Reimagining American Community

popefrancisselfieI don’t know about you but so many people I talk to are saying such divergent things about this latest interview with Pope Francis.  In reading it, I personally felt like I was drinking liquified sweetness and light but, as soon as I read something about the interview, be it in First Things or the New York Times, or talked to somebody about it, the sweetness and the the light evaporated.  Thirsting for more, and for clarification, I dialed him up.  As is his style, he answered….

[NB: The following is NOT an actual interview with Pope Francis.  Responses are quotes from authors that, to me, seem to get his spirit.]


Pope Francis?


You got a minute?

Sure.  I’m just finishing a small meal.

Thanks.  And sorry to take time away from your dinner.  Listen. I’m wondering if you can clarify a few things for me based on this recent interview you gave. I liked it. I mean, I really liked it. But when I think about it or talk to people, my political and economic wires get all crossed. “Liberal” and “Conservative” lenses didn’t help me either. I read the interview and, though I felt exhilarated, I realized I was not in my political Kansas anymore. Can you help me explain my sense of vertigo?

As is so often the case as this bloody century winds down, the divisions are not between liberals and conservatives, or socialists and free marketeers, but between the local and the remote, the village and the globe, the flesh and blood and the abstract.[1]

That helps a bit. Gracias. That framework for thinking about things seems to tie into your first homily as pope when you said that without Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the church is nothing more than a “pitiful NGO”. I liked that. Still, you’re kind of a hard read on these social questions. For example, in this last interview, you said, “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it.”

As I see it, you’re making distinctions there that need a bit more elucidation. It’s like your, to some, rather confusing statements on Liberation Theology ( ) in previous writings. Can you say anything more that can help us understand these distinctions and why it we have trouble receiving it?

“Most people would probably be willing to admit that there is a huge difference in taste, meaning, and satisfaction between a home-cooked meal and a TV dinner. But the examination and understanding of this difference can be easily blocked, especially among those committed to equal rights, equity and service to the poor. They know how many mothers have no milk in their breasts, how many children in the South Bronx suffer protein deficiencies, how many Mexicans – surrounded by fruit trees – are crippled by vitamin deficits. As soon as I raise the distinction between vernacular values and values susceptible of economic measurement and, therefore, of being administered, some self-appointed tutor of the so-called proletariat will tell me that I am avoiding the critical issue by giving importance to non-economic niceties. Should we not seek first the just distribution of commodities that correlate to basic needs? Poetry and fishing shall then be added without more thought or effort. So goes the reading of Marx and the Gospel of St. Matthew as interpreted by the theology of liberation.”[2]

Interesting. I like that phrase, “tutor of the so-called proletariat”.  That certainly explains a lot of people here in the West, save Dorothy Day and a few like her. The viewpoint of the NGO, the normal, Cartesian, viewpoint– the one the comments and manipulates from the fleshless, rootless distance –seems to miss lots of important distinctions, like those you say exist between a home-cooked meal and a TV dinner.

The moment you begin to think about the hungry in terms of calories, in your own fantasy you become a systems administrator.[3]

Wow. It’s hard to imagine Jesus as a systems administrator.

Going in a slightly different direction, if you don’t mind, I kind of like the distinction you make between Hope and Optimism? Christopher Lasch and others have made the same distinction and, like you, are hard to categorize in our terms of Right and Left. Corruptio optima pessima, it seems. The worst is the corruption of the best.   Can you say a bit more about that?

I distinguish between the attitudes of hope and expectation. “Expectation” is based on a belief in instruments and the naive acceptance of socially constructed certitudes. “Hope” is based on historically-rooted experience. To face the future freely, one must give up both optimism and pessimism and place all hope in human beings, not trust in tools and instruments.

I, for one, see unsquashable signs of hope in the lifestyles of subsistence peasants or in the network of activists who save trees here, or plant them there. But, I admit that I am still unable to envisage how, short of a devastating catastrophe, these hope-inspiring acts can be translated into “policy.”[4]

 Ahh, “policy” and “pitiful NGO’s”. They’re not the answer, huh? That’s a tough pill to swallow, but I think I’m starting to get it….

Can I ask you about your comments on women? You’re a risk taker for sure, agreeing to talk on that subject. You said that, “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church. I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo.” You also said, “Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. “

Again, any elaboration on this point would be helpful.

The girl and the woman, in their new, their own unfolding, will but in passing be imitators of masculine ways, good and bad, and repeaters of masculine professions.  After the uncertainty of such transitions it will become apparent that women were only going through the profusion and the vicissitude of those (often ridiculous), disguises in order to cleanse their own most characteristic nature of the distorting influences of the other sex. Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully and more confidently, must surely have become fundamentally riper people, more human, than easygoing man.”[5]

That does help. I doubt it’s going to make it more palatable, but at least you’re consistent.

Consistency is a virtue for trains.[6]

Sorry. Why, of all things, did I try to pay you that compliment? Consistency has never been one of your top priorities. I kind of like that about you too, but it does cause some confusion. But you don’t seem to worry about that. On a related note,  regarding confusion: I’m reading lots of people on-line and in print who, though sympathetic to the things you say, still worry that you’re not thinking enough about the consequences of what you say. They don’t think it’s quite rational not to at least try to predict the consequences and fear that the ease with which you can be misinterpreted plays right into the hands of the Church’s enemies. What say you regarding that “consequentialist” point of view?

“In a chaotic world, moral decisions are the only rational ones.”[7]

Man oh man. You are indeed different. And concise. I, for one, find it refreshing.

Now, just one more question, or let’s call it a request. You mentioned before the importance of the difference between the abstract and the local. That type of thinking seems to jam our normal political radar. Because I have you on the phone, can you give me one hint about something that, to many of us, is the most important question; namely, whether you are somebody who sees themselves as standing more on the Right or on the Left? Throw me a bone, please,  as my tribal instincts are all sorts of confused right now.

Between the illusion of the good-old days and the illusion of progress and being up-to-date there is little difference. In order to live profoundly, in time outside of time, to be of every age, it would be necessary to leave so many things behind. All this makes for terrible bitterness between arch conservatives and progressives, in a struggle that keeps their minds occupied and occasionally distracts the general public while avoiding the real questions.[8]

Touche, and well said. Thanks for your time. What are you going to do now? I think I caught you at the dinner hour.

The dishes. 


1.           Bill Kauffman
2.           Ivan Illich
3.           Ivan Illich
4.           Ivan Illich
5.           Rainer Maria Rilke
6.           Stephen Vizinczey
7.           Stephen Vizinczey
8.           Jean Sulivan

About the Author
Michael J. Sauter is married and the father of four teens as well as the stepfather to dwarf goats and chickens. He doesn’t speak to trees but he does speak a lot to Trappist monks at the nearby Abbey of the Genesee. He has an M.A. in Theology from St. Bernard’s Institute and serves as Director of Catholic Campus Ministry at SUNY Geneseo as well as Pastoral Administrator of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in upstate, NY.