God Digs Ambiguity (?)

cthulhuI’ve noticed among my fellow papists deep concern that Pope Francis, by shooting the breeze with journalists and chatting in informal and imprecise language, is risking the salvation of souls.  They want him to be clear, dreadful, and authoritative so there’s no question about what we all have to believe and do in order to avoid an unending marshmallow roast with Gozer the Gozerian.  Instead the pope’s talking in ways they feel give easy excuse for error, sin and vice.  Vinz and Zuul must be whispering in his ear.  Or maybe Bobby McFerrin.

I’ve gotten the sense that Pope Francis knows that neither he nor his office is all that money.  Ross Douthat describes the Pope Francis’ strategic engagement with the world as a “deliberate demystification of the papacy.”  Sounds about right, and I for one am pleased to see this demystification happening.  Observers both inside and outside the church understand the pope’s function as dictatorial and maybe even a little magical, when the pope’s responsibility really is more like the Dude’s rug tying the room together.

As a leader responsible for a global church, he has global power, but even he’s subject to the rules of the game.  At times he gets the final say, but he still has to speak in congruence with the established interpretation of tradition.  If the pope one day proclaimed with the full office of his authority that Jesus Christ never existed, the church wouldn’t unravel, but he’d effectively be done as pope.  His faithful followers would claim that he wasn’t speaking as the supreme teacher, even though minus the message he appeared to be doing so by invoking the authority of his office.

This particular scenario sounds fantastic, I know, but I pose it because it shines a light on the double interpretation papal authority engenders.  Whenever the pope speaks, his audience interprets not only the meaning of the message, but also the kind and degree of authority with which the message was given.  It sometimes becomes a political game among the faithful.  Those whose beliefs the pope affirms insist that the message is true and, if there’s a basis for doing do, insist the manner in which the pope spoke demands obedience of the mind and will.  Those who disagree with what the pope says, but who want to appear or actually be faithful to the teaching office of the church, explain why the pope wasn’t speaking definitively or infallibly or otherwise authoritatively.  I’ve played the game myself.

The field on which this interpretive game is played has its limits, of course.  It’s game over if you deny that the pope has any authority.  You wouldn’t get anywhere but out the door by dissenting from doctrines without which the church and its good news would fall to the table like a house of cards.  The game has rules, but it’s still played with space for creative fidelity and faithful dissent.  You’d think with the church being concerned with matters of eternal life and death, it would have an easily accessible and understandable infallible list of infallible teaching, but no such list exists.  So far as we know.  Jeff Lebowski might have stolen it.  The point is no pope pontificates free of ambiguity.  No teaching of his washes away all possible uncertainty.  Popes set out to clarify doctrine from time to time, but this always occurs within the twofold structure of interpretation and the game that accompanies it.

I’ll risk having my own personal Antonin Scalia in-the-media moment by confessing my belief that God exists and speaks through human authors.  However, when I look at the ways in which I believe revelation has taken place, I’m led to conclude that instilling clear certainty of meaning is not high on the Almighty’s agenda.  God spoke and there was ambiguity. The Bible is more open to conflicting interpretations than The Usual Suspects.  The prophets it features were squirrely social outcasts.  Jesus spoke his mind with parables and deconstructive rhetoric.  Even the Ten Commandments raise more questions than they answer.  If there is some gnosis that we all better understand to get and stay on the good Lord’s good side, God sure didn’t make acquiring clear knowledge of it easy.  Quite the opposite.  Could be God’s tantalizing us for his own amusement, but I’m more given to believe that this life ain’t about obtaining an unshakable hold on secret, salvific knowledge.

Obviously I’m not troubled by the pope’s decision to demystify his role by speaking off the cuff and without caveats and clarifications to make sure we’re not in doubt about exactly what he means. No question he has a message to impart and he wants to be heard and understood, but I bet he also knows that understanding is an open and creative process over which he cannot have complete control.  And he doesn’t believe that he’s at the beck and call of Cthulhu.

Pope Francis isn’t playing with the usual pieces.  He’s relying heavily on non-authoritative means of communication like Twitter and newspapers. This focus alone has disrupted the interpretive game.  By speaking as any ol’ spiritual leader, without the authoritativeness that says “Listen and obey,” Pope Francis is in effect asking his teaching here to be considered with respect to the value of its content rather than with respect to the fact that he’s the pope speaking.  It’s not for nothing that Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said the church needs a “new hermeneutic.”

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16 thoughts on “God Digs Ambiguity (?)

  1. “They want him to be clear, dreadful, and authoritative so there’s no question about what we all have to believe and do in order to avoid an unending marshmallow roast with Gozer the Gozerian. Instead the pope’s talking in ways they feel give easy excuse for error, sin and vice.”

    I have colleagues like this. We talk about how much they like rules, because it makes obvious who is being “good” and who is being “bad”, themselves included. Why they insist on seeing the world in such terms, I don’t know. But from what I’ve seen of this pope, from what you’ve written, I like his style: give me a broader set of parameters and let me work within them. If I err, let me know. But don’t attempt to overly prescribe what I ought to be doing or not doing.

    Good piece, Ribs.


  2. Your description of how audiences interpret the Pope remind me of how audiences interpret the US News and World Report college rankings. The rankings are taken to be sound given the authority, but the authority comes in large part because that authority behaves in carefully prescribed ways. US News can survive saying that Northwestern is better than Harvard for one year, but it probably wouldn’t survive saying that Northeastern is. There is a paradox in wielding such authority. What you say goes as long as what you say doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable.


    • Isn’t there also something at play in terms of how much what is said agrees with what one believes?

      I do this all the time with sports writers. “Oh, he’s got a team I think sucks ranked 30th? This guy knows what he’s talking about. Wait… he’s got my favorite team only ranked 25th? What a clown.”


      • Note: This is different than being able to agree or disagree in part or in whole. Rather, it is referring to how much credibility we put into the actual writer/speaker.


      • Can we turn this into prescriptive advice? E.g., if you want someone to believe your claim of X, say nine things he already thinks are true before springing X on him. Since you got the first nine things right (in his mind), he’ll be more likely to take your word for it on X.


      • I think it in part depends on whether we are discussing that which is objective versus that which is subjective.

        If you demonstrate yourself to be a math whiz by successfully completing the first 9 problems, I might take you at your word with regards to the 10th and/or hold you up if I got the same answer on the 10th as you but was challenged.

        If you gave me 9 restaurant recommendations and all of them knocked it out of the park, none of that will make me like the 10th one if the food tastes like poopy in your mouth. I would probably still take your recommendations until such time that the poopy ones outweighed the homers or even just the risk of another poopy meal became too much to bear. But I would probably still call you a doof for like poopy food at that 10th restaurant.

        More broadly, I think it comes down to how willing people are to change their minds, or even be challenged. My hunch is that, collectively, we are much less willing to do this than we believe or would like to be.


      • none of that will make me like the 10th one if the food tastes like poopy in your mouth. I would probably still take your recommendations until such time that the poopy ones outweighed the homers or even just the risk of another poopy meal became too much to bear. But I would probably still call you a doof for like poopy food at that 10th restaurant.

        Hang out with children much, ? :)


      • I think your prescriptive advice is pretty good, but it’s more like the 9 things the person agrees with have to have some relationship with the 10th thing, or rather, all 10 things have to be related somehow. I don’t think one can get away by just saying 9 random things the other person already agrees with. Or if one can get away with that, he/she is not acting prescriptively, but acting tactically (with a whiff of flattery).


  3. I dig Francis’ style. As compared to his predecessor, he offers twice the humility, joy, and public service, and none of the dread. He really hasn’t changed the content of Catholic teachings in any way I can see, but he’s changed the tone to one that seems to underline all the things I admire about Christianity.


  4. I recently did two little posts about another religious man who isn’t saying stupid things. The world is thrilled to see Hassan the Cleric as President of Iran, a great contrast to the bellicose ignoramus Ahmedinejad.

    Pope Francis is still in charge of the Catholic Church, which hasn’t done much by way of action to demonstrate it has reformed its ways. Bernard Francis Law, erstwhile Archbishop of Boston, neatly escaped justice in the USA for his involvement in covering up many crimes of sexual abuse. He remains Archpriest of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, still unrepentant. Pope Francis has done nothing about this wicked little man, though he could and should.

    And like Hassan the Cleric, Pope Francis is not the complete master of his domain, whatever his title. He faces very considerable opposition within the Curia, of which Bernard Francis Law is a member in good standing. Nor has Pope Francis done anything about the groundswell of resentment among nuns, second class citizens within the Roman Catholic Church. In point of fact, Pope Francis is powerless to stop the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, known in earlier times as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, yes, that Inquisition, from keeping things just as they are.

    Pope Francis has many enemies and his predecessor is still holed up in the Vatican, swanning about, doing whatever it is ex-Popes do. Pope Francis has done nothing about him, either. Benedict, the most ridiculous priest in modern times. What is the Church to do with that waste of space?

    The Vatican stumbles along as it always has, the stench of venality, corruption and malfeasance in its wake, especially its finances. I await the day when Francis will actually follow the example of Our Lord and evict the moneychangers from that Temple upon Vatican Hill, that den of thieves. Pope Francis is doing nothing of substance. Faith without works is dead.


    • I agree, Francis may talk a good game (though even there I think he gets more credit than he deserves), but until we see some changes in policy he’s just a Benedict who’s better at PR.


      • While Bernard Francis Law remains a free man, he’s getting very old now, the Catholic Church cannot be said to have corrected the sexual abuse situation. As the Hausa say, tubun muzuru, the sorrow of the cat — who has been caught in the pigeon coop. As these dreadful episodes are uncovered, the Church is terribly apologetic, rolling its eyes to heaven, paying out fortunes to the victims in civil courts — but as far as I have been able to determine, the Catholic Church has done nothing about Bernard Francis Law, nor will it.

        Bernard Francis Law was first Pope John Paul II’s pet project. Hours before he was to be subpoenaed, Cardinal Law fled the country and JP2 installed him at Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. I have already said Cardinal Law is in the Curia, though he’s supposed to have retired. He hasn’t. He’s waist deep in the repression of the nuns.

        Pope Francis should defrock Cardinal Law immediately and extradite him to the USA to answer for his crimes. While he remains a free man, the Catholic Church cannot be said to have repented for its disgusting coverups. The Church is ancient and its secrets are many. Even if we are to indulge Pope Francis, put the best light possible on this situation, all that can be surmised is that Pope Francis lacks the mandate or the will to bring Cardinal Law to justice.


      • but until we see some changes in policy he’s just a Benedict who’s better at PR.

        I disagree. Sort of. For sure it’s possible that he’s engaging in an elaborate ruse, a PR game, intended to sustain and even entrench existing policy and power structures, including the Power of the Pope to Decree. But on a pretty important level this seems incoherent: one cannot imbue the Papal Authority with Mystical powers by demystifying Papal Authority. That’s the entire premise upon which the Church has been constructed. So it seems to me his current message will unravel, to some degree anyway, the ultimate grounds for Authority held by Believers. It brings the Church back into the real world where a dynamic and reciprocal relationship between the laity and ultimately the Pope.


      • Papal Authority is no different than any other sort of mandate. Authority translates to capability. The Pope supposedly holds the Keys of St. Peter, the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever the Pope binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever he frees on earth will be freed in heaven.

        That’s one big-ass mandate.

        It doesn’t matter if Pope Francis is engaged in a ruse or a PR game. He hasn’t done anything to reform the Curia. The two most important players in the Curia — first, a bit about the Curia itself, it’s actually several different Congregations. Think congressional committees. The two biggies are Doctrine and Evangelisation. Pope Francis continues very much along the lines of Benedict XVI. Doctrine is still run by Archbishop Mueller, very much a Benedict XVI kinda guy. Doctrine is the linchpin to the rest.

        Pope Francis is trying to reform the Holy See. One of two things are coming to pass: either he’s running up against roadblocks, that’s my guess. Or he’s just not pushing very hard. In either event, his mandate has not been used terribly effectively.


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