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Friday, October 04, 2013

Losing the narrative.

I'd barely had a chance to process my vertigo about the first interview when the second broke. I have a more detailed list of concerns about it for another post, but I'm just going to focus on the popular conversion exchange:

And here I am. The Pope comes in and shakes my hand, and we sit down. The Pope smiles and says: "Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me."

It's a joke, I tell him. My friends think it is you want to convert me.

He smiles again and replies: "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense."

Uh...OK. Sure, proselytism has--now, in ecumenical dialogue--a negative connotation, smacking of coercion of the will. It has a rather more mixed one in the New Testament, just to let you know--sometimes negative, sometime merely descriptive of converts to Judaism.

The point is, Scalfari was talking about conversion, not coercion. From the context, it doesn't appear the Swiss Guards had their halberds menacingly lowered at Mr. Atheist. Scalfari was making a joke about mere conversion, not force.

Here's an analogy: an Eckrich salesman invites me over to his house, and I joke "Are you going to try to sell me some hot dogs?" and he replies: "Bratwursts are ridiculous."

Er...all right.

Now, those of you who have no problem with the interview are probably going: "A-ha--see how clever the pope was: he was playing a smart rhetorical game with Scalfari here!"

Well, no. First, is it fair to Scalfari unlikely as he is to be up on the distinction between good evangelizing and bad proselytism? Isn't wordsmithing here a bridge too far?

Second, the distinction gets watered down later in the interview:

Your Holiness, you said that you have no intention of trying to convert me and I do not think you would succeed.

"We cannot know that, but I don't have any such intention."

I'm at sea here. Is any intent or desire for conversion of another, expressly-stated or not, proselytism?

No, no, no, no, no, we're reassured. No, not at all.

Well, I respect Jimmy and Kathy a lot, but there's a difference between terminology in a limited, technical church-y sense and terminology as it is understood by non-believers. Jimmy especially notes the difference between the common and the church-technical version.

But none of that was stated in the actual text of the interview. He's not being more precise, for whatever reason. Unfortunately, he's not giving you the material to make him say what you want him to. When you have to supply that much subtext and cross-referencing to make it "work," it's damage control. Pure and simple. All damage control at this point, and that's how it comes across.

Non-Catholics have this rather exalted notion that the Pope is a dictator, we hang on his every word, and that we march to him lighting up the Pope Signal or getting the Secret Message from the PBS test pattern after sign off.

A message that is being--stunner!--reinforced by the way the Catholic Left is brandishing him. Francis, unfiltered! The world's parish priest!

Compare Jimmy and Kathy with David Gibson of the Religion News Service. Also a Commonweal blogger, to say Gibson hates your orthodox entirely accurate. As he demonstrated on his Facebook page today, linking to his own deeply objective story gloating about the discomfiture of people who actually believe in what marriage really means, that abortion is evil, who struggle to follow Humanae Vitae:

"Don't worry about your right flank, Pope Francis -- American Catholics have your back."

But compare the first Gibson link with the attempted rebuttals. Gibson simply lets Francis speak for himself. There's nothing for him to have to explain, no multi-paragraph excurses on wayward sentences, none of that. Because there's nothing there to discomfit him. And just where do you think regular journos will get their Francis stuff from? Hint: RNS, the National Catholic Reporter, Tom Reese, Dick McBrien--the usual gang on speed dial. Not from Patheos.

And where do you think the average Catholic in the pews (you know, the ones who say "gay marriage--suh-weet!") will get their Francis fix from? The regular journos.

And why not? Gibson, NCRep, etc. are all poised, confident, and not engaging in damage control. But their read is wrong--or so I'm reassured.

In addition to drinking heavily, I recommend taking a look at this and pondering it carefully.


  1. Okay, the joke was in the context of Pope Francis saying first "My people told me you would try to convert me" and the newspaper guy going "Funny, that's what my people said about you!"

    I think we have to read it as Francis saying "I've come here to talk to you as two people interested in how the world is going" not (to borrow an example from our Evangelical brethren) what I've seen called 'Wretched Urgency', where every interaction with another person is leading up to "Have you been saved?" and you don't make friends to make friends, you do it to save them.

    I can see why you're worried, Dale. Any media that take notice of what the pope is saying, in Ireland, are doing the same thing (I've just waded through an entire article about one of our dissident priests, Fr. Tony Flannery, and the tone is that he's a martyr being hounded by the evil CDF and its minion in Ireland, the papal nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown).

    But it's going to take a lot more than an English translation of an interview in Italian by someone who thinks in Spanish to get me to call the current pope a heretic (and you're not doing that, I realise).

    I don't know why I'm so calm about all this, I really don't. Ordinarily I'd be going up in smoke over these kinds of comments, but I'm not. I hope you can find some peace of mind and soul; if that means closing your eyes every time you see "Pope says - " headlines, then do so! You only have to obey him when he teaches from the chair, not when he says "Hi, pal, wanna have a chat?"

  2. To clarify what I mean, I don't read Francis saying "I have no intention of converting you" as "You're perfectly fine as you are, you don't need the Gospel, all dogs go to heaven", I read it as "I don't have an agenda here. I'm not going to pounce on you with Bible-bashing. This is an honest discourse, not a means of tricking you into returning to the Church against your will."

  3. "And if you don't believe me, perhaps you have never tried crossing a rainbow-stole wearing priest in crappy sandals talking about love."

    Hoo boy. That's for sure. None so intolerant as a "LUV! and Tolerance! and being Open to The Other™" groovy one.

  4. As always, the Pope comes off best once the doting faithful have done their spit-and-shine de-spin duty.

    On a related note: "This isn't Denzinger."

  5. Why agonize about it? What does it matter?

    Let's say it turns out that Pope Francis is a liberal goofball. So what?