How Do You Solve a Problem Like Pope Francis?, Part 2

Back in 2006, political pundit Matt Yglesias coined what he called the "Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics," as a way to criticize certain segments of the U.S. conservative foreign policy establishment.  Over time, this meme has expanded to include other kinds of political discussion, so for example we have the "Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency" (usually deployed as a counter to the critiques of President Obama).

In the comics, Green Lantern is a superhero from Earth that is part of what is basically an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps.  The Green Lantern Corps's basic tool is a power ring which basically has the ability to project green energy and shape that energy into force fields, weapons of force, etc.  The trick is that the power and utility of the ring is dependent on the will and imagination of the user.  In principle, the ring can do anything, but only insofar as the user has the force of will to channel into the ring to make his desires into a reality.  As such, the key selection criteria for a member of the Green Lantern Corps is force of will.  A bearer of a power ring with a weak will is not going to accomplish much; someone with a strong will is close to omnipotent.

To utilize a "Green Lantern Theory" of something is to act as if the person or leader one is talking about has access to a power ring that can make anything happen.  The corollary, then, is that if this leader is not able to accomplish something, the cause must be a lack of will.  If you really wanted to do X, then you would of course be able to do it, so the fact that you have not done X means you either are too weak to make X happen, or you don't really want X to happen, or both.  After all, you have a power ring, don't you?  The really pernicious thing about a "Green Lantern Theory" is that it is non-falsifiable; you can never disprove the counterfactual that if the leader exerted more will or was more committed, he or she would have succeeded.  Once you embrace a "Green Lantern Theory," there is no reason to ever abandon it.

In my previous post, I noted that the vast majority of the reaction from the left to Pope Francis has been praise.  Bernie Sanders, for example, appears have based his Presidential campaign in large part on spreading Pope Francis talking points.  I mean this with total sincerity--I am truly glad I live in a world were the message "if you love your Catholic Pope, you should vote for a Jewish socialist from Vermont" is a cohesive and coherent claim that one can take seriously.  #Welcometo2015, indeed.

The exception to this basic rule is a small segment of the Catholic Left, who have basically been critical of the Pope at every turn, especially during this visit.  Let me be clear here--I am not in any way suggesting that it is improper to criticize the Pope, to challenge him to rethink and reconsider areas that he has blind spots or misunderstandings, and to advocate for those positions.  All of that is appropriate and necessary.  But the way in which these folks are reacting to the Pope's visit suggests that they have been infected by a Green Lantern Theory of the Papacy, because they seem to take the position that the Pope can do anything, and so his failure to do precisely what they want is a sign of his weakness or wickedness.

Here's an example that came through my Twitter feed last night.
It is from Jamie Manson, who is a reporter and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.

In less than 48 hours, the pope has promoted religious liberty, met with conservative nuns who are fighting the contraception mandate, praised bishops for their courage in healing victims of sex abuse, canonized a destroyer of indigenous culture and identity, and slammed marriage equality.

And yet, somehow, my twitterfeed is declaring that it is a new day for the church.

Perhaps they are declaring it a new day for the Church because the Pope just went in front of Congress and told them that the two greatest Catholics in U.S. history are Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day--two figures that are disdained by traditionalist Catholics (Merton) and economic libertarians (Day)?  Perhaps its because the one concrete example he provided of pro-life activism is opposition to the death penalty, as opposed to opposition to abortion or stem cell research?  Perhaps because he became probably the first public figure in America since Eisenhower to call out the defense and armaments industry?  Perhaps because he specifically praised President Obama's environmental initiatives, initiatives that most Catholics in Congress oppose?  Perhaps all of the above, and at least a dozen other things besides?

But forget all of that.  Let's suppose Pope Francis did everything Manson would have him do--ordered the nuns to drop their lawsuit, repealed Humanae Vitae, struck every saint from the rolls that had some role in "destroying indigenous culture and identity," fired all of the U.S. bishops, and offered to marry the first 50 same sex couples that show up at the Vatican.  Like any good Green Lantern Theory, if Manson believes that these actions would result in nothing but hosannas from all corners, I cannot prove that she is wrong.  But I would bet my entire savings, such as it is, on the proposition that such a move would result immediately in a Catholic civil war.  The Church would rapidly, perhaps immediately, split in two.  Everything that is happening in the Anglican Communion would happen in Catholicism.  The culture war issues of today, which are so contingent and unique to our present situation, would become a permanent basis of identity for both sides.  We would never be rid of these fights; all that would remain is a long and bloody period of trench warfare.

Manson, and those that view the Pope's visit through the same prism, have to know that.  I suspect they know, but don't care.  They don't really care what happens to the conservatives that would bolt and go to the barricades over these changes.  Whether or not Pope Francis could keep the conservatives on the boat at the present time if he embraced their agenda doesn't matter; they just want to beat the conservatives, and use Pope Francis as a tool to do it.

And it is here that James Alison's comment from in his essay "Human Sexuality . . . or Ecclesial Discourse?" is so important:

I want to say, as a Catholic: never, ever let go of your fundamentalists if you wish to stay at the party. It is of course terribly dangerous for them to be left to a world of their own creating. But it is no less dangerous for those who do not share their expressed opinions to leave them. Because we are almost invariably run by the same patterns of desire and so forth, but displaced onto something else.

Declaring that Pope Francis's visit to the United States is worthless from a progressive standpoint is a fundamentalist position; it is a different side of the same coin from complaining that Pope Francis has not vocalized the word "abortion" enough.  It is motivated by the hope that if we just get rid of these inconvenient others that have different views than we do, everything will be swell.  As such, you will accept no half measures.  That's the definition of fundamentalism.

I am persuaded by Alison that Pope Francis, and every Pope, has the responsibility first and foremost in trying to keep everyone on the boat and in the party that is the Catholic Church.  He cannot simply tell the conservatives to get over it or pound sand.  He would be abrogating the fundamental task he has been assigned.  So, he has to give something to everyone.  Right now, I think we are running at no worse than 80/20 on the progressive side, but that 20% on the other side is the price for keeping the conservatives on board.  The hope is that by keeping them on board, they can slowly and gradually loosen the death grip they have on certain idols, particularly as it relates to sex and gender.  Or, maybe we need to loosen our grip on some idols.  Or maybe (and more likely) both.

Look, maybe it won't work.  Maybe we are headed for a split.  It has happened before.  If that dread and terrible day comes, I will stand on the side of Jamie Manson's of the world, no doubt.  But Pope Francis has to try to prevent that split from coming to pass, and I am not going to criticize him for doing his job.

He is not Green Lantern.  He cannot simply will things to be the way we might want them to be and make it so.


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