Gotham Diary:
Where the Action Is
September 2018 (I)

4 and 7 September

Tuesday 4

In his new memoir, Every Day Is Extra, John Kerry apparently regrets not having been more aggressive about refuting the “Swift Boat” attacks that were made during his presidential campaign in 2004. I never paid much attention to them; they were obviously beneath notice. But then I wasn’t the candidate. Maybe, when you’re running for office, you have to deal with every clump of mud that’s thrown at you.

Pope Francis is not running for anything, so John Kerry’s advice does not apply. But his determination to ignore the reactionaries who are now his open opponents in the Church is certainly the most exciting thing going. Will he be able to pull it off? If his silence succeeds, it may transform journalism and create a new model of institutional authority. I will try to explain that transformation is a later entry. Right now, I want to take stock of the present moment.

With respect to Archbishop Viganò and his American collaborators, Francis has urged journalists to do their thing, and investigate the contentions, which are two in number. First, there is the nature of sanctions, if any, allegedly imposed on former Cardinal McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI, and allegedly lifted by his successor. The twaddle about homosexual networks within the American clergy will to some extent be clarified by this investigation, insofar as any connection can be demonstrated between such conspiracies (if they exist) and the cancer of pedophilia that has undermined the health of the American Church.

The other matter is Kim Davis. Who said what to whom about her brief interview with the Pope on his Washington visit in 2015? Good luck with that one. The Times suggests that the Pope has muzzled those in the Vatican who could shed some light on the subject. I disagree. I think that the Pope is trying to keep the issue’s Rashomon potential to a minimum. Kim Davis was the most ephemeral sort of celebrity, and the only word for any Vatican attempt to assess her true value would necessarily be “slapstick.” It could not have been otherwise.

It becomes more clear every day that those calling for Francis’s resignation are reactionaries, and not conservatives, for the simple reason that they want to undo a revolution that has already taken place. It is also clear that Francis hopes to temporize for as long as possible, making pleasant but rather insubstantial gestures of reconciliation to those who have fallen away from Christ’s Body on Earth because of sexual and marital complications. Significant numbers of  Catholics in Western countries have rejected, in their own lives, the validity of the Augustinian settlement, which allowed sex — yay! — but only in the marriages of men and women. These largely quiet revolutionaries do not believe that all other expressions of sexuality are depraved. They also disagree that women are inherently inferior to men. (It goes without saying that this revolution, as well as the inevitable counter-revolution, is hardly confined to Catholics!)

At the moment, we are watching what I hope are last-ditch efforts, by men and women who either don’t want to lose unearned privileges or don’t want to assume personal responsibility for familiar arrangements, to thwart this revolution. The Pope is doing his part, to thwart the thwarting, by saying nothing. Augustine’s teaching has informed Church dogma for a very long time, and there is no conceivable Rose Roseannadanna to sigh, “Well, never mind.” Nor has the revolution touched recently-converted non-Western congregations, many and possibly most of whom are engaged in open and unseemly competition with unreformed Muslims for adherents. Rome won’t be rebuilt in a day. As I see it, the Pope’s job, any pope’s job, is to play for time.

Being the Pope, Francis cannot say different things to different people. He can, and ought to, punish subordinates who press for premature resolution. I hope that he will gain the institutional strength — he doesn’t have it now — to deter the complicity of American prelates with their Evangelical pals in the pursuit of a reactionary social agenda. But to the faithful at large he must remain genial and non-committal. He can only pray to be followed on St Peter’s throne by a like-minded man.  Some day, that throne may be occupied by a like-minded woman, but not anytime soon. For the time being, what the sexual revolution needs most is the peace and quiet of deep shade. What the Church needs most is for Francis to go on smiling, and with a closed mouth.


Friday 7th

To continue with the thread that I left dangling on Tuesday: the Pope’s decision to give Archbishop Viganò’s malicious and opportunistic allegations the Silent Treatment, so far as the press is concerned, may prove beneficial in two ways. First, the press will have to clarify those allegations itself as it investigates the story pursuant to the Pope’s invitation, and the exercise may sharpen its scruples about succumbing to the excitement of a saucy news story and giving gravitas to an irrelevant bombshell. Second, that invitation may reweave the ancient relationship between authority and secrecy.

Taking up the second possibility first, it has become fairly clear during Francis’s incumbency that, while he is no fan of murky, same-old same-old ways of doing things, he is not a puritan reformer, zealously committed to bringing the Church’s irregularities to light, whatever they may. He wants to do the best possible job going forward, but he understands that the Church’s age alone contributes to the proliferation of shady corners and dodgy deals, many of them innocent even if inadvisable. There is little reason to believe that the Vatican mind, which has been reproducing itself from generation to generation for well over a thousand years, has taken note of the fact that the Church’s territorial assets have shrunk quite drastically in relatively recent times. While every secretary and bureaucrat in the Holy City is surely aware that Bologna is now part of the Republic of Italy, and no longer the Holy See’s auxiliary capital in the north, it is probable that not every longstanding habit of thought has been edited in accordance.

Rather than mount a crusade against the procedural irregularities that have threatened to hurl the Vatican into the abysses of insolvency and moral corruption, counting on the good guys in the Church to wipe out the bad guys and risking cosmetic changes that leave the bad guys sitting pretty, Francis seems to be challenging disinterested journalists to do the job for him. The two scandals that I mention come together in the person of George Cardinal Pell, the Australian prelate whom Francis asked to help organize the Church’s finances but who was soon embroiled in pedophile scandals back home.

Pell’s Wikipedia page states that Francis “allowed” Pell to return to Australia to defend himself, but I should say rather that the Pope declined to protect him. The modern function of the press with respect to criminal matters is to force prosecutors to consider bringing charges in pursuit of a definitive judgment; it is a function of the modern world that prosecutors don’t work for the Church. If Francis’s treatment of the Pell case becomes truly exemplary, then the last sinews of the doctrine of “benefit of clergy” will have been severely abraded, and the Church might finally abandon its medieval claim to the right to discipline its members in purely secular matters — such as sexual abuse. That will be a far more effective method of cleaning out the stables than promising to reveal all of the Vatican’s secrets in an orgy of transparency. All Francis has to do is stand out of the way, and he seems to be pretty good at that, even if it hasn’t won him many admirers. He prefers to exert his authority where it is needed, as for example in condemning capital punishment tout court.


We can only hope that the Pope’s conduct so far has induced a round of soul-searching among journalists who succumbed to the thrill of reporting Archbishop Viganò’s bold claims without registering that they had been timed with the Pope’s journey of reconciliation of Ireland in mind, and thereby encouraged the public to confuse two utterly unrelated issues. The Archbishop obviously intended to create a connection between the “homosexual network” of American priests (the actual subject of his outburst) with clerical pederasty without making it explicitly himself. He could rely on the “coincidence” of the Pope’s Irish pilgrimage — and the avidity of journalists for stories of outrage and catastrophe.

A Times story over the weekend, written by Laurie Goodstein and Jason Horowitz, asserted in different parts of their report that, as of July, former Cardinal McCarrick “is appealing” the judgment that demoted him to mere archbishop status, and yet that “in June” (the previous month), Pope Francis effectively defrocked him (“decreed that the cardinal could no longer work or minister as a priest in public”). In another story, McCarrick was reported to have “accepted” the latter judgment. What, then, is the status of his appeal? This is nitpicking, of course, but making sense of the Vatican requires an advanced degree in nitpicking.


About the anonymous Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s Times, which I found its presence in the paper deeply demoralizing, I will only say that I agree with Masha Gessen — expecially that the piece wasn’t really newsworthy. I mention only because by the end of the day, I’d had a brainwave.

The news, apparently — it’s in Bob Woodward’s book, too, which is why the Times ought to have let Dwight Garner’s review, in the day’s Arts Section, make the point — is that the President’s assistants are manipulating his agenda by nipping documents from his Oval Office desk before he can sign them and make them official. (Even Gessen admits that this may be good for the nation in the short run.) I expect that the President will go through the motions of indignation. But I don’t think he really cares. He regards working at his desk as one of the most boring parts of his job as the star of the reality show that he has hijacked a near-majority of American brains into letting him produce at no personal cost. He prefers running things from his bedroom, where he watches TV news, writes his Tweets, provides remote, phoned-in interviews, and talks to his cronies, men who wouldn’t be caught dead in the West Wing — not, at least, tasked with any responsibilities. His bedroom is where the action is. He has no reason to doubt that, soon enough, this outrageous story will die down, like all the others, to make room for new episodes.

I also agree, this time with Mark Leibovich, that the Donald ran for president because the NFL owners wouldn’t let him into their club. (Maybe for the good reason that he can’t really afford it.)

Bon week-end à tous!