Liberal Orthodoxy, Orthodox Liberalism
A friend of mine was interviewed on Real Time with Bill Maher Friday night about his new film, GMO OMG, and the segment shifted topics from Monsanto to Pope Francis. Maher, a notorious liberal opponent of right-wing Christianity, made a comment to the effect of, “It’s getting to the point where when people ask rhetorically, ‘Is the pope Catholic?’ I have to answer, ‘F**k if I know!’ Everything seems different now. It’s like the proverbial bear in the woods saying, ‘Do I sh*t here? I’m not sure anymore.” Maher went on to praise the new pope for his mirroring the attitude of Christ who, according to the host, can’t stand rich people, but who talks on every page of the Bible about how much he cares for the poor.
But as out-of-left-field as such admiration seems, Bill Maher isn’t the only liberal who’s singing the bishop of Rome’s praises. Francis got similar props from another unlikely source yesterday, the New York Times. Op-ed columnist Frank Bruni had this to say about Peter’s new successor:
It was the sweetness in his timbre [that struck me], the meekness of his posture. It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term “infallible” is often attached without forgetting his failings. . . . What a surprising portrait of modesty in a church that had lost touch with it. And what a refreshing example of humility in a world with too little of it.
For too many years I watched the chieftains of the church wrap themselves in lavish pageantry and prioritize the protection of fellow clergy members over the welfare of parishioners. They allowed priests who sexually abused children to evade accountability and, in many cases, to abuse again. That cover-up was the very antithesis of humility, driven by the belief that shielding the church from public scandal mattered more than anything else.
For too many years I also watched and listened to imperious men around the pope hurl thunderbolts of judgment from the Olympus of Vatican City. But in his recent interview, Francis made a plea for quieter, calmer weather, suggesting that church leaders in Rome spend less energy on denunciations and censorship.
He cast himself as a struggling pastor determined to work in a collaborative fashion. He characterized himself as a sinner. “It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre,” he clarified. “I am a sinner.”
He didn’t right past wrongs. Let’s be clear about that. Didn’t call for substantive change to church teachings and traditions that indeed demand re-examination, including the belief that homosexual acts themselves are sinful. Didn’t challenge the all-male, celibate priesthood. Didn’t speak as progressively — and fairly — about women’s roles in the church as he should.
But he also didn’t present himself as someone with all the answers. No, he stepped forward — shuffled forward, really — as someone willing to guide fellow questioners. In doing so he recognized that authority can come from a mix of sincerity and humility as much as from any blazing, blinding conviction, and that stature is a respect you earn, not a pedestal you grab. That’s a useful lesson in this grabby age of ours.
(Bruni then, with perfect awareness of the irony, insisted that President Obama should take a page out of Francis’s playbook and show a little humility on the whole Syria thing.)
In my last post I suggested that we distinguish the labels of “conservative” and “liberal” from the labels “orthodox” and “heterodox,” applying the former set to people’s positions on cultural and political matters, while reserving the latter for theological ones. While I’m at it, to that suggestion I would add another: we should distinguish between dogma on the one hand, and posture on the other.
As Bruni reminds us in his article (not without lamentation), Pope Francis is absolutely orthodox in his views on contraception, same-sex marriage, women’s ordination, and abortion. So if this pope is singing the same old tune on those hot-button issues — and singing culturally off-key — why are all these liberals and disillusioned ex-Catholics fawning over him? Why the excitement, the incredulity, the respeck ?
I would posit that the reason a pope can be an orthodox Catholic and yet be heralded as a welcome breath of fresh air for the Church by its avowed enemies has nothing to do with his dogma, and everything to do with his posture. Is Francis a liberal? Well, if we keep in mind the distinction I made in my last post and reiterated above, the answer would be a qualified “kinda”: He makes every effort to communicate by his pontificate a care for the poor, a disinterest in worldly pomp and privilege, and a greater concern for the dignity of sinners as beloved of God than their supposedly anathematized status in the eyes of ecclesiastical law. In a word, Francis is all about mercy, and if he is going to err in attitude or speech, he is determined to do so on the side of compassion rather than precision or exactitude.
For my part, I can identify with the holy father in very concrete ways. You see, I also am an orthodox Catholic who believes all that the Church teaches, but at the same time I have many gay, agnostic, and anti-Catholic friends, and I have found that displaying even a modicum of empathy and love goes a long way, even if you won’t budge on your doctrinal positions. When it comes to something like corporate worship I am very traditional, while when it comes to issues like healthcare or labor unions, I am rather progressive. And when liberal values clash with ecclesial dogma, I always side with the latter. Like Pope Francis, I am an orthodox liberal (orthodox first, liberal second).
And as the early stages of Francis’s pontificate show and my own experience confirms, the Left doesn’t hate the Catholic Church primarily for its dogma. In fact, much of that hatred can be quenched by a compassionate and humble posture, even if the dogma stays the same. In short, when faced with questions such as “Can homosexuals be saved?”, “Will the invincibly ignorant be shown mercy?”, or “Will heaven’s inhabitants outnumber hell’s?”, it speaks volumes to the opponents of the Church when our sincere answer is something like, “Well, crap, I sure hope so.”
But alas, when Christians (whether Catholic or Protestant) emit that smug elitism by which the world has come to know us, we have no one to blame for their disdain but ourselves.