Pope Francis and the Not-Quite-Secular West
By Ross Douthat
THE NEW YORK TIMES
September 24, 2015 3:30 pm September 24, 2015 3:30 pm
[ Emphasis in red type by Abyssum ]
About five years ago, after Pope Benedict XVI paid a surprisingly successful visit to not-famously-Catholic England, I wrote a column on the phenomenon of papal visits and why, even in a secularized and dissenting Western atmosphere, they tend to turn out well:
… the crowds came out, as they always do for papal visits — 85,000 for a prayer vigil in London, 125,000 lining Edinburgh’s streets, 50,000 in Birmingham to see Benedict beatify John Henry Newman, the famous Victorian convert from Anglicanism. Even at a time of Catholic scandal, even amid a pontificate that’s stumbled from one public-relations debacle to another, Benedict still managed to draw a warm and enthusiastic audience.
No doubt most of Britain’s five million Catholics do not believe exactly what Benedict believes and teaches. No doubt most of them are appalled at the Catholic hierarchy’s record on priestly child abuse, and disappointed that many of the scandal’s enablers still hold high office in the church. But in turning out for their beleaguered pope, Britain’s Catholics acknowledged something essential about their faith that many of the Vatican’s critics, secular and religious alike, persistently fail to understand. They weren’t there to voice agreement with Benedict, necessarily. They were there to show their respect — for the pontiff, for his office, and for the role it has played in sustaining Catholicism for 2,000 years.
I won’t need to write similar words about Pope Francis, and indeed they wouldn’t make any sense, because the success of his ongoing visit to the United States – the crowds, the enthusiasm, the saturation media coverage – was essentially foreordained; nobody is surprised by what’s happening, nobody is looking for an explanation for the cheering throngs or the favorable press. But there is a common thread that binds Benedict’s success despite low expectations and often-savage coverage and Francis’s success amid high enthusiasm and generally-fawning coverage: Secularism is weaker than many people think.
We have read a lot about the advance of secularization lately, and for good reason. Institutional religion has fallen on hard times in the United States, younger Americans are far more likely than any previous generation to lack any religious affiliation, and American society has made a fairly sudden swing toward social liberalism that’s exacerbating tensions between the current cultural consensus and the historic teachings of Western monotheism. Twenty years ago the U.S. looked like a clear religious exception to a modernity-equals-secularization trend, but since then we’ve been converging, at least to a modest extent, with the nations of Western Europe; that reality, at least, is hard to deny.
But how powerful, how thick really, is this secularizing trend? Is it thick enough, for instance, to speak of American society as post-Christian or effectively pagan, as some religious conservatives sometimes do? Does it have enough momentum that we can expect it to continue apace well into the future, until Christianity in the U.S. looks as weak as Christianity in America’s mother country does today?
I’m skeptical on both counts, and I think the Pope Francis phenomenon is particularly suggestive of the limits of secularism’s hold. The former Jorge Bergoglio has captured the imagination of the Western media in two major ways: First, through a series of public gestures (embracing the disfigured, washing the feet of prisoners, mourning migrants lost at sea, etc.) that offer a kind of living Christian iconography, an imitatio Christi in the flesh, and second, through a rhetoric of mercy and welcome that has made some Americans, at least, feel that Catholicism is more open to their experiences and concerns.
Set aside for a moment the difficult question of where that rhetoric, and the accompanying doctrinal debates, are taking Catholicism in the long run. Just consider these questions: In a truly post-Christian society, would so many people find an imitatio Christi thrilling and fascinating and inspiring? Would so many people be moved, on a deep level, by an image like this one? (Wouldn’t a truly post-Christian society, of the sort that certain 20th century totalitarians aspired to build, be repulsed instead by images of weakness and deformity?) And then further, in a fully secularized society, would so many people who have drifted from the practice of religion – I have many of my fellow journalists particularly in mind – care so much whether an antique religious organization and its aged, celibate leader are in touch with their experiences? Would you really have the palpable excitement at his mere presence that has coursed through most of the coverage the last two days?
A cynical religious conservative might respond that the secular media only cares, only feels the pulse of excitement, because this pontificate has given them the sense that the Catholic church might be changing to fit their pre-existing prejudices, that the Whig vision of history that substitutes for its Christian antecedent might be being vindicated in the Vatican of all places. And this is surely part of it, which is one reason among many why Christian leaders should be wary of mistaking an enthusiastic reaction for a sign of evangelistic success or incipient conversion; sometimes the enthusiasm is just a sign that the world thinks that it’s about to succeed in converting you.
But mixed in with this Whiggish, raze-the-last-bastions spirit is something else: Probably not the sudden, “Francis Effect” openness to #fullChristianity that some of the pope’s admirers see him winning, but at the very least a much stronger desire to feel in harmony with the leader of the West’s historic faith than you might expect from a society allegedly leaving that faith far behind.
I think that desire is real because I see it in secular (or are they?) people that I know; I think it’s real because, as I said at the outset, you could in at work on Benedict’s pilgrimages as well, in more difficult times and more secularized contexts and without the “great reformer” patina that Francis brings with him on his journeys.
Whether there’s a bridge from that desire to a revitalized Catholicism or Christianity I don’t know, and I have all sorts of doubts about whether Francis’s model of outreach is that bridge. But it still says something important about the complex nature of our religious moment that parts of our society that can seem so secular and scoffing can also seem terribly eager, when the opportunity presents itself, for a blessing from the heir to the apostles.
SEPTEMBER 26, 2015
Ross Douthat sees hope for the faithful in the excitement that greeted Pope Francis. http://vlt.tc/23za “I think the Pope Francis phenomenon is particularly suggestive of the limits of secularism’s hold. The former Jorge Bergoglio has captured the imagination of the Western media in two major ways: First, through a series of public gestures (embracing the disfigured, washing the feet of prisoners, mourning migrants lost at sea, etc.) that offer a kind of living Christian iconography, an imitatio Christi in the flesh, and second, through a rhetoric of mercy and welcome that has made some Americans, at least, feel that Catholicism is more open to their experiences and concerns.”
Has there been a “Francis effect,” in which lapsed Catholics have been energized to return to their faith because of this celebrated new pope? No. According to Pew’s findings, Catholic Americans are certainly excited by Pope Francis, and view him favorably. Alas, those most enthusiastic for the Pope are those who already go to church regularly. … When Ross finds good news in what he sees this week as “at the very least a much stronger desire to feel in harmony with the leader of the West’s historic faith than you might expect from a society allegedly leaving that faith far behind,” I say that most people want to feel in harmony, but they don’t want to do anything to bring themselves in harmony, and — this is crucial — they don’t believe that they have to do anything more than feel to be in harmony with him. Because America is post-Christian.