Hart, American Catholicism, and Francis

Who knows? America is such an odd combination of Christian pieties and post-Christian habits of thought. What other country could produce persons, for instance, who believe it possible to be both Christian and libertarian (which makes me think of Enoch Soames, the “Catholic diabolist”)? With our occult belief in the possibility of limitless “wealth creation,” how do we dare acknowledge the limits of nature, human or cosmic? But Francis cannot ­really concern himself with our peculiarities and perversities. For all its economic power, American Catholicism is only one minor and rather aberrant party within the worldwide communion; and Francis is writing for his Church, not for America. Of course, it is possible that one day a Christian view of reality will take root even here, in this the first constitutionally and culturally post-Christian land in Western history. But—and, again, not being a Roman Catholic, I may have no right to say this—I do not think it is incumbent on the pope to hold his tongue until it does.

– David Bentley Hart, “Habetis Papam,” First Things

I confess that I am still in shock that David Bentley Hart’s simultaneous critique of American Catholicism and praise of Pope Francis wasn’t met with more commentary (just lots of Facebook shares). Hart, undoubtedly the finest Christian blowhard pontificating today, has a funny way of irritating Catholics almost as much as he vexes his Eastern Orthodox coreligionists. Whether he is flubbing the basics of natural-law teaching or childishly mocking natura pura, Hart just can’t seem to help himself, though in this instance at least he is right on the money when it comes to Americanist Catholic ideology. What he doesn’t seem to understand is why so many Catholics are truly frustrated with Francis. Yes, the peculiarities of American movement conservatism have something to do with it; but the core problem is that so many of Francis’s words and actions appear to be out-of-sync with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Some like to hold to the childish belief that Orthodox should not “meddle with” the affairs of the Catholic Church and instead tend to their own disheveled ecclesiastical nest. I disagree. While Hart perplexes me at times with the clumsy way he handles Catholic teaching, there can be little doubt that he is far more sympathetic toward Western Christianity than most Orthodox writers. More importantly, however, Hart (and other Orthodox observers of “things Catholic”) brings an outsider’s perspective to the table which — in a perfect world — could help temper Catholic chauvinism. The problem with Hart in particular is that his track record up to this time hasn’t been particularly good since he successfully needled a certain brand of American Catholics for their puerile dismissals of Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life.

As for Francis, it might behoove Hart to reflect on what his fellow Orthodox think of the man as well and what, if any, positive ecumenical fruits can come from his papacy. As I have written elsewhere, while I do believe that Papa Frank sincerely desires East/West reunion, he fails to understand how his rhetoric, liturgical style, and seeming blindness to the problem of “papalotry” militate against positive relations with the Orthodox East.  It will take a far more broad-minded and circumspect pope (or series of popes) to make the possibility of reunion even remotely plausible. As it stands, world Orthodoxy is a mess, with patriarchates and autocephalous churches remaining at each other’s throats. It also doesn’t help that there is a contingent of neo-Orthodox out there who have basically adopted a Jansenist position with regards to grace outside of their narrow, heavily policed, borders. Francis cannot transcend those difficulties, and I have my doubts that he is even fully aware of them.