A fascinating glimpse…

…into the social psychology of soft ultramontanism.

Louie Verrecchio is providing a stellar example of loyal but blunt criticism of the problems many are expressing in response to Pope Francis’s papacy so far. Doing so, however, is not without its costs. In the past few days, Verrecchio has had over half of his official endorsements retracted (politely, of course…) and is now a ghost of his former self at Catholic Exchange. Having felt some of the blowback myself from rocking the boat with genuine concerns and less-than-fawning insights, I can sympathize with him. And pray for him.


I’m hoping to wrap up part 3 of “The Battle Within” this weekend and then take a (brief?) hiatus from my “discernment” of Pope Francis. This does not mean I will cease to blog about news that relates to the Church or his papacy, much less that I will not blog about other topics. However, until I complete some fairly extensive reading on Bergoglio and Vatican II, I will let my F1 F/X Files ferment for a while. There is a post or two that I’ve been keeping in draft form, and which I may publish just to get them out of the cellar, but otherwise I am happy, in this post, to explain the quasi-peace that I have achieved.

I think I’ve discovered some valid insights into what makes this pope tick. I think there’s much more to him than a lot of other commenters even fathom. Was that a sly way for me to say that I fathom a lot more than other commenters? I hope not. All I mean to say is that I think the rabbit holes run deeper than I’ve seen most other writers think they need to go to understand Pope Francis; this is a point to which I’ll return in a little bit.

It will probably only detract from my already miniscule credibility in the neo-con blogosphere to admit the following, but most of my “discernment” of the F1 F/X so far has derived primarily from analyzing the Spadaro and Scalfari interviews. The rest has derived from dozens and dozens of online posts and articles, including speeches and homilies by Pope Francis, that I sought in order to explore what I detected in those two major interviews. Specifically, I have not yet read the Pope’s in-flight interview(s) in full, and I have not yet completed any full-length biography of Bergoglio. I have tried to take seriously what I have learned about his background from online resources, but I am interested now in reading fuller biographies of him and pre-papal statements by him.

Isn’t this a bit unfair of me, though, to have written so much this past month without really knowing who Bergoglio was/is? I don’t think it is. First of all, how much background is enough? It’s an endless challenge, and smacks more of psychoanalysis than rational analysis. Second, there was something truly peculiar in those interviews, and in related locutions, which I have arranged into a quasi-total theory of the Pope’s ideology, but which I am now curious to see if can bear the weight of factual corroboration. And I think a lot of my analysis will hold up, if not grow stronger, as I learn more about the Pope’s background. For instance, I’ve already had two key insights strengthened just from reading the first chapter or two of Paul Vallely’s biography of Francis. At the same time, I feel closer to the man who is our Pope, which only lubricates the wheels I keep pushing to pray for him. Hold those thoughts, since I’ll presently revisit them.

As for that “separate peace” I mentioned?

+ + +

Yesterday, I had a combox conversation with Crude, and it helped me express succinctly “where my head at” lately. (Sorry for the re-tread, Crude, but you might as well keep reading, since some will be new, and the rest is just good penance for your soul!) Until a few weeks ago, I had “nothing but love” for Pope Francis. There were persons and even whole groups who immediately flipped out when Bergoglio was elected, but I was nowhere near them. For instance, I don’t think I’ve even been to a Latin Mass before. Alas, however, “the interviews” rattled me to the bone and even now (after some rough patches of snark) I’m bending over backwards to read him charitably and as a whole figure. I am not trying to treat Bergoglio as an ex nihilo figure, which is why I provided so many links most of my posts, but also, as noted above, why I’m working ym way through a handful of books from and about Bergoglio. Even without making reference to such resources, though, I’m doing a “genealogy” based on what I’m hearing from the Pope now. Even if Bergoglio’s track record ameliorates some of Francis’s malapapalisms, it would not be the first time a Pope differs from the man who was elected to be that Pope. They form part of his official witness as the Pope, not as a guy named Bergoglio, and that’s how I’ve mainly been treating them.

The reason I was alarmed by the interviews (and sometimes by Francis’s homilies) is because at first I thought he was sincerely just speaking off the cuff, so I thought it was at worst a kind of negligence of duty as a teacher in some cases. I am willing to grant that no one can avoid ever being misinterpreted, so the off the cuff is just a ‘meme’ the media have run with. (Not that, as we’ve seen, they didn’t get more than a little help in running with the idea from no less august a source than… the Vatican itself. [The ensuing comments on the link are illuminating, and worth a quick scan.]) So, the “off the cuff” hypothesis is flimsy, and I am increasingly convinced that the Pope is being intentionally provocative; his off the cuff manner masks a very astute and rhetorically self-aware set of assumptions. Besides, it’s a false dichotomy to say that “off the cuff” comments can’t convey (or belie) complex philosophical connotations. So even when he is genuinely just shooting from the hip, he can’t help but speak based on his formative ideological background (no one can). (Indeed, let’s be real: the Pope’s recent homily castigating “Christian ideology” is as naive as it might be disingenuous: all coherent thought that motivates action is an ideology.) In many cases, I think Pope Francis is intentionally choosing words that send a distinct message or failing to clarify an important ambiguity. Even if he’s the most ideologically naive and guileless cleric on the planet, as long as those “off the hand” words are posted on the Vatican website as his official speeches, it behooves those of us who are unsettled by the malapapalisms to take those very words seriously.

In any event, I do not think that everything the Pope says is heterodox, modernist, etc. He’s a much better pope than a worse one. I’m just grappling with some key assertions, presented over time and in various contexts, that truly baffle me. Where do such ideas even come from? How do we reconcile them with his orthopraxis?

Mass to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII

High ball or low ball tonight? Soft or hard sell? What do the people say?

As I tried to explain in part 2 of “The battle within”, I think the Pope’s entire sense of orthodoxy is so unconventional that he actually thinks he’s deepening orthodoxy by delegitimizing its traditional vocabulary and articulation. He is therefore not a progressive and not a liberal; he is trying to speak beyond that entire dialectic. Hence he can affirm the Church’s moral positions while still seeing them as historical accretions on “the timeless meaning of the Gospel.” As I’ll discuss in part 3 of “The Battle Within,” he’s a biblicist, not a liberal. I and others see the contradiction sticking, while his defenders say the contradiction is easily resolvable. Meanwhile, I think the Pope is saying they’re both wrong: Christian orthodoxy just is what words and action it takes to make Jesus more attractive to the world. If that requires some garbling and elision now and then, so be it.

I just said that I like many things Pope Francis says, but I don’t know why it should be big news, why it should cue applause, that the Pope sounds like a Pope should, and that he says things which don’t cause more confusion and backbiting among the faithful. (Although there is a lot of rubbish, especially from Sir Snide-A-Lot Jeffers, in this thread at Jimmy Akin’s blog, you can find readers who have “had it” with the “latest” case of someone having to clarify an important matter since Pope Francis has just added to the obscurity.

The vast majority of Catholic blogs praise and promote the Pope’s good words, so I’d be kidding if I thought I were really bucking his good impact, as if I wanted to, anyway. No, the majority of people who find my blog are, apparently, already troubled by him and in search of understanding. I’m not running a “Follow Francis” blog; as the archives indicate, FCA is highly eclectic. It just happens that right now my current focus is on making sense of the contradictory voice that Pope Francis has. If it were just me noticing that, I’d swallow it and shaddup, but I’m just one “bedwetter” among many, and the number of bedwetters seems to be going up rather than down. He’s been called a modernist, and I fully understand the motive behind that claim; I’m not, yet, willing to echo it, though. If I believed the Pope were a modernist, I’d quote this:

“In their [Modernists’] writings and addresses they seem not unfrequently to advocate doctrines which are contrary one to the other, so that one would be disposed to regard their attitude as double and doubtful. But this is done deliberately and advisedly, and the reason of it is to be found in their opinion as to the mutual separation of [humanistic] science and faith. Hence in their books you find some things which might well be expressed by a Catholic, but in the next page you find other things which might have been dictated by a rationalist”

— Pope Saint Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, #18.

(Wait, what? As a matter of fact, that sounds eerily relev–ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL.)

assuming direct control 01

I can haz brain ?

I grant that Pope Francis teaches in a way that strives to be non-modernist, but I believe his idea of pastoral guidance is infected by that old-time modernist imprecision and ambiguity. So I do not really believe he is of ill will. I’m trying to understand the complexities of the Pope, and parsing them is necessarily a critical task. I realize that gives my writing a one-sided appearance, but it’s the best I can do for now. At least I don’t feel literally insane anymore and the despair has backed off several steps from its earlier embrace.

+ + +

Realize, gentle reader, that much of the foregoing was written in response to Crude’s criticism of some of my worries about Pope Francis. Having answered a few of his retorts, the subject of conscience came up once again. (I am planning to write an intensive, though not necessarily very long, essay about the Catholic teaching on conscience, which is to what part of what my hiatus will be dedicated.) My problem with the Pope’s comments (written and spoken) about conscience, is not, as some argue, that they espouse relativism, but that they are incorrect, or at least incomplete enough to be erroneous. As a result, the sins of omission in his words about conscience leave enough ambiguity for relativism to find a place at the table. Even if he elsewhere rejects relativism, and thus shows that he didn’t mean to make space for relativism in conscience, that does not change the fact that on other occasions he taught incorrectly “off the cuff”, and thus the statements as they stand should not be defended on soft-ultramontanist principle. Whether his explanations of conscience and the good themselves espouse relativism is a logically distinct issue. Whether they are technically correct is, I venture, simply false.

In any case, as a kind of evidential reply that my fears about Francis as a mere pseudo-Catholic are unfounded, Crude cited a recent (ahem, unscripted) homily of the Pope’s:

“Without this awareness of the before and after of which Paul speaks to us, our Christianity does not help anyone! More to this: it takes us on the road of hypocrisy. ‘I call myself a Christian, but live like a pagan!’ Sometimes we say ‘Christians at half-speed’, who do not take this seriously. We are holy, justified, sanctified by the blood of Christ: Take this sanctification and carry it forward! Though people do not take it seriously! Lukewarm Christians: ‘But, yes, yes , but, no, no’. Neither here nor there – as our mothers said, ‘rosewater Christians’ – no! A little touch here and there, of Christian paint, a little ‘paint catechesis’ – but inside there is no true conversion, there is no such conviction as that of St. Paul: ‘Everything I gave up and I consider garbage, [so] that I may gain Christ and be found in Him.”

“Trust me,” I assured Crude, “I don’t need any convincing that he knows how to say the right things at the right times.” No, my problem is his unpredictable ability to do the obverse. I mean, just read the quotation above with the following quotations I’ll provide. Maybe it makes perfect sense and all fits together in your mind and the Pope’s, but it’s literally almost cognitively painful for me to find the Pope’s true voice, sort of like trying to listen to two loud radios tuned to different stations.

Easier just to stop listening.

ear cleaner grimace

Resistance Is Futile

Here are only two of many other examples we might produce that hopefully capture why I just can’t get a bead on Pope Francis. On 27 June 2013 he preached thus:

“[There are those] who believe that Christian life must be taken ‘so seriously’ that they end by ‘confusing solidity and firmness with rigidity’. They are today’s Pelagians who believe in the firmness of faith and are convinced that “salvation is the way I do things.” “I must do them seriously,” without any joy. The Pope commented, “they are very numerous. They are not Christians. They disguise themselves as Christians.”

(Three guesses whom he’s talking about without mentioning….)


“The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. … The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.

But in another place:

“With faith comes a new reliability, a new firmness, which God alone can give. If the man of faith finds support in the God of fidelity, the God who is Amen (cf. Is 65:16), and thus becomes firm [dare we say ‘rigid’?] himself, we can now also say that firmness of faith marks the city which God is preparing for mankind.”

Yes, I understand that the Pelagians are joyless (which kind of begs the question), but is that because they are serious about their faith, or about the moral obligations of their faith, or because they wear veils to Mass? (Oops!) Yes, I understand that the word “rigid” might have some arcane but ideological precise meaning in the Pope’s mind, even though we’ve been told not to take his specific words too seriously, but unless your quixotically insane insanely quixotic like myself, the received message is the same. (Seriously, think about it: how many other humans on the planet right now are trying to parse the word “rigid” from Pope Francis? Whatever impact it was (or was not??) meant to have, has (or has not??) been had, and the only clear result is that the ideological lines are drawn even more deeply in the Mystical Body.) Yes, I understand, err, that, renouncing everything as a condition for possibly being saved is a reasonable request, while all those other “requirements” are, like, too rigid, and… y’know? Or maybe the firmly firm firmness that characterizes the Kingdom of God is just redeemed Pelagianism… and stuff?


Somebody, stop me, before I interview again! Ba DUM bum!

The good news, Crude tells me, is that from that side of the one-way mirror, none of this is confusing at all. “I sympathize,” he added, “when you say that this drives you nuts. Maybe a lot of what your problems with the Pope can be attributed to is ultimately ‘style’. Personal preference.” That’s a very encouraging word from one of my best “web” friends.

And I admit it.

I’m just having to learn by grace that Francis is just “not the pope for me.” But, of course, the Church doesn’t revolve around me. The problem is simply that I have enough trouble staying in the saddle of my own rambunctious mind: trying to use my mind’s convoluted star map to navigate the asteroid belt of one of the most byzantine (or erratic?) minds I’ve ever met this side of Catholicism, is like trying to adjust Ptolemaic orbits with new epicycles every day or so. I mean, even as I posted those quotations (above) I was like, “Well, if you take that in this sense and this in that sense, etc. etc. it all kind of gels in a kaleidoscopic pastiche,” but I’m just not finding it worth the effort to keep twisting my decoder ring for Pope Francis. As I’ve said, even the straight, orthodox stuff is pretty avuncular and boilerplate.


I’m left with two fairly depressing options.

First, maybe I’ve merely convinced myself that Pope Francis has this whole elaborate set of assumptions which account for the inconsistencies, so that I have a hermeticist key that cures my vertigo, or… second, maybe he doesn’t care about overall consistency, preferring to tailor his words with reckless abandon to each unique interaction and there’s literally no internal scaffolding to his theology. Honestly, I think I’d rather believe in the elaborate theory than admit that this pope doesn’t care about intellectual coherence as long as he produces the desired “effect” in his immediate audience.

The upshot is, first, as I’ve said before, that if this pope is not really trying to reach me then I’ll just ignore him until he does, and, second, that if he doesn’t care what words he uses from day to day, then neither do I. As I mentioned earlier in this post, and as I indicated in my last post, I’m done discerning the Pope’s words for some time; it’s enough to watch and pray as he goes about his business. As long as he doesn’t do anything stupid, like, say, almost totally gut his esteemed predecessor’s curia of its saner members, why should I care? He can have his own intellectual predilections, and I can learn to abide him as the Holy Father.

Still, though…

As I mentioned above, it’s enough for most writers on Pope Francis to address what he says according to the art of papal midrash. I’m trying to unearth more, and seeing that “more” would be an achievement on my part if Bergoglio hadn’t been wearing the emblems of his contradictory formation and commitments on his sleeve all these years.


Godspeed, Jimmy Akin!

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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8 Responses to A fascinating glimpse…

  1. Jeff says:

    With reference to the ideology question:

    I recall, but cannot now find, a passage from Joseph Ratzinger in which he says something very like this,

    “Christianity is not a set of ideas, it is a Person.”

    I think it is possible to get lost in the ideas and to treat them as a value of their own. One can be entirely in love with the ideas and forget what they are all about.

    I say that as someone who has himself wrestled with this tendency.

  2. rubyroad2013 says:

    Right now I disagree – ” He’s a much better pope than a worse one.” I will continue reading with an open mind. Your blog is wonderful.

  3. All I’m saying, in charity, is that he COULD have done MORE by now to confirm my worst suspicions. A back-handed compliment? *Mona-Lisa-smile*

  4. [—
    “I can haz brain?”…. “Resistance Is Futile”

    I am little more concerned with the “All your base are belong to us” crowd who worship the mysterious god of Lesus. 🙂

  5. Someone set up us the Pope!

  6. Brock Fowler says:

    Very true.

    Still, I’m not so sure that the Pope himself does not have this problem: some of his words would certainly seem to suggest it.

  7. Pingback: FideCogitActio : "Omnis per gratiam," etiam sub patrocinio S. Ignatii Loyolae et Francisci Salesii. C.S.S.M.L. + N.D.S.M.D. + V.R.S. N.S.M.V. S.M.Q.L. I.V.B.

  8. Pingback: “You may not be interested in the dialectic…” | FideCogitActio : "Omnis per gratiam," etiam sub patrocinio S. Ignatii Loyolae et Francisci Salesii. C.S.S.M.L. + N.D.S.M.D. + V.R.S. N.S.M.V. S.M.Q.L. I.V.B.

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