The Francis narrative is déjà vu in reverse

The narrative of Pope Francis as a progressive reformer is becoming so set in stone as to be beyond rethinking or nuance, writes John L. Allen Jr.

I find myself asking these days whether it’s possible to have déjà vu in reverse. That is, can one be gripped by the unshakeable impression of having had an experience before, except that it is, weirdly, both the experience we’ve known and its opposite?

If so, that’s what I’ve got right now vis-à-vis public impressions of the Pope.

During the John Paul II years, here’s an exchange I had more times than I can count on the lecture circuit, in TV discussions, at cocktail parties and in pretty much any other venue in which the pope might surface as a conversation topic.

Questioner:Is John Paul stacking the deck among the bishops with conservatives?

Me: Actually, I wouldn’t really say that John Paul is a “conservative,” at least in the conventional American sense of the term. On some subjects, such as economic justice and ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, he’s fairly progressive and much of his strongest criticism comes from the right.

Questioner: Uh-huh… so, is he stacking the deck with conservatives?

What I ran up against, in other words, was the power of narrative, that conclusory sense of the shape of things that can precede, and often defy, evidence. At some point, impressions of John Paul as an arch-conservative hardened and became impervious to contradiction or correction.

More and more, it seems we’re reaching a similar point with Pope Francis, in which the narrative of him as a progressive reformer is becoming so set in stone as to be beyond rethinking or nuance.

Here’s today’s version of the dynamic I find in much Catholic conversation.

Questioner:Is Pope Francis really out to get conservatives?

Me:In many ways, Francis himself is a conservative. If you look at his views on abortion as part of a “throw-away culture,” or on the end-times and the Devil, or the way in which he believes the developing world is subject to secular “ideological colonisation,” it’s hardly the rhetoric of a liberal.

Questioner:Uh-huh… so, is Pope Francis really out to get conservatives?

I was at a dinner in Rome last week in which a senior churchman, someone who would conventionally be seen as fairly conservative but who’s struggling to give Francis the benefit of the doubt, wondered aloud whether by this time next year we’ll be in a situation in which “orthodox” or “faithful” Catholics have permanently given up on Francis and gone into overt opposition.

Francis certainly has provided raw material for the narrative of him as a liberal maverick, from his crackdown on the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate to his clipping the wings of Cardinal Raymond Burke and on and on.

Yet consider just three developments that cut in a different direction, all from early 2015.

Charlie Hebdo: Francis stirred the waters in January with comments on the Charlie Hebdo attack, basically saying that nothing can ever justify such violence but that one should expect blowback if you go around insulting people’s religious convictions. It was a rejection of the secular gospel of free speech as an absolute good, giving people license to say the vilest things about religion and then posturing as if doing so is somehow a virtue.

(As a footnote, William Donohue of the Catholic League got into hot water for saying essentially the same thing, and he’s nobody’s idea of a liberal firebrand.)

Ideological colonisation:During a mid-January trip to the Philippines, Francis delivered a strong attack on efforts to “redefine” marriage and twice blasted the “ideological colonisation” of poor nations, basically meaning efforts by Western governments and NGO to force the developing world to adopt a liberal sexual ethic by making it a condition of aid programs.

Francis sent word to the press corps flying back with him to Rome that he wanted to talk about ideological colonisation during his airborne news conference, the first time he’d planted a question on one of his trips and thus a signal of how important the subject is to him.

Natural family planning:Even the Pope’s celebrated recent line about Catholics not having to “breed like rabbits,” which irked many tradition-minded Catholics because it seemed to resurrect an old anti-Catholic slur, was actually offered by Francis in defense of Natural Family Planning.

Sometimes called the “rhythm method,” natural family planning is the Catholic alternative to artificial birth control, designed to space out births by following the body’s natural cycles of fertility and infertility. It’s a passion for the Church’s most ardent pro-life activists, and often seen as archaic, if not a bit embarrassing, by more liberal folks.

None of these recent episodes, in other words, are what one would typically expect from a “liberal” or “progressive” Pope.

The fact that a broad swath of opinion, inside and outside the Catholic Church, persists in framing Francis in those terms may say more about the power of narrative than it does about the actual content of the pontiff’s agenda.

Whether things develop into hardened opposition to Francis from the Catholic right to some extent will depend on him, perhaps especially after he decides to act on the vexing question of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics after it’s debated again at the Synod of Bishops on the family in October.

On the other hand, it also will depend to some extent on whether Catholics at the grassroots permit the reality of Francis to shape their narratives about him, or whether they allow their adamant sense of reverse déjà vu to overwhelm reality.


John L. Allen, Jr. is associate editor of The Boston Globe and of its website Crux: Covering all things Catholic.