sit down and talk to the Communist Party without chagrin,” Zen wrote.

For hawks on Russia and China, in other words, Francis and his top diplomatic advisors may not seem natural allies.

On the other hand, Parolin did strike a fairly hawkish note this week on another front, essentially calling for an international intervention in Libya to prevent an alliance between that country’s Islamic government and ISIS.

Coming after the recent beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya, which he called “terrifying,” Parolin stressed the need for “a quick response” and said the “situation is grave.”

Granted, Parolin added the usual Vatican caveats to any prospective humanitarian intervention, saying it would have to be carried out according to international law and under the aegis of the United Nations.

Yet given the Vatican’s historical reluctance to countenance any use of force at all in the Middle East, the fact that both Francis and Parolin have come out in support of an international campaign to stop ISIS cannot help but seem a stiffening of resolve — and in any event, it’s not a stereotypically dovish stance.

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