When confronted with highly credible allegations of his own wrongdoing in relation to the homoerotic abuses of former Cardinal McCarrick, in an airborne “papal presser” on Sunday, Pope Francis evinced the storied autocratic temperament that has come to be widely known in many corners of the Vatican. Most news outlets seem to have reported this fact as an oddity – even as an article of curiosity – without any further analysis.
Doing so presents a missed opportunity to scrutinize the newest aspects of Francis’s scandal-wracked pontificate and Curia.
After pre-empting his baffling remarks with the whimsical absurdity that he preferred to talk about his trip to Ireland, if you haven’t by now heard, here’s what Pope Francis said: “I will not say a single word[.] … [W]hen some time passes and you have drawn your conclusions, I may speak. But I would like your professional maturity to do the work for you. It will be good for you.”
There is quite a bit packed into these short lines. As someone trained in the law, I am interested in this answer. As someone who formerly taught college logic and rhetoric, I am even more interested in it.
One recalls Seinfeld jabbing Kramer, recently accused of murder but remaining chipper and consanguine, in the ribs, saying: “Are you aware of what’s going on here – of what you’re being accused of?” In Pope Francis’s case, one wonders the same.
No matter what comes of the veracity of these accusations, one thing is fixed and certain: Pope Francis is a Peronist to the bitter end. An admirer in his youth of the dictator Juan Perón, the older Pope Francis seems to maintain what he learned long ago. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, it is clear. Anyone else, guilty or innocent, would act to dispel the charges being brought against him. But not the dictator pope.
For over five years of this pontificate, all of Francis’s most prominent lessons and examples have been, by nature, a) cautionary and b) political. As Henry Sire points out in Dictator Pope, young Bergoglio was a wildly enthusiastic Peronist. Even the Washington Post corroborates the assumption in an old article: “[Peronism] attempts to bridge class divides through the combination of a strong, authoritative leader, a highly centralized and generous social welfare state, and heavy doses of quasi-religious nationalist sentiment.” (If we change nationalist to internationalist, does this sound familiar? Remind you of any recent pontificates?)
The same article in the Washington Post continues: “Peron was a classic Latin American strongman, stifling dissent and styling himself as the embodiment of Argentine national pride.” Whatever the case about Perón, Pope Francis should be seen as a modified Latin American strongman – stifling dissent but allowing others to style him the embodiment of internationalist pride.
His answer in the papal presser fits well into this mold.
Neither confirming nor denying the charges against him stakes a powerful rhetorical and psychological claim sufficiently subtle as to merit articulation here. Like unmistakable yet nonspecific body language, the “subtext” in Francis’s response is this: whether the charges are true or untrue is, as far as the bottom line is concerned, immaterial; he, Pope Francis alone, will deign to say when and if his run has ended, irrespective of whatever true charges may ultimately be brought against him. The passage of time will possibly bring greater revelations – then again, perhaps not – but, like a hand held over a flipped coin long enough, you will lose your interest in the matter…or failing that, at least your steam.
As remarked by the Senator Gracchus in Gladiator, fear and wonderment make a potent bromide. The pontiff who first made himself known as the chiding enviro-nanny (back in summer of 2015) with Laudato Si reminds the faithful that he will not even in the crucible of scandal desist to wag his finger in our faces. On the other hand, an element of audacity (and with it, fear) hides in the sheer discomfiture of his inopportune daring. The Peronist Pope will continue from the Barque to determine what is healthful and what is not – wonderment stems from the fact that he burnishes the helm and the navigational tools, even as he neglects to deny grave claims against him. And you, he assumes, will accept it. It will be, after all, “good for you.”
Laudato Si mostly demonstrated how woefully the old Peronist misunderstands free enterprise and what little capacity the man possesses for non-planned political economies. It is a well known anathema, for such partisans as Pope Francis; as any reader of Laudato Si will tell you, Pope Francis’s hatred of free enterprise is as blind as it is ill fitted for describing the actual pitfalls of the economic system. Similarly here, his assumptions about the workings of the first-world leftist mainstream media – who have been amiable to this pontiff for obvious reasons – seem to betray him to overconfidence.
All the world is not Buenos Aires, Your Holiness. And this is not the trifling matter of the environment. That stuff doesn’t quite fly here.
It remains my serious (but not confident) hope that in this arena, Francis has overshot his mark – at least for those of us who live in “the West,” first-world nations jealous of their own freedoms (the same liberty- and individualism-minded first-world nations who found themselves consistently in his sights in Laudato Si). Again, this is not dictator-strewn South America; this is North America, which prefigures my last point.
Pope Francis’s playbook remains Peronist. The non-response to the 2016 dubia was the mute prerogative of the Peronist. The non-response on Sunday was the same. After all, the patient outlasting of the popular imagination worked in the case of the dubia. Even among those of us in the First World to and for whom such cheap, third-world chicanery was “transparent,” it still worked insofar as we are not talking about Amoris Laetitia’s banes any longer; in this sole sense has the current pontificate made good on its promises of transparency.
We must do better in the coming days and weeks. There is good reason to believe that we will; more natural interest lies here, even in the secular First World, which has all but abandoned the principles to which Christ’s One True Church is committed.