The Two Popes

Sandro Magister is the most astute Italian journalist covering the Vatican. He has a better read on its inner workings than anyone else. He has just written a remarkable piece in which he peels away the media hype surrounding Pope Francis and shows what is actually happening in Francis’ pontificate. Magister says that while in the media Francis is a revolutionary who is sweeping out the old guard and old ways and instilling a new focus on the poor and, much to the consternation of conservatives, calling for change in the way the Vatican looks at homosexuality, divorce and climate change, the reality is quite different. The central power in the Vatican is the Curia, and, Magister notes, there has been no change in it: The Curia “is still there and completely intact. Nothing has been dismantled or replaced.” The Vatican’s career diplomats, he goes on to say, “are more firmly in power than ever.”

As for the big issues of homosexuality and divorce, the Pope talked publicly about them, and made a huge stir with his “Who am I to judge?” comment. But Magister notes that since Francis encountered hostility to change from the inner circle he has largely returned to boilerplate language on these topics, “without swerving a millimeter from the strict teaching of his predecessors Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.” Magister says the Pope has since last October spoken out against these issues 40 times, and has refused to give a “placet” to France’s proposed Ambassador to the Vatican, who is gay.

Magister concludes: “the media continue to sell the story of the ‘revolutionary’ pope, but the true Francis is farther and farther away from this.”

Meanwhile, the conservatives in the Vatican have by now realized that they have an unexpected gift in Francis. He has turned around the Vatican’s largely negative image. He is providing cover. And, for them, business can continue as usual.

PEN and Charlie Hebdo

For the few people who may be interested in the thinking behind my decision to put my name with 144 other writers in speaking out against the decision by PEN to give its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” here is a brief outline. I fully agreed with the “Je Suis Charlie” wave of support in the aftermath of the attack in Paris. I am an advocate of unfettered free speech. I abhor violent efforts to restrict it. Further, I am no fan of religion, of any sort.

The PEN issue, however, is somewhat different. It is an award. An award ought to go to the best exponent of whatever it is honoring. While I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to speak and criticize, and found that it certainly took courage to do what they did, I concluded that, in terms of the larger effort to reduce the influence of religion on humanity, which is what I view the magazine’s purpose to be, and which is laudable in my mind, it was muddled. Its writers and artists may not be racist at all, but in my estimation the overall effect of the magazine has been to play on puerile racial and religious stereotypes. I don’t see this as an especially damning criticism, and I believe that I am largely in agreement with the objectives of Charlie Hebdo (as far as I understand them, and my knowledge of the French language and French culture is limited). But to me it means that such an award should go to a different advocate of free expression, of which there are many. I understand that awards like this are often meant as broad gestures, but smaller issues—such as the quality of the effort to achieve one’s ends—should be taken into consideration.

Finally, I strenuously reject the tendency to see such matters in black-and-white terms. I think it’s possible for a reasonable liberal thinker to come down on one side or the other. I imagine that a great many people who have strong opinions for or against the decision to give the award to Charlie Hebdo essentially share a similar set of beliefs, but differ in where they place emphasis.