Who Is Pope Francis?

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, defies easy categorization. Neither liberals nor conservatives quite know what they are getting.

The left has immediately pounced on him for his reported opposition to gay adoption, gay marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, even as they approve of his name, which they interpret as a sign that he is oriented towards “Social Justice” and eschews “pomp.”

Meanwhile, traditionalists, while praising his humility and happy to see his past pro-life, pro-marriage statements, aren’t uniformly thrilled either, with some seeing him as an elliptical Jesuit who will arrest the Church’s orthodox trajectory and liturgical tightening under Benedict XVI.

It has been reported that Bergoglio came in second at the last conclave, suggesting that he appealed to those who found Joseph Ratzinger too retrograde (though it has been reported that Bergoglio threw his support behind Benedict). Bergoglio apparently emerged from this one as a fusionist candidate between the two camps in a field without frontrunners.

Still, a 76-year-old “slow-moving” prelate “with one lung,” as a reporter for Atlantic Monthly described him, is an enigmatic choice, particularly since Benedict resigned to make way for a pope with more “vigor” and “stamina.” The choice may raise more questions than answers about Benedict’s resignation.

At one time, the Jesuits would have hailed the first Jesuit pope as a crowning moment for an order founded out of papal zeal. They would have quoted St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier on the need for a strong papacy. Instead, they seemed pleased that Bergoglio named himself after a Franciscan. Like the secular media, the modern Jesuits see St. Franci of Assisi as the patron saint of community organizing, even though by today’s standards his actual views would be regarded as militantly orthodox and he would have seen the conflation of the corporal works of mercy with specific left-wing political programs as mystifying.

Pope Francis makes history as the first pope from Latin America, where the faith is strong in numbers if receding. But perhaps more remarkable is that he is a Jesuit: Who would hav thought a conclave, ostensibly searching for a reformer, would pluck him from one of the most troubled orders in the Church?

Some liberal Jesuits have apparently criticized Bergoglio, which is a good sign. But that may not mean much, since the order has grown so radical that even centrists within the order receive flak. Informed reports on where he stands on the theological spectrum within the order will likely appear in the next few days and fill out the picture.

If he is an orthodox reformer in the mold of St. Francis of Assisi and a missionary in the spirit of St. Francis Xavier, he will need to start close to home. The Jesuits have grown so worldly and heterodox that if St. Ignatius of Loyola were alive today he wouldn’t even be ordained into it. The Jesuit system of colleges and universities has gone from defending the faith t defaming it.

The focus on curial corruption seems to have deflected attention from this larger disease of bad theology, liturgy, education, and discipline, of which corruption and chaos at the Vatican are mere symptoms. Benedict took a stab at healing it, but the job remains largely undone.

One suspects the Catholic left is breathing a sigh of relief that his successor may have even less stomach for that task. On the finer theological and liturgical points, where the most consequential struggles within the Church are fought, Pope Francis is probably seen as an improvement over Benedict. A few spirit-of-Vatican II types have identified what they consider heartening quotes from past interviews, such as, “One does not remain faithful, like the traditionalists or fundamentalists, to the letter,” and, “It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one.”

The choice may prove even trickier than that, as the Church is both wounded and withdrawn and cries out for a St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis Xavier.

Photo: UPI

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‘Not Obama’ Wins Again

Campaign Crawlers

Romney maintains momentum in the final debate of 2012.

Who „won” the debate is a question instantly asked in the aftermath of these televised rituals, but with just two weeks left to go, the real question is, who will win the election? And after Monday night’s meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, the answer to both questions appears to be the same: „Not Obama.”

This has been Mitt Romney’s challenge from the outset, to make himself acceptable to the millions of Americans who want to vote for „Not Obama,” and his performance in the final debate of the 2012 campaign did nothing to disqualify him. As a result, the Republican challenger remains on a trajectory toward victory on Nov. 6.

Conservative blogger Elizabeth Price Foley summarized President Obama’s debate performance in four words: „Snarky, condescending, peevish and small.” If undecided voters were eager to embrace whichever candidate could best exemplify smug self-congratulation, Obama won by a landslide. After Romney had referred to the president’s „apology tour… going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America,” Obama shot back: „Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing. This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who’s looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.”

That was the point at which a group of uncommitted voters, doing an instant dial-meter reaction for CNN, recorded its lowest mark for the Democrat incumbent. And despite the emphatic stridency of Obama’s denial, as Foley pointed out, the  Heritage Foundation has documented Obama’s tendency to strike an apologetic posture abroad, as when  he went to France in 2009 and declared that „America has shown arrogance and been dismissive,” failing „to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world.”

Fact-checkers, policy wonks, and spinners for both parties will rate the point-by-point accuracy of each candidate’s statements, but such particulars will not change the general impression of Obama as pompously indignant when challenged, lecturing Romney pedantically and often on the verge of dislocating a shoulder while trying to pat himself on the back. It is well known that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has been the president’s main debate coach, but at times Monday, it seemed that Obama was mimicking the same stuck-up attitude that made Kerry ultimately unacceptable to voters in 2004. Indeed, in trying to portray Romney as a George W. Bush clone, Obama at times seemed to be recycling the Left’s anti-war arguments of four or even eight years ago. If Michael Moore, Sean Penn, and Janeane Garofalo were typical of undecided „swing” voters in Ohio, the president’s re-election would be assured. Obama was one scream short of being Howard Dean.

The morning shows and cable-news networks are sure to spend a lot of time today replaying the weirdest moment of the debate, when Romney said – quite accurately – that the U.S. Navy „is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” with fewer ships than the Navy says it needs. To this, Obama replied: „Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. „

What in the name of John Paul Jones was this? Did the president sincerely think Romney needed to be told what submarines and aircraft carriers are? Fact-checkers were quick to point out that the Marine Corps still trains with bayonets, but the implication of Obama’s remark – that naval ships are as obsolete as 19th-century horse cavalry and bayonet charges – was certainly not likely to win him many votes in such swing-state Navy towns as Norfolk, Virginia, and Pensacola, Florida.

There were numerous criticisms of Romney’s performance, of course. The GOP challenger was seemingly eager to avoid the appearance of excessive hawkishness. Democrat strategists had signaled their intent to portray him as a warmonger, and Romney refused to help them. And judging from the reaction of liberal commentators in post-debate panels at MSNBC and CNN, Romney also flummoxed Democrats by frequently agreeing with Obama. It seemed obvious that Romney, believing he came into the final debate with sufficient momentum to win, was running the equivalent of a „prevent defense,” willing to yield ground and avoid risky confrontations. Thus, Obama was on the attack most of the night against an opponent who, while steadily maintaining his criticisms of the president’s policies, refused to be baited into unnecessary fights.

CNN instant poll
of debate viewers showed they graded the match a narrow win for Obama, 48-40, even while the debate had no net impact on survey sample’s election preferences. My own method of analysis was to switch over to MSNBC for their post-debate discussion and, as I remarked on Twitter, „Chris Matthews isn’t giddy. That means, Romney won.”

Does anyone disagree with that assessment? Never mind. Two weeks from now, my opinion will be moot, and the same will be true for all the commentators and moderators and other TV talking heads who have been running their mouths in debate previews and post-debate wrap-ups for the past three weeks. If they were willing to put their money where their mouths are, however, I’d be willing to bet any of them that on Election Day, when the voters have their chance to speak, they’ll choose „Not Obama.”

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Newsweek Goes Weakly

Media Matters

Four years ago, Newsweek proclaimed „the end of conservatism.” Newsweek announced this week that it would reach its end as a print publication on New Year’s Eve. Don’t expect conservatives to break into „Auld Lang Syne.”

Henry Hazlitt, whose „Business Tides” column graced Newsweek’s pages from 1946 to 1966, got an early bead on the magazine’s downward spiral when the Graham family publishing tycoons purchased the magazine in the early sixties. The Economics in One Lesson author didn’t exactly predict his employer would spike the biggest sex scandal in American political history or run a demeaning cover photo of a conservative woman in running shorts. But when Newsweek axed Hazlitt after writing articles that had run afoul of the Graham family’s liberal politics, he knew it was not the same magazine that had hired him. Hazlitt could see the writing on the wall once he couldn’t see his writing on Newsweek’s pages.

That was the beginning of the end. The end of the end was painful and protracted. Like its competitors, Newsweek faced challenges from the Internet and a less literate public. Unlike its competitors, Newsweek didn’t meet those challenges.

Why will shelves hold Time in 2013 but not Newsweek?

The answer lies more in Newsweek’s print past than in its digital future, which, given that the subset of the Daily Beast doesn’t even have its own independent web address, doesn’t appear very promising. The weekly undermined its credibility and advertised its bias. How long can you insult the bulk of your readership and retain a readership?

Newsweek inflicted a damaging blow to itself in 2007 when it published an overheated cover story on global warming that referred twelve times to questioners of the human-causation theory as „the denial machine.” Lacking both a thesaurus and perspective, Sharon Begley implicitly compared global-warming skeptics to Holocaust deniers, the latter rejecting historical truth and the former rejecting scientific truth. The „denial machine,” you see, had unleashed „a paralyzing fog of doubt” upon blissful uniformity. And questioning is just not science – at least according to Newsweek.

In an unusual move, Robert J. Samuelson, one of the magazine’s longest serving and most respected writers, dubbed the piece „a highly contrived story” and a case study of how „self-righteous indignation can undermine good journalism.” A few years later, the publication – which in 1975 had so worried about an Ice Age that it discussed artificially melting the polar caps – declared that „green politics has fallen from its lofty heights.”

The point here isn’t necessarily that Newsweek is wrong. It’s that the publication is other-directed. A magazine caught up in trends can’t help but become a casualty of them.

The style and substance of the current issue’s four book reviews, collectively titled „Illicit Loves: Four New Novels on Desire and Fear” and individually allocated less than 70 words apiece, demonstrate the degree to which the publication has thrown in the towel. The bizarre solution to declining readership of directing content toward nonreaders takes an even more farcical turn in book reviews slightly longer, and far less insightful, than a child’s haiku. That the subject matter (incest and a woman’s affair with a boy) of two of the books would be unfit for Penthouse „Forum” says much about why Newsweek has become so marginalized. When they take the silly so seriously even the silly cease taking them seriously.

Like the book reviewers, Newsweek’s reporters put their heads in the toilet.

The 2005 report that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran down the toilet could have been written by a sandwich-board protester at a Bush-era International Answer rally. The basis of the story was a Pentagon official’s „no comment.” Don Imus queried Newsweek’s Howard Fineman: „He [the Pentagon official] didn’t confirm it or didn’t deny it or anything, right?” Fineman answered: „Well, he didn’t deny it.” A flummoxed Imus retorted: „He didn’t confirm it either.”

Newsweek lied. More than a dozen rioting Muslims died.

When a radio shock-jock schools a venerable publication on journalistic ethics, it’s a sign that the magazine will soon cease being both venerable and a magazine. The pattern of ideologues seizing an institution with a sterling reputation – see any number of foundations or universities – only to sully it is by now a familiar one.

Two years ago, Sidney Harman bought Newsweek for $1. He got ripped off. The weekly, which had become untrustworthy to a huge segment of its target audience, bled money. Newsweek outliving its nonagenarian owner startled the actuarial tables.

Newsweek now appears to the public as its content does: last week’s news. Editor-in-chief Tina Brown announced Thursday, „We are transitioning Newsweek, not saying goodbye to it.” The „we” speaks for one. Most people said goodbye long ago.

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