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Three Surprising Papal Moves

Among the many new notes introduced by Pope Francis, we now have evidence of his willingness to correct his own errors or imprecise statements – and quite openly, too – something not always seen in Rome’s handling of PR problems. That’s the contention, anyway, of noted Vaticanologist Sandro Magister, who’s pointed out three recent cases [1]. Two relate to Catholic self-understanding, the third to Francis’s global view of the contemporary world.

The first two corrections dealt with the two interviews the pope gave this year, which raised questions about what, precisely, he meant to say.

Speaking with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari of the newspaper La Repubblica, Francis expressed what seemed a muddle about each person needing to follow his or her own vision of the Good. A very few of us in the Catholic commentariat maintained that he had indeed said such a thing, but couldn’t have meant it quite that way. That now seems to be the case. The Vatican took down the interview from its website, and both Scalfari and Vatican officials say it was a reconstruction with words that may not have been Francis’s own – and might be misleading.

Similarly – and of greater import – Francis corrected another “imprecision” in a widely distributed interview with La Civiltà Cattolica. He said that Vatican II had performed “a reinterpretation of the Gospel in the light of contemporary culture.” This phrase is often used by proponents of a “rupture” with the past at the Council. Francis has removed any ambiguity by publicly commending a scholar of the Council’s “continuity” with the past as the best interpreter, which is to say he’s in line with John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

This doesn’t fit the secular media’s narrative about Francis, so it’s barely been noticed outside Catholic outlets. But it should lay to rest earlier agitation over what seemed a casualness bordering, at times, on almost inconceivable concessions to current secular culture.

           Robert Hugh Benson

I myself think a third recent assertion by Francis is quite earthshaking. Many have already convinced themselves that he’s some kind of progressive – against all the evidence from Argentina. He may have decided to tip his hand a bit more openly – and deftly.

In a morning homily last week, he spoke of “adolescent progressivism” and quoted Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel Lord of the World [2] as having foreseen the “hegemonic uniformity,” a form of worldliness that was coming into being and which today, bears evil fruits in the culture of death.

This pope taught literature and mentions it frequently; he listens to opera, even the whole of Wagner’s massive Ring; and he has a cultural sophistication, over and above his commitment to humility and simplicity. The Benson reference is intriguing: has Francis been reading his story about a future dystopia – our own time – in the evenings after his duties are done for the day? (It’s worth recalling that Pope Benedict mentioned Benson’s novel more than once himself.)

Benson died in 1914, at only forty-three, but did much in his relatively brief life. His father was an Anglican bishop and an Archbishop of Canterbury. Benson was ordained an Anglican priest, but was powerfully drawn to Rome as the only real Christianity left. In 1904, he became a Catholic priest, whereupon he went back to his alma mater, Cambridge, and became famous as a Catholic apologist and convert-maker.

Lord of the World is a daring projection of where Benson thought things would be by the end of the twentieth century. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, he didn’t foresee crude totalitarianisms, like Nazism or Communism. He expected, at least in England, an insidious Humanism would dominate. One of his characters reflects:

There it stretched away into the grey haze of London, really beautiful, this vast hive of men and women who had learned at least the primary lesson of the gospel that there was no God but man, no priest but the politician, no prophet but the schoolmaster.
Those who embrace this ethos – many Catholics, including many old Catholic families and even Catholic priests apostasize – believe they have left behind superstition for a more rational and “humane” way of life. 

Political forces worked secretly for this triumph, notably the Freemasons, in Benson’s telling. Two currents, Materialism and Psychology, have been especially effective. The materialism is self-refuting, as all materialism is, for any thinking being – thinking not being a material process. But psychology comes to the rescue by portraying every impulse that contradicts “the primary lesson” as wishful thinking, sentimentality, weakness, compensation.

Meanwhile, under the new dispensation, Death still remains a challenge. When a volor (Benson anticipated regular commercial aviation) crashes in downtown London, a priest gives last rites to the few Catholics. But the more typical ministrations, deployed by government, are the “euthanatisers” sent to deliver the victims from their sufferings. Anyone dismayed at the bleak “rational” life in this world without transcendence can apply for a euthanasia permit.

All this is set within the larger story of Julian Felsenburgh, a political messiah who seems to be capable of reconciling the large blocs in the future world. But though he moves the masses to utter worship of him, no one seems to know anything about him. The peace he brings is no peace – he’s carrying out murders to impose “peace.” And, incapable of allowing the few pockets of religion left on earth to exist, he orders a massive air attack on Jerusalem, which leads to end of the world.

As in most stories of this kind, some elements are carried farther than we might think plausible. Or are they?  Unlike Benson, we have sobering examples from the twentieth century of political messianisms that killed tens of millions – and half a billion babies aborted by our humane modern states. Compared to us, Benson’s anti-Christ was a piker.  

The fact that Pope Francis is thinking along these lines, even if just in passing, reveals another surprising side of him. No doubt, we’ll hear more of that in the future.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.