Mar 14, 2013

American papal ambivalencies

Peter Manseau reflects on the American mass media's historically confused and contradictory relationship with the pope, at once fawning and admiring and also openly hostile:
The first time Time put a pope on its cover -- June 16, 1924 -- it tried to split the difference between the era's rampant anti-Catholicism and the 'Great Man' narratives that were then its stock and trade. Beneath an illustration depicting Pope Pius XI as bespectacled, human, and approachable (literally soft-around the edges, thanks to the artist’s light touch) there appeared words offering a decidedly more ominous message: 'No Popery!' 
The ambivalent relationship between the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and the American media has continued ever since. There is no other job opening on earth that would receive so much attention -- despite, or maybe due to, the fact that many prominent journalists are openly hostile to the teachings of the Church.

Much of this is the legacy of the man who boldly put both a pope and 'popery' on the cover of his magazine almost ninety year ago: a Protestant missionary’s son who found himself in bed with the Church in more ways than one. For Henry Luce, there was of course the actual Catholic with whom he shared his home -- Clare Boothe Luce -- but there was also an unabashed affinity for the Olympian authority the Vatican represented, which was similar to the kind which he imagined his publications would offer each week.
Julie Byrne, author of the forthcoming The Other Catholics, takes a look at the currents within contemporary American Catholicism that are really pretty ambivalent about the papacy -- including "Old Catholics," and also the fastest growing contingency of the American church, Latinos. She writes:
According to one recent survey fewer than three out of ten U.S. Roman Catholics says that the “teaching authority claimed by the Vatican” is “very important” to them. 
U.S. Roman Catholicism is now fully one-third Latino, and this is another group that does not simply accede to papal centrality. 
The vitality of devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the mother of Jesus manifested at Guadalupe, often far surpasses concerns for the pope. Especially among Mexican-Americans, who make up more than 60 percent of U.S. Hispanics, she is the living center of faith. Only half jokingly, some Latino Catholics say they are not Romans, but Guadalupeans.

The relationships that Americans -- Catholic and non-Catholic -- have to the Vatican and the papacy are much more nuanced and complicated than generally depicted. It's been pointed out that the politics of the new pope, Pope Francis, don't map neatly onto US divisions and US concerns. There's a lot confusion about what this or that signal "means," and who wins here, who loses. What's maybe more useful and more interesting, though, is to think about the ambivalences: how traditionalist Catholics, who are very authoritarian in inclination, are upset about Pope Francis; how progressive Catholics are conflicted or oppositional, both excited and dismayed by things Cardinal Bergoglio has and has not done; how the media cares very much and yet makes basic mistakes; how political conservatives are pro-papacy and treat the papacy as a defense against progressivism, and yet are uncomfortable with popes' critiques of capitalism, including Francis' participation in a statement condemning "the negative consequences of globalization and the tyranny of markets." Add to that the lapsed Catholics and ex-Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and Episcopalians and Lutherans, those who think the papacy is the antichrist and evangelicals who talk of the pope as the leader of "global Christianity," plus the spiritual-but-not-religious who sometimes see the pope as spiritual, sometimes as religious, plus the non-religious who are nonetheless watching when the white smoke ascends from the Sistine Chapel.

There is a way in which it is true that "we" have a pope, but it involves a lot of conflicted feelings.