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At Georgetown, considering ‘the Francis Factor’


“What’s going on?” a Georgetown student on his way into the main building on campus wanted to know. Told that the crowd forming — which wound up outnumbering Gaston Hall’s 750 seats — was swapping the last flush of afternoon sunshine for a nice long colloquy on the new pope, he seemed genuinely disappointed that he couldn’t drop everything and join the party: “Oh, wow!”

Maybe he’s easily excited. And after all that Catholics have been through in the decade since the height of the American clerical sex-abuse scandals, maybe he’s got lots of company.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011. View Archive

But the crowd for “The Francis Factor” — the first forum sponsored by Georgetown’s new Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, under John Carr — wasn’t only bigger than expected, relocated from a space that seats only 200 after the RSVPs came in.

The audience also was noticeably younger than such fare usually draws, even on a college campus. And it was considerably more relaxed, both off and on stage in the frescoed hall, where speakers included Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, who clashed just last year over an invitation to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at graduation. There, too, were Kim Daniels, who co-founded Catholic Voices USA, a more conservative-leaning group, and Alexia Kelley, who founded Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a more liberal one.

“There’s a lot less tension in this room than you’d have felt six months ago, given the crowd,’’ John Gehring, Catholic outreach coordinator for the progressive group Faith in Public Life, said at the reception afterward, where Opus Dei members sipped wine with lefties.

Maybe that in itself is reason for giddiness. (The comity, not the vino.)

But there’s both great hope and a lot of soul-searching and self-correction going on after the former Jorge Bergoglio’s constantly surprising first six months on the job; thanks to his simplicity, spontaneity, words and direct example, Catholics caught up in a left-vs.-right struggle that mirrored the secular culture instead of challenging it have been put on notice that all sorts of old categories and assumptions are no longer relevant. Though apparently open to reform, Francis has promised a consultative, go-slow process of discernment that does call to mind a certain president. Obviously, he has yet to fill in an awful lot of blanks.

Eventually, though, the measure of Francis won’t be how Catholics feel, but what believers do during his pontificate — about poverty, inequality and other core issues that in this country one political party pays lip service while the other cuts food stamps.

Could Francis really become, as Wuerl said in opening the evening, the “model of civility and service that a polarized and paralyzed Washington could learn from”?

Carr joked about how unlikely it was, with the government closed for business, that the Catholic Church was suddenly seen as “a place of renewal and vitality — and dare I say it, hope and change?”

One of his friends, said Carr, who until last year worked for decades at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had attributed the public’s fascination with Francis to “a big Vatican PR campaign. And I said, ‘Name the last successful Vatican PR campaign — pre-Crusades, I think.’ ”

Official Washington doesn’t get the church — never has, he argued — and couldn’t begin to fathom such mysteries as why anyone would resign the top job for the good of an institution, as Pope Benedict did, or how to feel about an election in which the only exit poll is a puff of black or white smoke.

Yet no one on the stage Tuesday evening seemed to “get” Francis any better than the only non-Catholic, New York Times columnist David Brooks, who observed that to confront the ­forces of the world, the church had, for some time pre-Francis, adopted the munitions of the world — grandeur that wowed ’em during the Counter-Reformation but looks shabby next to Christ’s, and now Francis’s, M.O. of countering arrogance with humility.

PBS commentator Mark Shields observed that for those in and out of the pews, Francis has brought back joy: “I smile when I think of Pope Francis’’ — the first time, he added, that any pope since John XXIII has accomplished that.

But unlike in politics, where the question is always “Are you better off?,” the question Francis wants us to ask is are we, as a whole, better off — as measured by whether the weak among us are getting stronger.

Brooks wondered whether the pope’s “epistemological modesty’’ could “slide into mooshiness,’’ a.k.a. relativism. Believers exhausted by the culture wars are more likely to appreciate that Francis reassured an atheist newspaper editor in Italy that he wouldn’t try to convert him. There are many kinds of conversion, though.

Carr said the one to which Francis is calling his fellow Catholics is defined by the word “and.” We in the church, he said, “can make clear connections, defending human life and dignity, promoting human rights and responsibilities . . . protecting both the unborn and the poor. We can especially encourage the next generation of Catholic leaders so they see our faith as a gift, not a burden, and a call to participation in public life, not an excuse for retreat or cynicism.’’

At the reception afterward in the school’s historic Riggs Library, it felt subversive to be having a party in the cast-iron stacks. “I know some librarians who would not be happy about this,’’ said a nun as she walked in. Or maybe, amid talk of new roles for women and new collaboration between old adversaries, they wouldn’t have minded so much.



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