Pope Francis rides through New York's Central Park in the popemobile Sept. 25. (CNS Photo/Richard Drew, pool)

‘He’s a Disruptor’: Interview with ‘First Things’ Editor R.R. Reno on Pope Francis’ U.S. Visit

Russell Ronald “R.R.” Reno is a Catholic theologian who serves as editor of First Things, an ecumenical Christian journal based in New York City. Before assuming this position, he taught theology at Creighton University from 1990 to 2010, during which time he converted from Episcopalian to Catholic in 2004. Professor Reno holds a Ph.D from Yale University and a B.A. from Haverford College.

On Sept. 25, I sat down with Professor Reno at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University for an interview about the pope’s visit to Cuba and the United States this week. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.

On Thursday, Francis became the first pope to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. What is your response to his remarks?

They were very modest, cautious remarks—disappointing in that regard and uncharacteristic of him. Typically he has a stronger, sharper voice as a public speaker and public representative of the church. Perhaps that was a caution against interfering with our political process, wanting to keep distant from the partisan politics of the American context.

But I would call it a generous speech, organized around four great Americans. He ended with the characteristic “God bless America,” which was another generous gesture toward American patriotism. So I would say it was a speech generous to Americans.

A few hours before we sat down for this interview, Pope Francis spoke to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. What did you take away from that speech? 

It was a much stronger speech. He spoke in Spanish, so obviously he was more comfortable. The leitmotif of his papacy was strongly prominent—which is the problem of exclusion, a throwaway culture, and a will to power that seeks to dominate. And then he played that out in a number of different domains: economic relations, social relations, and then of course in the environmental concerns which were so prominent in “Laudato Si’.”

So it was a much stronger speech, and, unlike his speech to the U.S. Congress, he was willing to make interventions that are germane to global politics. He implied that he’s in favor of expanding the U.N. Security Council by adding a number of vetoing members, which would be a dramatic change. Basically the system’s been frozen in place since 1945. And he endorsed the climate change protocols that are desired from this meeting and from the Paris meeting. He implicitly endorsed the Obama administration’s treaty with Iran.

Again, these comments were done diplomatically, but it’s clear the Vatican feels comfortable as a player in global politics. And I think the pope doesn’t feel as comfortable as a player in national politics in the United States. For me, the strongest part of the speech was his insistence that the way forward is going to require us to acknowledge and recognize the moral law written into human nature. He specifically said part of that moral law is the difference between men and women, and the sanctity of life in all of its stages and in all of its dimensions. And I think that’s an important contribution the Catholic Church has to make to the global scene, as a reminder that our political lives are in the service of moral truths. It’s not just a political search for power for its own sake, but for the sake of serving moral truths.

After meeting President Obama at the White House on Wednesday, Pope Francis went to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where he celebrated the canonization mass of St. Junipero Serra—a Spanish Franciscan missionary to California whose evangelization methods have sparked controversy among some American Indian groups. What is your opinion of the pope’s decision to canonize this 18th century friar?

Objections to Serra are comical anachronisms, and, if one believes the Gospel is a gift to all humanity, then the kind of man who gives himself to evangelization and missionary work—men like Father Serra—can only be seen with admiration.

Following his White House welcome, Pope Francis made an unscheduled 15-minute stop at the Little Sisters of the Poor, showing support for their ministry to the elderly and for their religious freedom case against the Obama administration. While in D.C., he also declined an invitation to have lunch with Congress, visiting a homeless shelter instead. What do these off-script activities tell us about Francis?

As I said, I think he wanted to be very cautious about our political struggles in the United States, so he did not mention religious freedom in his address to Congress. But it’s clear he’s aware of the problems we face in the United States and wanted to make this gesture of solidarity and support to the Little Sisters. That was an important and worthy thing to do.

As for passing on lunch with the congressmen and going to the homeless shelter, all I can say is good for him. You know, I don’t know if you can print it, but to hell with congressmen. I think one of his most powerful witnesses is his refusal to let the hierarchies of the world determine his ministry and the spiritual attention he gives to others. I think that’s a very powerful witness and one that I’m very grateful for.

The pope is attending part of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend. What are your hopes for his final stop in Philadelphia before he returns to Rome?

It seems like poor Philadelphia has now become an afterthought. It was originally his purpose for coming, but I don’t really have any expectations for the Philadelphia portion, although it will undoubtedly be a very powerful experience for the million people who attend the papal mass.

But I would be surprised if he says anything new. I think the two main events of the visit were the address to Congress and the address to the United Nations. And I would anticipate that, in his homily, he’ll hit his usual themes of going to the periphery, reaching out to the excluded, and empowering those who are on the margins of society. Those are the leitmotifs of his papacy—we know that, we can see that now.

Earlier this week Francis also spoke briefly at the White House, met with the U.S. bishops, attended a vespers liturgy in New York’s St. Patrick Cathedral, and participated in an interreligious service at Ground Zero. What stands out for you about these other activities on his schedule?

Well, I haven’t read what he said and did at those events, but I wish I could have written the speech he gave to the bishops. In that speech, I would have reminded the bishops about the importance of Catholicism being a distinctive voice in American society—not to let ourselves become, as Francis has said, a sort of NGO or social service organization with incense. There’s a distinctive Gospel message to give to the world and we shouldn’t let the spirit of the world intimidate us.

Before visiting the United States, Pope Francis spent time in Cuba, where he has advocated lighter U.S. trade restrictions. But he didn’t mention this issue in his speech to Congress. How do you assess the Vatican’s policy toward Cuba under Francis, himself a Latin American?

It’s important for Americans to recognize that Cuba has a very powerful significance for Latin Americans. It’s a symbol of resistance to American domination of the continent. So even if Pope Francis has deep misgivings about the oppressive nature of the government in Cuba, he’s aware that there’s a populist admiration of Cuba in the Latin American world. So he has to be very careful and I guess that’s one of the reasons why he sounds very pro-Castro to many Americans. The fact he wouldn’t mention it at Congress means he’s not in fact pro-Castro any more than he’s pro-Hugo Chavez or pro-Evo Morales.

As a theologian who taught for 20 years at Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Omaha, where have you seen the pope’s “Jesuit side” coming through most strongly in this week’s U.S. visit?

I don’t think it’s come out very strongly in this visit. I think one feature of his papacy is rhetorical extremism; his gestures, like not living in the papal palace, are extreme. I don’t associate poverty with the Society of Jesus anymore, but I do associate extremism—a certain pushing of one’s charism to the limit—with it. And I do see that very strongly in this papacy. I think that’s one reason it has a kind of force to it. Also, the extremism is sometimes dangerous and unworkable. Jesuits go notoriously to the line and sometimes over it.

I think we see this experimental quality in Francis. A lot of the things he says and does are kind of about testing limits. That’s so Society of Jesus. When he was first elected, I knew nothing about his reputation, but I knew he was a Jesuit and one of my friends asked: “What do you think?” I said: “Strap on your seatbelt.” And my friend asked: “Why?” I said: “Because he’s a Jesuit.” That extremism is a strength and a weakness of the Society. And I think his papacy has great strength, but also great weaknesses.

But on this particular visit, I don’t think it came through. I think it was a very cautious visit. The fact he had to speak in English limited his ability to ad-lib any bold gestures. And I regret he allowed himself to be controlled by the security apparatus. The visit’s not yet over, but I had hoped he would have basically given the finger to the Secret Service and walked down the streets of New York. I think his disregard for the security apparatus is an important gesture in a global system where the Davos elite increasingly live in a bubble—insulated from everything and everybody else. And I think it’s a powerful witness on his part to refuse that bubble.

In your view, what have been the greatest highlights of this papacy so far?

The part that resonates is also the part that worries me. He’s a disruptor. Many things need to be disrupted, but, then again, some things don’t need to be disrupted. I’m all in favor of breaking the things that need to be broken, but it’s dangerous when you start breaking things. So that goes back to the theme of extremism. The extremism is both exciting and inspiring, but also disorienting. You know, somebody has to “mind the store” while the Jesuit is on the peripheries.

What have been this papacy’s biggest problems to date?

One problem is the problem with Jesuits. Jesuits are clerical commandos, clerical Green Berets. And one of the temptations Jesuits have is that they want to turn everybody into a Jesuit when the fact is that the church needs ordinary soldiers—the church needs cooks, camp commandants, and priests who keep the parish running and aren’t on the peripheries. And I fear that all his language about being on the periphery demoralizes people who do the day-to-day work of keeping the church running.

The second problem is more something he’s inherited. He’s really the first pope who came of age in the era of and immediately after the Second Vatican Council. The church since the Council has had a fragmented, disordered language and mind. He is not a synthetic, systematic thinker. Instead, he’s a poet of the faith, I would say, rather than a philosopher of the faith. So he often manifests this kind of fragmentation and lack of coherence in the life of the church. In that sense, the weakness is that he’s a mirror of the church in its own fragmented mind in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

Is there a place in the papacy for a “poet of the faith,” as you say?

Of course. We may look back on this papacy as a kind of moment of clarity, of simple Gospel truths that renew in a powerful way. But I believe the next pope is going to have to sort through this kind of scattershot witness that he’s provided.

As editor of an ecumenical journal founded by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, a leading theological spokesman for the Religious Right, where do you find yourself most in harmony with Pope Francis?

Clearly, the primacy of our life in Christ over all things resonates. Secondly, I share with Pope Francis a dissatisfaction with the power elite of the contemporary West, which I think is ideologically oriented toward perpetuating its own power even though it calls itself progressive. Most American liberals think the pope is criticizing conservatism, but they are—along with their European counterparts—in fact the dominant outlook in the rich world. So when the pope is criticizing the global system, he’s criticizing the system they run. It’s not a system being run by evangelical pastors in Texas. It’s a system being run by Ivy League graduates in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington—and they are not readers of “First Things.”

As a political conservative, where do you find yourself most in tension with Francis?

I think Francis accepts uncritically the social justice movement in the Catholic Church, which, although often well-intentioned, adopts the intellectual and moral framework of secular progressivism—which is, I think, anti-metaphysical and easily manipulated by the powerful to serve their own ends. Multiculturalism is a technology for managing and manipulating people. I find the same outlook has a therapeutic view of the human condition. So I’m frustrated by Pope Francis’ use of that social justice vocabulary, which I think is easily co-opted by the rich secular world.

Let me put it this way: To make a claim about Natural Law is the most heretical thing you can do at a contemporary secular university, in the technocracy of today. I wish this papacy was more aware of the true nature of what we’re up against in the 21st century. As a conservative, I’m not opposed to the pope’s criticisms of global capitalism. It strikes me that global capitalism doesn’t need to be defended because it’s the only system we have. So criticizing it and trying to humanize it should be the goal of any morally serious person today, whether they’re conservative or liberal. We just disagree in debate about how best to humanize it.

In the United States today, we sometimes use the phrase “cafeteria Catholic” for people who pick and choose—like a kid in a buffet line—which parts of Catholicism they want to digest and which parts they want to ignore. If a political conservative rejects the climate change portion of the recent “Laudato Si’” encyclical, for example, would you call that person a cafeteria Catholic?

To some degree, I suppose I would. There’s a hierarchy of truth in the church and some of the core moral teachings are not the same as the church’s interventions into global affairs. But at every level, independently minded persons are going to struggle to bring themselves into full conformity with the church’s teaching. The question is the spirit with which we receive or engage the church’s teaching. Is it a spirit of seeking to be docile to the teaching of the church or do we resent the church’s voice of authority? I see “cafeteria Catholic” as a pejorative term when a person is basically saying “the church has no right to tell me about these things. It’s my life and I can live it how I see fit.”

Among U.S. Catholics who identify as political conservatives, there does seem to be some discomfort about the pope’s criticisms of laissez faire capitalism, particularly his evident displeasure with the increasing gap between rich and poor. Can a Catholic profess loyalty to the pope while rejecting his concern for global inequalities among rich and poor nations?

I don’t think you can reject his concern for global inequalities. Of course, that’s fundamental. The question is what are we going to do about it? I suppose there are revolutionaries out there who want to say capitalism is inherently corrupting of the human condition and we have to get rid of it. But get rid of it for the sake of what? Since the demise of the Soviet Union, we haven’t had an alternative to capitalism as a global system. So it’s really a family debate over what to do about capitalism.

A conservative tends to think the dynamism of capitalism helps ameliorate these inequalities over time and the cost to human freedom of over-regulation is a perilous thing; and the liberal tends to have more confidence in the directive planning power of people of good will. I would say Vatican officials tend to be optimistic about bureaucracies controlling things because if you have a hammer, it’s easy to find a nail. The Vatican is a bureaucracy and tends to see bureaucratic solutions to world problems. The conservative is more suspicious of large-scale institutions and tends to put a premium on free human action that a free economy provides room for. But that’s too technical for an interview. I’m not troubled by the pope’s criticism of capitalism because it doesn’t seem there’s anybody out there proposing an alternative economic system. When most U.S. economists propose new policies to sustain capitalism, rather than alternatives to the system, you know we’re not in a historical moment where we’re going to abolish it.

I think a lot of conservative Catholics suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, especially if they’ve attended a Catholic university in the past 20 years, where they’ve been beaten up and abused by radical progressives. So every time they hear something that reminds them even remotely of the Jesuit priest they had in theology class in 1985, they hear alarm bells going off.

As a moral theologian how would you describe Pope Francis’s theology to someone who wasn’t familiar with his writings?

He’s a poet of the faith, not a theologian. It’s not clear to me that Pope Francis has a theology. I suspect it’s basically conservative Rahnerianism, with a strong emphasis on internal acceptance of faith with a strong presumption from a deeply orthodox interiorization. It’s a strong emphasis on internalization, on kind of an experiential encounter with Christ.

Like his predecessors, Francis has been active in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. As someone who converted from Episcopalian to Catholic eleven years ago, what would you say to Francis about Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s recent proposal to formally divide the Anglican Communion between conservative and liberal factions?

“But for the grace of God go I.” That’s what Francis should say. And then, you know, “God have mercy on the Anglicans.” I think the pope and Catholicism should only have sympathy for other Christian denominations enduring the trials of division. It’s not something we should gloat about.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis right now, what would it be?

I would say that the more his voice is the voice of Scripture, the more powerful his witness will be. His choice of the name “Francis” and his life as pope take on a powerful Gospel form of service. My word to him would be “go to Scripture.” I don’t like the language of exclusion and peripheries—they’re not Scriptural terms. I would like him to find the right Scriptural terms for his priorities, rather than this ersatz language.

On that point, what’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?

You know, I wrote a commentary on Genesis, and I think my favorite Scripture verse is “In the Beginning was the word” (Jn 1) because it links the particularity of Christ with the universal truth we encounter in creation.

What are your hopes for the future?

This is always a problem. We often know what we’re against, but we don’t know what we’re for. We know what we fear, but we don’t know what we hope for. I guess my hope for the church is that the aspirations of the Second Vatican Council will be realized, which is a church that speaks with confidence its own distinctive word to the world without anger or bitterness or fear, but instead with joy. In that sense, I think one reason Pope Francis is so popular is that people see in him a certain cheerfulness and happiness.

Any final thoughts?

I think it’s fitting that, in an interview with America magazine, I emphasize how important it is that this pope is a Jesuit. That, to me, is the hermeneutical key to this papacy and a testimony to the wisdom of the church for not electing a Jesuit in the past—perhaps also to God’s sense of humor for giving us a Jesuit in the present! But it’s also a testimony to the power of the charism of St. Ignatius that it so distinctively marks the men who are formed in the Society.

One can see in this pope clearly the distinctive character of a Jesuit charism. He is a Jesuit: It’s just unbelievable, for good and for ill. The Jesuit charism is a profound internalization. It’s not a rejection or distrust of the church’s outward forms, ritual life, or intellectual life. People often mistakenly see Jesuits as radical revisionists, and there are some Jesuits like that, but the charism is really an interiorized trust that enables one to let go of the outward forms to pursue the essential mission of the church.

To me, that’s why there’s never been a Jesuit pope, because the papacy is primarily an institution of preservation and transmission of the tradition. So this kind of purification and internalization, I think, is at odds with the papal office. You know, a typical Jesuit would ignore renovations of St. Peter’s because it’s not important to preserve a building, but instead to discern what God is doing with that building. But the purpose of the papacy is to preserve the outward forms so the whole world can enter into the church as a living body and institution with a set of laws and form of life, so that they can then embark on that journey of interiorization.

So Francis is exemplifying the end goal of the Christian life and the danger is that Jesuits often neglect the ordinary means by which people often enter into the Christian life. Jesuits are virtuosos who can neglect the need for basic instruction. You know, Francis is the 265th successor of St. Peter and he’ll do with this job what needs to be done, but I guarantee you there’s not going to be a Jesuit pope for a long time after this one.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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