Archive for March, 2013

Jorge Bergoglio had come in second behind Joe Ratzinger in 2005 at the conclave tasked with electing the next pope. Eight years later, Bergoglio himself was elected to the holy and powerful office. The American media, treading water as usual on the surface, proclaimed Pope Francis to be a reformer. After all, he was the first non-European to hold the office in more than a millennium. However, Francis is a reformer in a very narrow sense, and he is not as much of an outsider as one might suppose from the media reports. As with most matters in life, the truth is more nuanced.

I begin with the matter of the pope ostensibly being an outsider. Because Bergoglio had been born and raised in Argentina, his election quickly came to stand for or personify the increasing salience of Latin America in the contemporary Catholic Church. At the announcement habamus papam, Latino Catholics in the Vatican’s square and on a much larger scale in Argentina spontaneously rose in celebration. However, the assumption that Bergoglio is the first Latin American pope needs some qualification because his parents were Italian immigrants. Not surprisingly, he grew up speaking fluent Italian in addition to Spanish. Accordingly, he had no trouble giving the homily of his first papal Mass in Italian. Italian culture was doubtless a part of his upbringing as well. So it is not strictly true that a non-European was elected pope. More accurately, Pope Francis is a hybrid, or “third culture person,” consisting of Latin American and European elements.

Moreover, in having achieved the high office of cardinal, Pope Francis is not an outsider. His status as an outsider is relatively narrow, being that he has not worked in the Curia at the Vatican. However, even this respect could be moderated by the pope’s Italian upbringing. That is to say, he undoubtedly has the sense of being in the familia in virtue of his Italian roots. Italian cardinals and bishops in the Curia could thus expect to have some pull with him. I doubt this point was not lost on at least some of the Italian cardinals in the conclave. Of course, the fact that the pope appointed so many reformers to his advisory council on the Curia suggests that the term “reformer” applies to him in respect to dealing with the corruption in the Vatican, including its bank and senior officials. This does not mean that he is a reformer writ large—meaning in terms of doctrine, the hierarchy, and social issues.

Even though feminist groups dared to hope that the new pope might finally bring the Church into the twenty-first century on social issues, Bergoglio had been stanchly conservative on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, women in the Church, and even contraception. Therefore, it is very unlikely the new pope would make any changes along the lines sought in the developed West.

Indeed, a month after becoming pope, Francis reaffirmed his predecessor’s rebuke of the Leadership Conference of the Women Religious (LCWR). The umbrella group of American nuns had been accused of excessive feminism and too much attention to social justice and the poor at the expense of preventing abortions. The affirmation is particularly astonishing because Bergoglio had emphasized social justice and the poor as an archbishop  in Argentina. That his reaffirmation of the previous pope’s rebuke pertains to a group that shares his own priorities on social justice and the poor suggests that his role as a reformer is narrow indeed. His reforms inside the Church are likely to be limited to reforming the Curia to get rid of its corruption and insularity. To be sure, that he had spoken out against unregulated markets and oppression could suggest that the pope might be a reformer in terms of human rights outside the Church. He might even urge governments to enhance financial regulation and fortify safety nets for the poor. Crucially for our purposes here, this would not make him a doctrinal or social-issue reformer in terms of Catholicism.

George Weigel, a traditionalist Catholic theologian, put the matter of the pope’s orientation very well. “He is a reformer, and making clear that the LCWR’s program in recent decades has been incompatible with Catholicism is part of the reform-by-purification that he is going to lead.” The term “purification” is key here, for it describes the traditionalist approach of the prior two popes wherein a traditionalist interpretation of doctrine (including on social issues) has been used to purge the marginal (i.e., moderate and liberal) Catholics on the way to restoring the true Church to the true believers. In a sense, the traditionalists had succeeded in using the “reform” label for their own purposes, but this does not mean that Pope Francis will open up the Church to women or married priests or relaxed positions on gay marriage, abortion and even contraception. Rather, a bishops’-led return to outward caring for the poor in place of insular infighting and corruption is the sort of “reform” that is perfectly consistent with the ecclesiastical traditionalism of the cardinals who elected the Italian-Argentinian cardinal.



For more, see Jaweed Kaleem’s article, “Pope Francis Gets Strong Ratings From U.S. Catholics in First Days,” in the Huffington Post on March 15, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/pope-francis-approval-us-catholics_n_2884494.html?utm_hp_ref=religion ; Cathy Grossman, “Pope Francis Keeps Tight Rein on U.S. Nuns,” USA Today, April 16, 2013; Laurie Goodstein, “Pope Upholds Reprimand of American Nuns’ Group,” in the New York Times on April 16, 2013

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In the 1940s and 1950s, only about five percent of adult Americans did not identify themselves with any institutional religion, according to the General Social Survey. That number rose to only eight percent in 1990. By 2013, however, the percentage of people who don’t consider themselves part of a religion had jumped to twenty percent. Interestingly, there was no discernible upward trend in the percentage of people who expressed atheist or agnostic beliefs. Several implications can be drawn.

One implication is that it cannot be assumed that a person does not believe in “God” just because he or she does not belong to an institutional religion. Indeed, “atheism” does not make sense without a “theism.”  Put another way, atheism is part of the religious paradigm, serving as the negation of a theist belief. People can be spiritual without being religious. This does not mean that they are “new age.” Nietzsche, for example, was accused of being an atheist just because he criticized the dominant conception of God (as, for example, being vengeful). A vice ascribed to the deity in how it is being conceptualized discredits the conceptualization itself. “God is dead.” This does not mean that the living God of experience is discredited, as it does not depend on the concepts that are ascribed to it.

Another implication is societal in nature. As the percentage of people not identifying themselves with a religious paradigm (i.e., basic framework, including of concepts and conduct such as ritual and prayer) increases in a society, the religious world-view itself becomes increasingly demarcated as delimited in nature. That is, the default in society turns to viewing the religious world-view as foreign rather than as a given. The disparate nature of the religious paradigm as being very different makes it easy for the non-religious to keep away from it, as well as to view it as foreign. The world of religion is perhaps inherently delimited because its concepts do not have currency outside of the religious paradigm. The historical hegemony or even universality of religions in societies may therefore have been artificial in nature, such as by means of being forced on people. If so, the declining salience of religion in modern society may be nature’s way of restoring to religion its rightful place, similar to how water finds its way eventually down the stream.

Another implication is that it may not be reasonable to assume that even a highly charismatic leader of a particular religion, or sect thereof, can bring people back to religion. The assumption that such a leader could accomplish such a feat presumes that 1) not belonging to an institutional religion is a problem and 2) the problem does not lie in the religions themselves, or in religion itself. Also assumed is the problematic assumption that a leader can make such a difference. It may be that religion itself puts too much emphasis on the religious leader or founder, attributing too much significance to him or her relative to the value of the teachings themselves. Such anthropomorphism may be one reason why not identifying with a religion is not a problem, but, rather, a sign of spiritual health instead. According to David Hume, the human mind has great trouble holding on to “pure” concepts of divine simplicity. We tend to add our own human characteristics to the divine, even to the point of constructing the god-man concept. If religion is incapable of being purged of error, it is right and fitting that people refuse to identify themselves as not belonging to a religious institution.

Besides the implications above, one question that “comes out of the data” regards whether people who do not belong to an institutional religion can sufficiently “exercise” their spirituality. A related question is whether spirituality can exist apart from the religions. One might also ask how well spirituality can do within a religion. To the extent that a given religion (or religion itself) is rigid, it may be that certain expressions or manifestations of spirituality are snuffed out or excluded outright. The trend of “none-religious” may provide more opportunities for spirituality to come into its own. We should not assume, in other words, that the trend is toward secularity if it is defined as the absence of spirituality in addition to religion.


See Katherine Bindley’s article, “Religion Among Americans Hits Low Point, As More People Say They Have No Religious Affiliation: Report,” at the Huffington Report on March 13, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/13/religion-america-decline-low-no-affiliation-report_n_2867626.html?utm_hp_ref=religion


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