The pope's favorite American prelate, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, opined this week on the character of the church's biggest celebrity. According to O'Malley, Pope Francis isn't about to launch a revolution in the church, he's just changing the tone.
O'Malley said the shift in emphasis is necessary because the church has been in the past "too strident, maybe too repetitious." The interview's main pitch is of a "softer" church.
This is a very politic thing for a prince of the church to say, but of course, it is totally wrong. If the church's tone under Pope Francis has changed at all, it has actually become harder, more lashing, and even snarky.
The story of the last two papacies to which most of the media is slavishly dedicated goes like this: Pope Benedict was a meanie who, in the memorable phrasing of Rolling Stone, "looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares." By contrast, Pope Francis is your super-chill, vaguely commie friend, who plays with animals and responds to sin with a cool shrug.
The truth is somewhat different. Pope Benedict was a warm and often misunderstood scholar. His views of economics may be even further to the left than his successor's. His encyclicals and his books are gentle and reflective. His letter to the atheist author Piergiorgio Odifreddi typifies the tone. Even when much of what he offers is criticism, it comes with a light and inviting touch.
The unnoticed part of the "new tone" in the church is that Francis is practically an insult comic. Where Benedict sought to condemn errors in the abstract, Pope Francis makes it personal and attacks tendencies within certain groups of people, usually in highly stylized papal idioms.
He has condemned "airport bishops." Christians who complain too much, he called "Mr. and Mrs. Whiner." Can we even imagine how much crap Pope Benedict would have taken from the media if he told nuns not to become "old maids?" Francis said just that, though.
Sometimes it is not exactly clear whom the pope intends to lampoon. The pope has dumped rhetorical acid on "Christians of words," who "are rigid! This type think that being Christian means being in perpetual mourning." At other times Francis is much too clear, like when he said journalists run the risk of "becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia" — that is, journalists turned on by shit might get sick from eating it.
Catholics of a more traditional bent really cause Francis to bring out the stick. He has called them "triumphalists" and "restorationists." He dubs those that send him notes enumerating the number of rosaries they have prayed for him "Pelagians," after the heretic who denied the necessity of divine grace for salvation. In his pastoral letter he more memorably extended it to "self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagians"
One Catholic blogger has been commissioned to compile all the Vicar of Christ's invective into The Pope Francis Little Book of Insults.
Insults aren't foreign to Christianity. Jesus himself was brutal when condemning the "whitened sepulchers" and the "brood of vipers" among the religious leaders of his day.
But where is the "strident and repetitious" church that O'Malley mentioned? Certainly it doesn't seem to be the one most Catholics attend week to week. Here's Cardinal O'Malley speaking only a month ago:
The normal Catholic in the parish might hear a sermon on abortion once a year. They'll never hear a sermon on homosexuality or gay marriage. They'll never hear a sermon about contraception. But if you look at The New York Times, in the course of a week, there will be 20 articles on those topics. So who is obsessed?
Indeed, if one encounters the church only through the hegemonic frame of the culture war and political battles, it does seem like the church is little more than a series of "Thou shall nots" closely linked to human sexuality. The liturgy, the ministries to the poor, the wide variety of life in the church seem to fade into the background. Including the volcanic eruptions of its supposedly placid pope.