With Francis’s visit to the US starting, much has been made of Obama’s plan to have him greeted at the White House by several anti-Catholic activists: a gay Episcopalian bishop, a pro-abortion nun, a transsexual or two. Catholics of various sorts have reacted predictably, so I thought I’d explain what’s going on here (so I’ll look like a genius when it happens). Here’s how the shell game of expectations works:
Someone announces that the pope/Church is about to do something offensively non-Catholic. In this case, Obama announces that the pope will be meeting with outspoken heretics and sexual freaks when he visits the White House (as if he couldn’t find plenty of those in Europe). This sets the frame in two ways. First, it implies that he hasn’t already met with and approved of such people, which is false. Second, it gives him room to maneuver.
Traditional Catholics predict that the pope will love it, completely consistent with his past words and actions.
Conservatives (by “conservative Catholics” I refer to those who are personally unhappy with the innovations of Vatican II and since, but accept them as valid and wish to be faithful Catholics) insist that the pope will draw a line here. He’s disappointed them in the past, but he couldn’t possibly go along with this! They blame Obama for trying to “exploit” the pope, as if the pope is a powerless rube rather than a sharp political operator in his own right who’s just as likely to be “exploiting” Obama.
Liberals (those who call themselves Catholic while openly denying Catholic dogma) call the traditionalists splitters for criticizing Francis (conservatives chime in there too), and praise Francis for his open-mindedness.
The Vatican expresses “concerns” that this is going too far. No demands for a change, no threat that the pope will skip the meeting, no actual action. Just “concerns.”
The Reaction to the Response:
Traditionalists point out that this means nothing and will change nothing. Conservatives praise Francis for holding firm on Catholic teaching and bash traditionalists for having little faith. Liberals call for Francis’s canonization proceedings to commence.
The meeting is rearranged in some meaningless way. He still meets with them, but not as a photo-op in the White House with the president. Or a couple of the most egregious ones bow out gracefully, being replaced by less (but still) objectionable freaks and heretics. But basically, it goes ahead as planned, and Francis participates enthusiastically.
The Reaction to the Action Jackson:
Traditionalists say “We told you so.” Conservatives shift again: hey, Francis was just being a good pastor, caring for the lost sheep. We never said he wouldn’t meet with them; you can’t prove we deleted those posts. Hate the sin, love the sinner, right? Not that he ever suggested they were lost or objected to their sins. But you can’t just call people sinners; what if they leave the Church? Shut up and stop criticizing the pope!
Liberals proclaim Francis patron saint of the entire globe, giving him a feast day in every month.
That’s the pattern, and pretty much what we’ll see here, I reckon. You announce something particularly offensive and wait for everyone to react to that, which sets the baseline. Then when you back off, you get to look like the reasonable one and your opponents look like they were overreacting — even after you go ahead and prove them essentially right. The jockeying between liberals and conservatives makes it look like you ended up somewhere in the middle; but in the end, the goalposts have been moved, conservatives are now defending them at their location, and almost no one noticed a change.
We’ll see. When it’s all over, here’s the question that matters: did Francis meet with public heretics and sinners, and did he condemn their sin or did he excuse (or even endorse) it?