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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/16/15

John Allen's Hype About Pope Francis (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Most of the time, the pope does not actually function as a monarch. For better or worse, there are in actuality checks and balances on the pope's authority. In plain English, the pope's apparent monarchical authority is somewhat circumscribed.

In theory, the pope has the authority to speak ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. But this doesn't happen often.

Most of the time, the pope has to function with his fellow bishops to exercise authority, just as the president of the United States has to work with both houses of Congress to get legislation passed -- and then hope that the Supreme Court doesn't rule the legislation signed into law to be unconstitutional.

Now, when we open Allen's book, we find that he previews the book for us in extremely straightforward terms:

"The core argument of this book is that Francis is a man on a mission. He wants to be a change agent, a historic reformer who reorients the Catholic Church decisively across multiple fronts" (page 5).

Allen also says, "There are three main thrusts to [Pope Francis'] reforming zeal. First, Francis aims to steer Catholicism back to the political and ecclesial center, following a period in which it appeared to drift ever more steadily to the right during the twilight of the papacy of John Paul II and the eight years of Benedict XVI" (page 5).

Concerning the church's drift to the right under those two popes, see Fox's book, mentioned above.

Progressives and liberals may recall that Senator Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008 because he wanted to be a change agent, a transformative president. However, before the 2008 election was held, the economy took a turn for the worse. As a result, President Obama has not yet established the track record of a transformative president.

Allen also says, "Second, Francis wants Catholics to 'get out of the sacristy and into the streets'" (page 6).

Evidently, Pope Francis does not understand that going to church (the sacristy) is respectable. Most Americans' religion is respectability.

Now, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic were not part of the American religion of respectability. Instead, they were part of the voluntary poverty movement that swept across medieval Europe and contributed to the rise of the Franciscan and Dominican religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church. But the voluntary poverty movement represented by Roman Catholic religious orders whose members take a voluntary vow of poverty has not made deep inroads in contemporary American culture -- for whatever reasons.

Ah, but couldn't contemporary American Catholics get out of the sacristy and into the streets without going so far as to take a voluntary vow of poverty? In theory, yes, that would be in the realm of the possible.

Perhaps Pope Francis is planning to visit the United States to encourage American Catholics to get out of the sacristy and into the streets but without taking a vow of poverty. During his upcoming visit to the United States, perhaps Pope Francis hopes to inspire both American Catholics and non-Catholic religionists to join together in getting out of their respectable religious practices for public respectability and into the streets. If such an ecumenical movement of American religionists were to emerge in contemporary American culture, it would fit into the historical pattern of Protestant Great Awakening movements in American culture. But does contemporary American culture really need a movement of religionists getting out of the sacristy and into the streets?

Allen also says, "Third, Francis is a reforming pope elected on a platform of good governance" (page 7).

Well, good luck with that, Francis. No doubt the so-called Vatican bank needs to clean up its practices so that it can become more publicly respectable. No doubt the so-called Vati-leaks scandal also detracted from the Vatican's public respectability. No doubt the roles bishops around the world played in the priest-sex-abuse scandal detracted from their public respectability. But is Pope Francis belatedly going to institute canon-law provisions mandating bishop accountability?

I've long been impressed with Robert Browning's comment that a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for? According to Allen, Pope Francis' reach exceeds his grasp -- just as Senator Obama's reach in the 2008 presidential campaign before the economic crisis emerged in 2008 exceeded his grasp as President Obama.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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