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Pope Francis and Those Radical, Permanent Things

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In the wake of Pope Francis’s extraordinary pastoral visit to the United States, marked as it was by an unprecedented outpouring of enthusiasm and affection, a question for the long haul occurs. In his efforts to reach out to disaffected Catholics and religiously uninterested secularists, is the pope ignoring what we might call the Iron Law of Religion and Modernity: the law which suggests that religious communities maintaining a clear sense of their doctrinal and moral boundaries can survive (and even flourish) under the pressures of modern and post-modern culture, while those with porous and permeable borders wither and eventually die?

Progressive Catholics and those on the political Left fervently hope that the answer is “Yes, the pope is ignoring it” — a hope born of the fantasy that Francis’s pontificate marks a decisive turn in Catholicism parallel to that taken by liberal Protestantism over the past two centuries. Meanwhile, the political Right and a lot of Catholics energized by John Paul II and Benedict XVI seem to be taking a cue from the saga of Shoeless Joe Jackson and urging Francis, “Say it ain’t so . . . ” Both are missing essential elements of the pope’s message in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.

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