“No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.” Pope Francis to Antonio Spadaro SJ
What is a conservative, really?
I am not much of a political theorist, but such is my interest in the health and welfare of the Catholic Church that I have begun to think about the phenomenon of politics within that context. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines political conservatism as: “A preference for the historically inherited rather than the abstract and ideal. This preference has traditionally rested on an organic conception of society—that is, on the belief that society is not merely a loose collection of individuals but a living organism comprising closely connected, interdependent members.”
That sounds pretty close, really, to the position of Pope Francis, as instanced above. The quote comes from a famous interview with the Holy Father’s fellow Jesuit, Antonio Spadaro, which was published in the Italian Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica, and also in the American Jesuit periodical, America. It provided a new occasion to observe the flurry of sound-bite seizing on the part of the liberal secular press, exasperation on the part of conservative bloggers, and careful rebuttal of both extremes among some of the more thoughtful commentators, such as veteran vaticanist Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican.
To understand conservative nervousness about the new Pope’s style of tell-all thought processes, one has to understand what a radical misunderstanding lies behind reportage of the interview in something like the New York Times.
“Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown ‘obsessed’ with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.” This is how the piece opened, and it went on to contrast Francis’s “inclusive” vision of the Church with that of “his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the doctrinal defender who envisioned a smaller, purer church.”
Obviously this take completely fails to comprehend the “hermeneutic of continuity” between the two Popes (and the Pope previous to them both, Blessed John Paul II). Three men very different from one another, a Pole, a German and an Argentine, with diverse life experiences in the midst of particular cultures and histories. With the fuss being made of Pope Francis’ “innovations” in the secular press, it is easy to forget that John Paul II also stirred things up when he became Pope. A true son of the Second Vatican Council, whose reforms he worked hard to implement in his diocese in Poland, he brought a breath of fresh air to the papacy.
Benedict displayed a similar intellectual independence in the way he expressed himself, culminating in an important ecumenical contribution, the masterly three-part work of biblical exegesis, Jesus of Nazareth, in which he put paid for all time to the notion that the Catholic Church is out of touch with modern scholarship. He calmly addressed the good, the bad and the ugly, and honed away the latter two to leave us with the first. Benedict’s grasp of modern philosophical conundrums, and their cultural effects, is also apparent in his other writings and statements, right up to the final addresses made in the liberating days before he stepped down from his office. That gesture perhaps summed up more than anything else the interior freedom from which he acted, even whilst under the most excruciating political pressure from rival factions within the curia and beyond. What we now have can almost be described as a double papacy (not literally, but the charisms of the present Pope and the Pope emeritus are blending to an extent that will take more historical hindsight to unpack adequately).
The overall point that the liberal consensus, whether inside the Church or outside of it, fails to grasp is that true conservatism may sometimes speak with a self-critical voice. This is because to conserve what is of value, let alone what pertains to eternity, you sometimes have to take a radical peek at why it is failing to convince, and thus failing to conserve. The Church has been massively harmed by a number of things: the child abuse scandals, power struggles within her ranks, and most of all the hypocrisy at the heart of powerful and supposedly conservative “movements” such as the Legionaries of Christ. Benedict XVI saw that for all his extraordinary intellectual gifts, he was too frail to oversee and adequately respond to the dogged determination of forces such as these to resist all attempts at oversight and reform. Such is the double-think of people who are wedded, not to Holy Mother Church, but to their own cliques and “lobbies” and personal ambitions, that no amount of gentle Germanic shepherding could prevail with them.
Perhaps it is going to take a bit of passionate Hispanic butt-kicking to shift the situation. And in Bergoglio, the Cardinals knew they had someone who had a track record of doing this without losing sight of the essential perspective for lasting renewal: the perspective of mercy. He knows that what he is up against is not, in the end, some human conspiracy, but the battle of powers and principalities whose common denominator is a lack of that divine vision which transforms everything. “The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.” A statement worthy of Blessed John Henry Newman—another ecclesial genius much misunderstood by the factions which surrounded him at the time.
The Encyclopedia Britannica article cites another take on conservatism, the somewhat cynical one of early 20th century American writer Ambrose Bierce. He defined the Conservative as someone “who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” Allowing for the fact that this quip was made in the context of secular politics, it nonetheless speaks to what Pope Francis is trying to avoid: tolerating intolerable attitudes and situations. And yet he does not want to rush naively into the fray with ideas or initiatives that may only make things even worse. His own history, described in the Spadaro interview, has taught him that merely imposing his will in an authoritarian fashion is not going to solve problems.
He is doubtless aware that both conservatives and liberals within the Church are capable of this kind of authoritarianism—over my thirty years as a Catholic, I have witnessed instances where one-sided ecclesiology results in a thoughtless throwing around of clerical weight. Whether it’s a contempt for old-fashioned devotion and the need for beauty, or the homiletic harangue which leaves two-thirds of the congregation in a daze of alienated stupor, the issue is really an inability to walk humbly amidst the sheep and share what Pope Francis has termed the oil of the priestly unction.
If you read the whole of the Spadaro interview (and really no one has any right to comment on it unless they do), you discover, I think, the “reason” for this Franciscan moment in the history of the Church. First and foremost you discover a person, a man with an interior life which he is prepared to share and use for the good of the whole Church, in spite of a genuine sense of his own weakness and sinfulness. His avowed need for contact with others, for consultation and human dialogue in the service of discernment, is a crucial part of this.
Amidst the madness of the Vatileaks business, one contention, from the naive and surely heavily manipulated camerlengo, stuck in my mind. It was that the Holy Father did not know what was really going on, either in the Vatican, or in the world. Francis has described the papal apartments as like a “funnel” (another analogy might be a lobster trap)—few can enter and leave and the Pope is trapped behind a barrier of personnel who can easily come to influence what reaches him. For a man like Bergoglio, this would be the kiss of death. Pope Francis has made it clear that he would rather have some tricky, even dangerous exchanges with people, than fail to get any perspectives outside of a small interest group, even if that group thinks it is protecting his interests.
And interest groups are clearly part of the problem, not the solution. I experienced this myself recently when I went to Rome for a meeting of a wonderful organization, Matercare International (a cause I strongly recommend to your generosity). Feathers were being ruffled in many quarters about the effect the liberal interpretations of the Spadaro interview could have on the work of pro-life, pro-Humanae Vitae, pro-family activists in what is, after all, a wretchedly difficult field. And yet, when we went to meet the Pope himself in audience, he made it quite clear that he not only supported respect for all these things, but he cared passionately about defending the most defenseless members of society, starting with the unborn. “Each one of us is invited to recognize in the fragile human being the face of the Lord,” he ended, after urging medical personnel, with some passion, to be co-mothers and co-fathers with those struggling to bring life into the world, and then sustain it. “Coraggio!”
There was a tinge of sadness and weariness about the Pope when I saw him that day. I suspect that amidst the media firestorm unleashed by the Spadaro interview, he was feeling the criticisms of the conservative commentators rather keenly. He genuinely feels that the pro-life pro-family positions of the Catholic faith should go without saying, and he genuinely feels that we need to find new ways to reach those, perhaps even the cock-sure commentators of the New York Times, who are completely blind to the point of it all. He referred in the Spadaro interview to the Church as a hospital in the midst of a battle-field, dealing with terrible wounds and mortal emergencies, in which the victims are mostly people who have been caught up by forces they did not cause and do not comprehend.
“The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”
From my own experience, as a convert, a mother and an educator, I have to say I agree with him. Unless we convey the core reality of the Christian faith, a reality which has nothing whatsoever to do with politics, we cannot hope to convey, far less enable activation of, the moral teachings of the Church. If Pope Francis sounds like a liberal, it is because he is self-critically applying liberal spurs to the flank of the conservative position. By empathising with the poorest and most alienated, he is not posturing. He is seeking to create, and thus to conserve, conditions under which their lives, both now and in eternity, can achieve the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.
Our new Pope is precisely an imaginative, rather than a prescriptive, conservative. He has the conservative’s sensibility that each individual must make a free choice to adhere to what is best for all, and the conservative’s concern to apply only necessary medicines for the present crisis. One of those medicines is humility. When conservative forces face the humiliations and failure that has been meted out to them in recent years, it is perhaps necessary to reflect deeply on the roots of those problems, which may indeed require thinking, imaginatively, outside the box. To quote again from the interview:
“Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.”
And surely ideology is the enemy of true conservatism, not to mention a living faith?
Meanwhile, this surprising and sometimes unnerving period in Church history unfolds, with the Pope preaching every day, in the semi-public setting of the Casa Santa Marta, from the scripture readings he finds in front of him, applying these providentially to the concerns which are unfolding before his pastoral consciousness. Anyone who doubts that this pontiff lacks the will to give us sinners a hard time for our failings and prevarications has only to read a long stretch of these homilies, which can be found in English on the Vatican Radio website. Or read the news and commentaries on Aleteia.
Books on the topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.