And now, in what may be a semi-regular feature on this blog, I present to you... The Strawman Dialogues. Today's subject: Pope Francis.
Catholic A: Did you see that the Pope is Time's person of the year?
Catholic B: Yeah. I guess that's a good sign.
Catholic A: Feh. As if.
Catholic B: Eh? I thought you'd enjoy this. Nice to see a Pope who's actually popular.
Catholic A: He's popular for all the wrong reasons! Did you know MTV U named him man of the year too? Along with Lorde?
Catholic B: That's nice. Wait, who the hell is Lorde?
Catholic A: Doesn't matter. The point is that this is the last thing the Church needs.
Catholic B: What? Having a Pope who people don't spend most of their time comparing to Emperor Palpatine? Benedict was great in many ways, but I'm mostly encouraged by Francis' papacy so far.
Catholic A: Why!? Look at all the mistakes he's making!
Catholic B: Every pope, even the good ones, make mistakes. But what mistakes are you talking about?
Catholic A: God, where to begin. That horrible interview with the italian atheist. He's making the Church sound liberal!
Catholic B: What, did he go soft on abortion? Gay marriage? Anything like that?
Catholic A: He criticized the way conservatives have handled those issues!
Catholic B: Well, we could be doing better on that front. We're doing so-so on abortion. Gay marriage and same-sex stuff? Kind of a disaster. We lost the public in the span of ten, maybe five years.
Catholic A: But we should be speaking out against those things MORE as a result!
Catholic B: With the same exact approach? At what point do we start to question if maybe we've made some mistakes in how we've handled ourselves?
Catholic A: That's insane! The chips are stacked against us. A hostile liberal media! A secular culture of death!
Catholic B: All true. On the other hand, last I saw the Pope didn't give an inch on these topics. He's reiterated the Church's opposition to abortion, period. He's spoken out against moral relativism.
Catholic A: So?
Catholic B: So I think it's pretty impressive for a socially conservative Catholic, with a hostile media and culture, to swing Time's Person of the Year and even MTV U's - didn't even know that existed until today - Man of the Year award, without giving up an inch on doctrine. Sounds more like a man to emulate, at least in some ways.
Catholic A: Emulate!?
Catholic B: Yes, emulate. For a moment we have a Catholic Church, orthodox in its teaching, with a leader that people like. Agnostic friends I know like this pope. The Cult of Gnu is steaming that a religious leader is being praised even by liberals. Not everyone is a liberal activist diehard. Some of these socially liberal people are that way almost as a default. Perhaps this is a way to reach them - by improving our image, by focusing on things we can agree on, while holding fast to our orthodoxy.
Catholic A: But look at all the social conservatives the Pope upset!
Catholic B: I'm a social conservative, but I'm not upset. And frankly, a lot of the upset people are too fragile. They don't want to admit they may have made some mistakes over the years. The very thought of a new approach when the old isn't working confounds them.
Catholic A: We don't NEED a new approach.
Catholic B: Right, what did I just say.
Catholic A: What I mean is the Church needs to speak with clarity on these issues! There are still Catholics who approve of gay marriage! Or women priests! Or...
Catholic B: You think it's news to them that they're taking a liberal position? Sometimes people disagree even if you speak with clarity. Let's try clear messages with different approaches. Repeating an old mantra may not get us anywhere.
Catholic A: Obscuring the issues certainly won't help.
Catholic B: The Pope's not obscuring anything. He's been clear about abortion, about women priests and more, time and again.
Catholic A: The public doesn't read those documents! They just read soundbites!
Catholic B: Then take the documents where he's clear and make some soundbites. Easy to do. Problem solved.
Catholic A: And what about the social conservatives who get disheartened?
Catholic B: Not desirable, and I think the Church is clearly trying to calm them. But as with the diehard liberals, you can't make much progress with the perpetually aggrieved.
Catholic A: They just want a Pope who teaches clearly!
Catholic B: No, they want a Pope who sticks to a script so they're never disturbed. They're so used to hostile reactions that if a Pope isn't hated by all the right people, they're afraid of him. I'm afraid that if we're going to make any progress in the culture war, people who like the same exact message repeated ad nauseum will need to be disturbed. We don't need to change any beliefs or orthodoxies, but we damn sure need to change how we express them.