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James Carroll Profiles Pope Francis in the NEW YORKER

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(Article changed on December 17, 2013 at 16:53)

Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 17, 2013: "Tis the season to publicize Pope Francis. Has any other pope ever received as much media coverage in the first nine months of his papacy as Pope Francis has?

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Rush Limbaugh, who is not a Catholic, got in the spirit of publicizing Pope Francis by charging that he is advocating "pure Marxism" in his recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) -- in which he criticizes unfettered capitalism. Evidently, Limbaugh is not aware that a number of popes have criticized unfettered capitalism.

Then the editors of Time Magazine got in the spirit of the season by naming Pope Francis to be their Person of the Year. Yes, they judged that he had had a bigger impact, for better or worse, on our awareness than Edward Snowden had had by blowing the whistle about the NSA.

Not to be outdone by Time, the editors of the New Yorker have now gotten into the spirit of the season by publishing a lengthy and wide-ranging profile titled "Who Am I to Judge: A radical pope's first year" by James Carroll (born 1943). Carroll is a former Catholic priest, novelist, and author of numerous non-fiction books, including Practicing Catholic (2009) and Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History (2001). Carroll interviewed a number of key people in different countries for this profile.


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Carroll is an interpreter with an agenda. In the intramural politics of the Roman Catholic Church, he is a liberal Catholic. So he is not fond of the kinds of positions favored by conservative Catholics. From his standpoint, it is important to figure out if the new pope is a liberal Catholic, or not. As we will see, he concludes that the new pope is not a liberal. However, according to Carroll, the new pope may be a radical, as the subtitle of his profile indicates.

Carroll likens Pope Francis (born 1936) to Pope John XXIII (born 1881; reigned 1958-1963), the pope who called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Both of these popes manifest a spirit of openness that Carroll admires. Carroll idolizes Pope John XXIII.

In 1960, when Carroll was 17, his family had an audience with Pope John. Pope John hugged the tall youngster and whispered something in his ear. But Carroll did not understand what the pope whispered. Nevertheless, Carroll subsequently changed his plans for his life and decided to become a priest. However, seven years after he was ordained a priest, he left the priesthood.

Carroll is also a Vatican II enthusiast, to put it mildly. For example, he supplied the introduction titled "The Beginning of Change" in the volume Vatican II: The Essential Texts, edited by Norman Tanner, S.J. (2012, pages 14-26). The other introduction in the volume is a reprint of Pope Benedict's 2005 address to the Roman Curia titled "What Has Been the Result of the Council?" (pages 3-13). But also see Carroll's books Constantine's Sword (2001) and Practicing Catholic (2009), mentioned above.

The young Fr. Karol Wojtyla from Poland (born 1920), later Pope John-Paul II (reigned 1978-2005), and the young Joseph Ratzinger from Germany (born 1967), later Pope Benedict XVI (reigned 2005-2013), participated in Vatican II. But young Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., now Pope Francis, did not, because he was too young at the time of Vatican II to be involved in it.

Pope Benedict famously preferred his own hermeneutic of continuity for understanding the Vatican II documents -- which emphasized continuity with the church's past teachings and practices. As a result, he would reject Carroll's way of understanding those documents, as based on a hermeneutic of rupture from the past.

DIGRESSION: The term hermeneutic is a highfalutin' way to say interpretation. Yes, the conservative pope did frame the debate about the interpretation of the Vatican II texts in terms of continuity with the past versus discontinuity and rupture with the past. In this way, he was able to claim that he was carrying out the spirit of Vatican II. END OF DIGRESSION.

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As popes, Pope John-Paul and Pope Benedict manifested a spirit of cultural warriors that Carroll does not admire. According to Carroll, "John-Paul and Benedict used the Catholic tradition as a bulwark against the triple threat of liberalism, relativism, and secularism."

But I would point out to Carroll that Pope Francis has also mentioned these favorite hobby-horses of John-Paul and Benedict. However, I agree with Carroll that Pope Francis does not come across as a cultural warrior like John-Paul and Benedict. But is Pope Francis a cultural warrior of a different stripe? As I will explain momentarily, I suspect that he is.

Carroll highlights Pope Benedict's blunders. "Early in his papacy, Benedict gave a speech that insulted Islam. He reinstated the Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson, brought back a Good Friday ritual that includes a denigrating reference to the Jews, and issued a list of "more grave crimes' that seemed to equate the ordination of women with sexual abuse of children by priests." Concerning the Jews in church history, see Carroll's book Constantine's Sword (2001), mentioned above.

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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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