How the Culture Wars Came to the Catholic Church
David Remnick: 10 years ago, the Catholic Church faced a startling situation unprecedented at modern times. The pope, Pope Benedict, resigned, and when his successor was appointed, Pope Francis, he too was a break from the past. He was the first pope from Latin America. In fact, the first non-European pope for a millennium. Francis seemed far more willing to engage with contemporary problems. He wrote an encyclical, a letter to the faithful, on the climate emergency talking about consumerism and irresponsible development.
Francis also struck a very different tone on gay rights. As much as Francis has been more open than previous popes on a series of issues, the reaction against him from traditionalists has been all the more outspoken and truly angry at times. How exactly did the culture wars come to the Vatican and the Catholic church? Paul Elie just published a piece about a decade of Francis's leadership. Paul, after a decade, what stands out for you as the most notable efforts and achievements of this pope?
Paul Elie: Well, Pope Francis has done so much on the environment, on the opening of the church to non-Christian religions, on focusing the church outward toward the poor, on cleaning up the structure of the Vatican, and making a lot of fresh appointments, both in Rome and around the world, but what really stands out to me is the openness that he's brought to the church, a church that felt closed and locked down after years of fairly authoritarian leadership under John Paul II and then Benedict XVI is now open and showing signs of change.
David Remnick: Paul, now I'm looking at this from, obviously, way outside the church, but it seems, from what I understand, from what I read, that opposition to the pope is much blunter than ever before, anything we've ever seen. Sometimes it's even contemptuous of what he's trying to do. Please talk about that.
Paul Elie: Leaders in the church who've had grievances with him have expressed them in any number of ways. One has written a series of incendiary letters criticizing Pope Francis in all sorts of ways and spread them through the internet, gaining the approval of a lot of traditionalist bishops and some cardinals too.
Another evidently wrote a letter and had it distributed anonymously under a pseudonym saying that Pope Francis' pontificate has been a disaster, insinuating that everybody thinks this, and then ticking off all the things that have made it disastrous. There's secret letters, there's open letters, broadcasters, especially on the EWTN television network suggesting that Francis is a heretic or something like that.
Now, in their opposition to Pope Francis, the traditionalists have a lot on their side. They really believe that he's wrong to relax and open things up in the way that he's done. They've got a lot of doctrine, a lot of history, and a pretty strong precedent of the two previous popes on their side. On top of that, and this is the real twist, they're opposing Francis in a church that because he's made it more open, they're free to do so. He's not shutting them down in the way that one of his predecessors might. They're taking advantage of the open church that he's brought about and using that openness to openly criticize him.
David Remnick: Paul, you spoke with a number of people in different relations to the church while writing about Francis, including a bishop in the State of Connecticut. Tell me about him.
Paul Elie: When people in the church talk about the next generation of leaders in the church in big archdiocese like New York, the name Frank Caggiano often comes up. I first met Bishop Caggiano, who's now the Bishop of Bridgeport, when I was reporting an article on clerical sex abuse for the magazine a few years back. He's a native of Brooklyn, where I live, and spent years in various positions in the church in New York really getting to know the nuts and bolts of how a big city church works.
For all that and through his participation in various world youth days, he's got his eye on the next generation of people in the church, the church's future. Bishop Frank, you said, and this was on your podcast, that Pope Francis has been a counterbalance to Pope John Paul II and to Pope Benedict XVI. What do you mean by that?
Bishop Frank Caggiano: Yes. Pope John Paul, who is now among the saints, he very much made a priority, the clarity of the teaching of what the church holds. It was sorely needed when he became pope. Pope Benedict, his genius, God rest his soul, was that he was a master catechist that, in many ways, he took the very complex notions that John Paul would teach in his encyclicals, which many times caused me to pause and read and reread and reread because of his deep philosophical training, and make them accessible to the average person.
Now, Pope Francis compliments that. How? He's complimenting the truth with what I'm going to say the call also to do what Ephesians 4 says, which is to live the truth in love or mercy or in encounter or whatever word you wish. It is what John Paul and Benedict and Francis together, when you hold them together, you are painting a fuller picture of the human condition. It's brokenness, the need for people to be accompanied in their suffering, in mercy, in acceptance, in welcome, but at the same time, leading them to a destination. Unfortunately, we live in a time where people are not comfortable seeing the full picture but would like to emphasize only half the picture. That's when we get into trouble.
Paul Elie: On to particular conflicts, Pope Francis has done things that you could understand why other bishops would respond to him. His position on gay people. He's leaving the teaching alone but suggested in various ways that there's got to be a much more open pastoral outreach towards gay people. Is that effective in your view?
Bishop Frank Caggiano: Well, I think it's a longstanding position of the church. I think what's new, if there's something new, is that he is highlighting it as a pastoral priority. I think, for example, the fact that even the catechism of the church speaks of the need to welcome those who have same-sex attraction, gay and lesbian Catholics and others, and it also speaks of the sin of discrimination against those who may be gay or lesbian or any sort of discrimination of any type. It's clear.
I think where the difficulty has been is how do you do that in a way where we're not just giving lip service to say you are welcome, but also, we engage in the issues that really burn in their hearts. How do we respond to those without necessarily abandoning what the church has held as its teachings for centuries? That is where you have this legitimate disagreement among voices in the church.
Paul Elie: Pope Francis has spoken to the need for the church to involve women in leadership roles more. You've done that. You've gone boldly. You've named a woman, Eleanor Sauers, as the Parish Life Coordinator at Saint Anthony of Padua in Fairfield. Essentially, she's the person in charge of the parish. What should Pope Francis be doing along these lines to bring women into greater leadership roles in the church?
Bishop Frank Caggiano: Well, you know what, Paul? I think if you look at the record of what he has done even at the Vatican, he is beginning to put women in significant positions of leadership. For example, Sister Nathalie is in the senate office.
Paul Elie: Sister Nathalie Becquart, right?
Bishop Frank Caggiano: Yes. She is a voting member of the Senate. That's the first, to my knowledge, in history that she is a full-voting member. People would say--
Paul Elie: This is the Senate of Bishops, which has to do with the appointment of bishops with other clergy. Is that right?
Bishop Frank Caggiano: Correct. Right. With the Senate on Synodality, when she sits at the Senate, she will be voting as an equal to the bishops, which is a first.
Paul Elie: To what extent can we see it growing? Can we see sister Nathalie leading the congregation for bishops or a woman like her becoming a bishop at some point?
Bishop Frank Caggiano: My hunch is that that would not happen anytime soon.
Paul Elie: Just to be clear, all that you're setting out is based on the understanding that the ordained ministry is going to be restricted to men, and so men are priests, and then men can be bishops, so if you're going to look for roles for women, it's going to be non-ordained rules.
Bishop Frank Caggiano: Yes. I do not envision that for whatever reason. We could talk about it too, if you wish, but I do not imagine that women would be called to ordain to priesthood in the Catholic church. One could argue the pros and cons of that. I think there are theological reasons for that. I do not imagine that happening. Certainly not in my lifetime. I'm 64 years old. It's not going to happen in the next whatever 20 years or 25 years that I have left, that is not going to happen.
Paul Elie: Bishop Caggiano is ardent for Pope Francis, still, sees Pope Francis has strongly in continuity with his two predecessors. Professor Cathleen Kaveny of Boston College Law School is right at the center of so many of the conflicts in the Church of the United States today. She teaches law at Boston College. She's also trained in theology, two disciplines that make her a match for the male Bishops who lead the church. At Boston College and before that at Notre Dame Law School, she was colleagues and rubbed shoulders with many of the most aggressive traditionalists in the Catholic church today, and that's one reason that I always get so much out of our conversations. Cathleen, welcome.
Cathleen Kaveny: It's a delight to be here.
Paul Elie: In a comment that I've written for The New Yorker, I note that Pope Francis's election was unexpected, and then I go on to propose or argue that a pretty steady run of unexpected developments through his pontificate has brought about a church that's more open and more dynamic than the church that preceded it under John Paul and Benedict. What do you think?
Cathleen Kaveny: Remember, from John Paul through Benedict, you had almost an extended papacy under much the same vision because Benedict was such an enormous part of John Paul II's intellectual program, not that they didn't have differences.
Paul Elie: He was working for him. He was Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine, and they were elbow to elbow, I guess.
Cathleen Kaveny: Right, and then when people got Benedict, they thought, "Well, we're just going to continue in this line for the immediate future." It could have continued from 2005 to late 2022. He died on December 31st. Benedict did that. When Francis comes in and isn't out of that mode, is someone who really didn't expect to be Pope. My image of Francis is the image they had of him sitting on the subway in Argentina and just going about his business as a cardinal who was focusing on caring for the poor in his own region and then--
Paul Elie: That's a great image. He's wearing black, I think he's wearing a dark overcoat, he's got bags under his eyes, the subway looks much like the subway in New York, and he was known at the time for living simply and traveling to the outskirts by public transport. This is an image of Pope Francis prior to his election and all that has happened subsequent, and that really stands out in your mind.
Cathleen Kaveny: I guess I'm a cynical person in some way. When you look at the Supreme Court Justices and that they all have to live a certain way, get a certain path in order to make it to the position that they want--
Paul Elie: The career ladder.
Cathleen Kaveny: Yes, the career ladder, same thing with cardinals. If you have to do the career ladder, same thing if you're a cardinal and you want to be a pope. This is someone who was not living this life because he had ambitions of being Pope. He thought his chance was over. He was living how he thought he should live before God, and that was simply and in an encounter with the poor.
Paul Elie: Since Francis was elected 10 years ago, we've seen a divide among the US Bishops, not between liberals and conservatives so much as between what you call culture warrior bishops and culture of encounter bishops. What does that mean?
Cathleen Kaveny: Well, I think it means a couple of things. I think for both Pope John Paul II, Pope Saint John Paul II, and Pope Benedict, the main problem that the church faced in the West was a kind of moral relativism, a sense that the moral norms that protected the dignity of the human being and the community were being eroded by capitalistic liberalism. They saw a very stark choice. Pope John Paul II issued an encyclical, I think it was in 1995, called Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, which set the Gospel of Life on the one hand against a culture of life against a culture of death.
Paul Elie: Which he identified with liberal, progressive, capitalist, anything-goes society in places like the United States.
Cathleen Kaveny: Exactly. The marks of the culture of death were each individual gets to decide what's best for them, acceptance of autonomy and choices of abortion, contraception, assisted suicide, euthanasia, but also lack of care for the poor too. That part of it was missing when it was encountered versus a culture of life rather which prohibited behavior like abortion and euthanasia but also provided support for the vulnerable, a great support for family.
What happened in the United States was that the culture wars that were marking the United States were fused with John Paul II's culture of life versus culture of death and parceled out to each party. Many bishops, many conservative Catholics saw the Republican Party as advancing the culture of life and the Democratic Party as the culture of death.
Now, if you just look at John Paul II's encyclical, that's not an accurate parsing of the parties because it's true that the Republican Party opposed abortion and euthanasia, but the Democratic Party called for all the social support for the vulnerable, but that's how it got configured in the US, Culture of Life Republican Party, Culture of Death Democratic Party, and then, once you have that as your frame, then some bishops start to enforce that frame, sometimes by threatening to deny communion, as we've seen happen.
Paul Elie: Those are the culture warrior bishops taking a diminished reading of John Paul II's vision and applying it to American politics. The culture of encounter is an expression and a way of seeing things associated with Pope Francis. Can you explain that and then how it works itself out in the mission of certain of the bishops that Francis has appointed?
Cathleen Kaveny: Well, I think that the conservatives are worried, I think. The big problem that John Paul and Benedict saw, moral relativism, that was pushed back against by their culture wars, is not appreciated by Pope Francis. That's what I think their fear is.
Paul Elie: He doesn't care about the truth.
Cathleen Kaveny: Right. That's what they worry about. In my view, however, Francis recognizes that the problem is much deeper than moral relativism. The problem is actually moral nihilism. Moral nihilism says on an existential level, nothing matters. The question of truth doesn't even come up because nothing matters. I think Pope Francis's culture of encounter, "I am going to encounter you, I am going to say that you matter in your wholeness," is a response to the deeper problem of moral nihilism.
Paul Elie: Given all this, that we have culture of encounter as really one of the most important ideas to come out of Pope Francis's pontificate and his attempt to push beyond the culture wars, it's rich, isn't it, that his pontificate is coincided with a moment of great intensity in the culture wars, driven by Catholic public figures, traditionalist Catholics, for the most part, isn't that right?
Cathleen Kaveny: Yes, I think some of this is a parochialism of North America, not the whole America. The North American Bishops, I think, see the world, not all of them, but through the frame of American politics, and because the culture of life versus culture of death had gotten fed into American politics, they can't see how what Pope Francis is doing in the culture of encounter is actually a continuation in a new context, in some ways, of what Pope John Paul II was doing.
They view him as an opposition to that, and that's the problem because what happened is Pope Francis looks like he unlocked Pandora's Box and is allowing conversation about things that they don't think that people should talk about. He's also, I think, de-centering academic theology in a helpful way. What he is ultimately saying is something that the church teaches, which is faith is an encounter with a human person. Faith is an encounter with Jesus Christ mediated by the church, but there's a reality here. Faith isn't simply repeating a proposition that's included in the catechism that, on its own, isn't life-giving. Pope Francis recognizes that the church isn't dead. The church is the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living.
David Remnick: That's Cathleen Kaveny, a professor in theology and law at Boston College. We heard earlier from Bishop Frank Caggiano. Paul Elie has written for The New Yorker since 2014, and he's a senior fellow at Georgetown University. You can read him on Pope Francis and much more at newyorker.com.
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