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Papal PR

Congratulations are due to the Pope for being Time’s Person of the Year. I would have voted for Snowden, but the Pope is a perfectly respectable choice. At least he’s an individual human being and not a vague demographic or second-person pronoun.

I like Pope Francis. He seems to be kind-hearted, intelligent, and genuinely focused on helping the poor. When he expresses opinions, they tend to be ones I agree with, at least as much as is consistent with him still being Catholic. He’s done a lot of substantive good work.

But that’s not what anybody’s focused on. And what they do focus on confuses me.

Suppose that people were to get super excited about President Obama wearing a US flag pin. “He’s so patriotic! He even demonstrates his love for America on his clothing!” Or going to Arlington Cemetary on Memorial Day: “Look how much the sacrifice of American soldiers moves him!”

But really all this proves is that Obama isn’t a total idiot. Wearing a flag pin is an easy way to signal patriotism, and if you’re the President signaling patriotism is a free public opinion boost. In the same way, it’s hard to imagine a self-interested President conceiving of the idea of going to Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day and not acting on it. It would just be dumb.

Pope Francis does some pretty heart-warming things, like washing the feet of the poor and letting little kids sit in his Pope chair, abandoning his papal luxury palace for a humble apartment, and baptizing orphaned puppies (has he done this yet? I assume it’s only a matter of time).

Thing is, I think of the counterfactual universe where I’m Pope, and having been made aware of the possibility of doing these things, it’s hard to imagine not going through with them. For getting rid of the furniture made of solid gold that no sane person would even want, I can have the entire world talk about my humility. For two hours of my time and the cost of a foot-washing basin, I can be Time Person of the Year.

For me, the story isn’t why Francis is so great, but why his predecessors didn’t do stuff like this all the time. Yes, okay, Pope Benedict XVI gets creeped out by humans and he’s not sure his immune matrix can handle their Earth germs. Fine. What were the other 264 guys’ excuses? Why don’t we get to hear about them secretly sneaking out of the Vatican to help the homeless in a way that makes it almost certain it would leak out (I’m not saying Pope Francis is really doing this, just that if he isn’t it’s probably because he didn’t think of it in time)?

Maybe Francis is just the first Pope who understands PR. The past two Popes were born in the 1920s; maybe they never really figured out the Age of Mass Media. I doubt future Popes will make that mistake.

I am not accusing Pope Francis of being shady or Machiavellian (although Machiavelli’s The Prince does in fact contain a whole chapter on advice for Popes). Just saying that if he were Machiavellian, he’d probably do pretty much what he’s doing now.

EDIT: Jed brings up in the comments what seems to me a good point. Perhaps previous Popes were interested in public opinion, and did do a good job managing it, but believed that people would be more impressed by golden thrones and fancy regalia and ritual than by conspicuous humility. Perhaps that belief was correct. That would say something pretty impressive about the world and the Church – that over the past century the optimal strategy in making people think you are a holy figure worthy of respect has changed from “have a really big solid gold scepter” to “radiate humility and love for all mankind”. Did we enter the Millennium without noticing?

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81 Responses to Papal PR

  1. Gunlord says:

    Pope Benedict wasn’t very photogenic, certainly, but wasn’t John Paul II a fairly beloved public figure?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I might just be too young to remember this, but I don’t remember JPII doing things like washing poor people’s feet and living a simple impoverished life and stuff.

      If he did, I take this back.

      • Jed says:

        Washing feet would have been off-message for JPII. Poland was pretty shabby under the Communists, and the papal raiment is a statement about majesty and moral authority. A humble JPII would have looked like one Pole moving in with the rest, not an avatar of divine justice who needed no divisions to invade.

  2. Douglas Knight says:

    Yes, probably, but consider some other hypotheses. Perhaps he is doing the same as Benedict, but the press reports it differently, to fit their story. Perhaps the press reports it the same, but you don’t notice, to fit your story. Probably different popes want to signal different things. In that case, you might expect the same amount of press coverage, but of different types. Indeed, like Gunlord, I think JP2 was pretty good at PR. I don’t know how the things you mention would have conflicted with his goals, but I think he was good enough at PR that we should defer to his judgement.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      And another hypothesis: Good Cop, Bad Cop. The press wouldn’t cover it or you wouldn’t notice if it weren’t a contrast with Benedict.

  3. I think you’re underestimating the importance of intrinsic motivation. I suspect it’s hard to behave like Pope Frances unless you actually like poor people and don’t like displays of wealth. This is a rare combination among people in general, and probably more rare among those who can gain significant amounts of status.

  4. Jack says:

    LOL.

    It’s certainly possible that it’s PR, whether or not it’s also genuine. The “secretly walking the streets” sounds too fairy-tale to be true.

    But I’m not sure it’s as easy as you’re making out for any pope to do that. I think it would be easy to get it wrong and look incompetent rather than caring. Like, ok, the pope is trying to look compassionate. But that requires an active choice to try to look compassionate, rather than try to be respected (or feared). That in itself is a choice which says something, even if the only result is how the pope presents themself…

  5. jason says:

    “But that’s not what anybody’s focused on. And what they do focus on confuses me.”

    I kept waiting for you to tell us what people do focus on.

    • Zakharov says:

      People focus on the heart-warming individual actions rather than political issues or substantive actions.

  6. Ben says:

    Francis actually has a shady, Machiavellian PR man, who’s in Opus Dei and used to work for Fox News, and started to work for the Vatican in June 2012: Greg Burke. So what we’re seeing is probably the results of him executing an improved public relations strategy.

    You’ve also got to consider that Francis is playing to two audiences – he has to signal to the hardcore indoctrinated Catholics who accept the authority of the Church and literally call him “Papa”, as well as to the more casual Jesus fandom and secular society. What seem like obvious “do gooder” moves from the outside of the Church (help the poor, tell the police when your priests rape kids instead of sending them to rape some more distant kids, maybe auction all the Vatican treasures and use the proceeds to eradicate malaria), are actually more controversial to doctrinaire Catholics.

    Sometimes to feel better about myself I look at the Catholic blogosphere, and they are generally WAY WAY more interested in abortions and gay marriage and OBAMA and the war on Christmas than in helping the poor. So when Francis suggests that maybe abortions aren’t the most important thing in the world, or acknowledges that a lot of Catholic priests are gay, they tend to get upset and condemn him as naive.

    • Viliam Búr says:

      Hardcore Catholics really are insane. I live in Slovakia, where most people are Catholics. Recently our bishops published a “pastoral letter” to their sheep, about great problems in our country.

      If you asked me, I could tell you some big problems we have here. For example 15% unemployment, a neo-Nazi party recently winning a municipal election in one county, racism, a supreme court chairman whose good friend is a head of a drug syndicate… well, these are just the first ones that come to my mind. You wouldn’t learn anything of this from the pastoral letter, though.

      According to our Catholic bishops, the greatest problem of Slovakia is… gays. Also, gender equality.

      In our blogosphere, 50% of bloggers were horrified by this stupidity, but other 50% praised the wisdom and refined moral sense of our spiritual leaders. Similarly on my facebook page. It feels rather scary.

      If pope Francis was a bishop in Slovakia, the other bishops would probably quickly conspire and somehow make him fired. And the hardcore Catholics would praise them for doing so. (Something similar happened here to one bishop not long ago.)

      • Multiheaded says:

        If you asked me, I could tell you some big problems we have here.

        Let’s trade! Just… you take our problems and the Russian Orthodox Church with them. You’ve got one neo-nazi party; well, here even half the “liberal” “opposition” is down with a good pogrom – and there’s been a big one recently.

      • Gays-and-gender-equality isn’t about gays and gender equality. A victory for the Church on gays and gender equality is a symbolic victory for the Church against progressivism—hitting the enemy where it hurts the most. (Though one begins to suspect that the concern over gays and gender equality within progressivism is itself manufactured, as with that the-Cold-War-isn’t-over nonsense against Russia, coming out right after that NGO law that the Cathedral went wow-much-Stalin-so-repression over when the point was that there were a lot of USG puppet orgs, and Moscow, quite sensibly, didn’t like that very much.)

        • Andy says:

          But if it the Church picks a fight on gays or gender and loses it looks like it has truly screwed-up priorities – fiddling while Rome burns.
          “Rome burning” in this analogy being massive and growing wealth inequality in places like Latin America, massive social dislocation, and poor Catholics who don’t understand why the Pope cares more about beating progressive intellectuals than helping the suffering faithful in the favelas deserting to populist evangelicals who promise “Worship God in my church and He will shower wealth upon you!”
          Or the case here in California, where the Church pushed hard to make marriage between consenting same-sex illegal while it was protecting male priests who abused underage boys. Actions like these, when they come out, aren’t good at all for the Church’s power and credibility.

        • Ben says:

          Could you say “the liberal lamestream media” instead of “the Cathedral”, as it makes it easier to understand your worldview? Thanks.

    • Erik says:

      maybe auction all the Vatican treasures and use the proceeds to eradicate malaria

      Doesn’t this pass the buck to the new owner of the formerly-Vatican treasures to auction them and use the proceeds to eradicate tuberculosis afterwards?

      I’ve heard a bunch of variants on this suggestion, and it usually sounds to me as though it would fit better in something like the typical RPG economy where items are sold to an abstract “vendor” NPC that converts goods into currency, rather than exchanging the goods with someone else.

      There’s probably a good explanation that I haven’t been able to think of, and I apologize a little for picking on you with the spillover irritation from a dozen facebook suggestions where I can’t reply effectively, let alone hope for a reasonable discussion. However, the bottom line seems to me to be that someone will end up sitting on treasures, and IMO the Vatican is a reasonable candidate to do some of that, considering their longevity.

      • Desrtopa says:

        “Doesn’t this pass the buck to the new owner of the formerly-Vatican treasures to auction them and use the proceeds to eradicate tuberculosis afterwards?”

        If the buyer were that altruistic, surely it would make more sense not to buy the treasures, and use the money that they would have spent on the auction for charitable causes?

        Buying Vatican treasures, the proceeds of which will be used for charitable causes, is a way for wealthy people desiring a high level of opulence and prestige signaling, to simultaneously signal some altruism by spending money which will then be spent directly on charitable causes.

      • Roxolan says:

        In a world where every potential buyer of Vatican treasures were always at least as altruistic as the Vatican itself, then yeah, selling treasures would just be moving money around.

        But in our world, there are plenty of non-altruistic buyers. Their money won’t be going to the poor unless the Vatican acquires it and donates it. So as far as I can tell, we are in the RPG situation.

      • Ben says:

        So the Vatican shouldn’t sell its treasures to do good because the people who’d buy them might not also sell them to do good?

        I’m not saying “anyone with treasures is obliged to sell them and do good”. If that was the moral rule, there’d be no market for treasures. I’m saying that given its professed values, you’d expect the Vatican to be more interested in helping the poor than in hoarding gold.

      • Atreic says:

        Also, Jesus gave slightly mixed messages about whether to sell stuff to help the poor and needy or use it to glorify and worship God.

        • Army1987 says:

          “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor” — wow, did they already read Overcoming Bias back then?

    • Andy says:

      You’ve also got to consider that Francis is playing to two audiences – he has to signal to the hardcore indoctrinated Catholics who accept the authority of the Church and literally call him “Papa”, as well as to the more casual Jesus fandom and secular society.

      It always seemed to me that Benedict was playing to the first, maintaining the Church’s authority among what we’d call its “base” if it were a political party. Francis is making the Catholic Party a “big tent,” focusing on the core message rather than litmus tests. The problem is that this party’s base freaks everyone else out, and is used to using litmus tests as a measurement of righteousness.
      I feel like we have a humanist pope who’s not afraid to show a little bit of Marxist leg. If he lasts, it’s going to be a very interesting ride.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      Wait isn’t this a good thing? Catholicism isn’t going away, in fact membership is increasing so given that we are stuck with it existing isn’t is better than the Pope project a more compassionate and judgmental image of Catholicism? There is a lag in how that translates to how Catholics behave, but I imagine the effect would be positive.

      • Ben says:

        Oh yeah, not saying it’s bad, just trying to explain why all Popes aren’t like Francis. After some moaning, the Cathobloggers do seem to have started to accept Francis – maybe that’ll translate to less womb-tampering.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “You’ve also got to consider that Francis is playing to two audiences – he has to signal to the hardcore indoctrinated Catholics who accept the authority of the Church and literally call him “Papa”, as well as to the more casual Jesus fandom and secular society. What seem like obvious “do gooder” moves from the outside of the Church (help the poor, tell the police when your priests rape kids instead of sending them to rape some more distant kids, maybe auction all the Vatican treasures and use the proceeds to eradicate malaria), are actually more controversial to doctrinaire Catholics. ”

      I’m arguing that this isn’t true.

      Yes, Francis can’t win “easy points” by saying he’s pro-choice or something, because that would make him much less popular among Catholics.

      On the other hand, acting humbly, abandoning a life of luxury, and being conspicuously nice to poor people seem popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

  7. knb says:

    Washing feet doesn’t seem to be new for popes.

    The larger point though, is that this kind of media/PR drive doesn’t do much if you’re going to follow it up by saying something unpopular like “gay sex is immoral.” Pope Francis apparently is choosing to emphasize Catholic Social Justice issues over the unfashionable moral teachings of the Catholic Church. This makes it possible and useful to have the media on his side.

  8. Joe says:

    “Thing is, I think of the counterfactual universe where I’m Pope, and having been made aware of the possibility of doing these things, it’s hard to imagine not going through with them.”
    I would say that for Catholics following the normative protocols of your vocation or position in the Church is in its self a form of humility. It can sometimes be considered a little brash to throw a side what a long line of predicessors thought prudent. But then again it could also be a bit humiliating to be the one that realizes that, given the situation, it is necessary to violate some of those norms and protocols. My guess is that Pope Frances is genuine in his displays of humility and I enjoy the way he has mixed up the very boring way the media has covered the papacy.

  9. >That would say something pretty impressive about the world and the Church – that over the past century the optimal strategy in making people think you are a holy figure worthy of respect has changed from “have a really big solid gold scepter” to “radiate humility and love for all mankind”. Did we enter the Millennium without noticing?

    Impressive? When you strip out the value-laden terminology, the change is going from conspicuous solidarity with holy glory, nobility, and wealth, to conspicuous solidarity with holy love, compassion, and the poor.

    That’s neutral at best, and a good example of leftward movement.

    As an aside, a simple theory of left and right is to say simply that leftists express solidarity with the left side of the distribution, and rightists express solidarity with the right side.

    • Erik says:

      Allow me to provide a supplementary footnote regarding perceived change over time in the appropriate manner of displaying holiness.
      http://www.francis-bible.org/writings/witings_francis_letters_1.html
      St Francis of Assisi, for whom the current Pope is named, known for living in poverty himself, allegedly wrote regarding Communion:

      3. The chalices, corporals, appointments of the altar, and everything which pertains to the sacrifice must be of precious material. 4. And if the most holy Body of the Lord is very poorly reserved in any place, it should be placed in a precious location under lock and kept according to the mandate of the Church and carried about with great reverence and administered to others with discretion.

      (“Corporal” here denotes a certain piece of cloth.)

      I can’t fully vouch for this site’s authenticity, since it’s kinda WTF, but it has a sort of endearing manner and a great deal of material which makes me think it’s more likely to be a devoted amateur’s nonstandard work than an elaborate fraud.

    • Andy says:

      There’s a much bigger audience for solidarity with the poor than solidarity with wealth and aristocracy (I refuse to conflate moral nobility with bloodline purity or, as one SF book of my acquaintance puts it, “my ancestors were better rapists and murderers, like a proper Norman baron could.”)
      I’m beginning to think that the difference in mindset comes from focusing on goal rather than focusing on method.
      Below is a half-formed sorta-handwavey-summary:
      The Catholic Church’s mission, according to what I understand of Christian theology, is to save souls from Hell via being saved by Jesus Christ.
      Focus on method:
      Look as impressive and holy as possible. Focus on “people who matter,” ie the wealthy and powerful, on the theory that their wealth and influence can get more souls into the Church to be saved. Maintain prestige and reputation for perfection at any cost, even if the results of these efforts (sex-abuse cases becoming public and giving the Church an enormous PR black eye.) You are The Righteous Church no matter what you do, so other people’s opinion doesn’t matter. Cover everything with gold, since that really impresses the poor people that This Pope Guy Is Doing Something Right. Their opinion doesn’t matter – this is How Things Have Always Been Done.

      Focus on results:
      Let kids walk all over the stage and sit on the Pope Chair, as long as they’re not being violently disruptive. As long as they’re not getting in the way, and kids will be kids.
      A lot of very very poor people look at the Church’s ostentatious wealth, like a bishop in Germany spending $42 million to renovate a house, and go “Oh, they’re just like the bad old popes, lining their own pockets while people starve!” This gets people thinking that the Church doesn’t have the best priorities, and turns them away from the Gospel toward more populist preachers. So kick the bishop over to a monastery, and talk about turning the expensive house into a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Message: Serving the poor takes precedence over comfort. Very loud and clear.
      Washing the feet of the poor projects humility, especially if this ties into other memes in the Christian tapestry. This is similar to one bit I heard where a Pentecostal minister who’d been expelled for the heresy of “everyone goes to Heaven, Christ died for everyone,” experienced foot-washing in a church that ministered to a lot of gay people and called it “the holiest experience of my life.”
      (source: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/304/heretics )
      A lot of people, especially in places like Brazil, are very, very poor and shoved up against a bunch of people who are very, very wealthy, displaying that wealth ostentatiously, so a lot of resentment is piling up. In mostly-Catholic countries, the Church, as a very wealthy, privileged institution, gets tarred with the same resentment.
      Washing the feet of homeless people, as I understand it, projects the message of “it’s all right to be poor, being poor is holy, but we should focus on making sure people aren’t starving.” This, especially if it’s seen as a contrast from previous Popes, might be the thing to get a lot more people into the Catholic churches. It’ll be interesting to see over the next 5-10 years, if Catholic churches start seeing a bunch more worshippers. Especially if this next bit comes out the way I think:
      Admit you are imperfect. This is something I see a lot of out of Francis – he ends every sermon with “pray for me,” implying “hey! I’m not perfect!” This might include more thorough investigation of sex-abuse cases, though the Vatican seems to be dragging its feet on figuring out a coherent policy. But to propagate this meme effectively, you might see the Vatican moving to bring the hammer down on bishops who conceal sex abuse. Maybe some priests handed over to law enforcement, or put in some monastery in the Alps 100 miles from the nearest child. Does the Pope have the power to order a priest to a monastery for the rest of his natural life?
      Acknowledging that women have a role in the Church: appeals to Latin American and Italian cultures where the Relative Who Goes To Church Every Day is female more often than not – the “granny with a special line to God” stereotype in those cultures exists for a reason, though I concede I don’t have a statistical basis for this.

      All of this could add up to a lot more worshippers, and if I understand the Catholic theology properly, more people partaking of the Sacraments, and trusting the Church, and believing the Church is Doing the Right Thing, leads to more people going to Heaven.

    • Multiheaded says:

      Impressive? When you strip out the value-laden terminology, the change is going from conspicuous solidarity with holy glory, nobility, and wealth, to conspicuous solidarity with holy love, compassion, and the poor.

      That’s neutral at best, and a good example of leftward movement.

      Right, because the New Testament is full of conspicious solidarity with Pharisees, merchants, imperial authorities and such. As opposed to social outcasts like lepers, Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, underclass people in general… I know, I know, accusing the Vatican of being Pharisaic is by definition not a part of Catholic discourse on this, but still. Why wouldn’t an outsider simply shrug and say that Francis is trying to follow the letter of his own canon?
      As for “leftward movement”… well, it’s ambiguous; the social ideal that the Catholic Church has preached for centuries has been called both reactionary and proto-socialistic/utopian by leftists… but actual reactionaries almost inevitably tended to praise the Church, too. See comments here.

      As an aside, a simple theory of left and right is to say simply that leftists express solidarity with the left side of the distribution, and rightists express solidarity with the right side

      As an aside, this *appears* to be nearly the inverse of truth in, say, the US (as opposed to countries where at least the popular imagination preserves the image of the upper-crust reactionary and the rabble-rousing Jacobin, like in Britain). Why else would the Fox News audience conspiciously disdain a “liberal elite” and “Cultural Marxism” while Tumblr audience conspiciously disdains suburban life and “white culture” (white as in petit-bourgeois)?

      Even in modern far-right portrayals that are all about race/class/caste/gender war, the groups they despise (women who act like humans, uppity black people, etc) figure merely as tools of a corrupt intellectual elite, as spoiled unruly children with no historical agency of their own. Reactionary imagination used to be different back before our there-is-no-alternative age. I’d say that even the enemies of abolitionism or first-wave feminism, despite them seeing grand Jacobin conspiracies everywhere, had more of a sense that black people or women might be in themselves a threat to the existing order. Our side used to command some fear at least, if not respect. Now people – even the average U.S. liberal – scarcely seem to believe that vast popular radical movements actually happened. (You personally clearly do understand that they happened, so this is not about you.)

      • Why else would the Fox News audience conspiciously disdain a “liberal elite” and “Cultural Marxism” while Tumblr audience conspiciously disdains suburban life and “white culture” (white as in petit-bourgeois)?

        Fox conspicuously disdains the left side of the elite and shows solidarity with the right side of it; Tumblr conspicuously disdains the not-left-enough side of the general population and shows solidarity with the even-lefter side of it. If you try to do a class analysis on the US, things get very confusing very fast—hence Moldbug’s caste analysis.

        Then again, it’s basically Fascism, isn’t it? In the original sense: class solidarity through war. Literal war for the original Fascists, but culture war serves the same purpose here. How about that! We’re living in two Fascist states! Except the art sucks.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      In nearly any morality except yours – which includes both the modern morality that most people hold and the Christian morality that the Catholic Church was presumably founded upon – it’s impressive. So my question remains – what advantage was there in not doing this that counteracted the advantage of increased popularity and increased seeming-holiness.

      • >In nearly any morality except yours

        My morality is not relevant to this discussion.

        >modern morality

        >what advantage was there

        I won’t speculate on how hard Christian moral tradition pulls on the Catholic elite, and in what direction, but you said it yourself; popular morality has changed, which presumably changes the incentives for one type of signaling over another.

        You might ask “why now”, when the change occurred over the last few hundred years. I think inertia could explain that.

        That said, I’m not an expert in Catholic politics, history, social science, politics, etc. My concern was mostly your use of loaded language. It rubbed me the wrong way, especially since you are the author of these:

        http://lesswrong.com/lw/62/defense_against_the_dark_arts_case_study_1/

        http://lesswrong.com/lw/4h/when_truth_isnt_enough/

  10. BenSix says:

    The Catholic church can be truly dreadful at public relations. Here in Poland, the archbishop theorised that cases of child abuse had something to do with the seductive nature of the kids involved. Even if you had been so naive as to take Humbert Humbert at his word, the foolishness of voicing such opinions to the world is staggering.

    • Andy says:

      The Catholic church can be truly dreadful at public relations. Here in Poland, the archbishop theorised that cases of child abuse had something to do with the seductive nature of the kids involved. Even if you had been so naive as to take Humbert Humbert at his word, the foolishness of voicing such opinions to the world is staggering.

      Or our local Cardinal in Los Angeles, who concluded that since one priest’s underage victims were illegal immigrants, they would be unlikely to report the abuse to authorities.
      http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/01/21/16629865-church-files-show-attempts-to-protect-molester-priests-in-los-angeles
      http://documents.latimes.com/los-angeles-archdiocese-priest-abuse-files/ scroll down to “Monsignor Peter Garcia.”
      I wonder if there’s some psychological bias toward blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator in such cases, or it’s just a legal strategy to create a tiny bit of reasonable doubt. Though I don’t know if the Polish legal system works like ours, where the standard of criminal conviction is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

  11. Konkvistador says:

    Being declared Person of the Year by Time because of your conspicuous goodness is pretty much an endorsement by Satan. Just saying.

  12. Konkvistador says:

    Point 1:
    My other comment about Time magazine being basically the voice of Satan. To qualify it has been sliding down in its standing as a server where people go to download their new belief system for decades, they almost aren’t Brahmin anymore, more something aspiring Vaisyas read. But we have NYT, still a primate in its class, making approving noises of Pope Francis so this point still holds.

    Point 2:
    “For getting rid of the furniture made of solid gold that no sane person would even want, I can have the entire world talk about my humility. For two hours of my time and the cost of a foot-washing basin, I can be Time Person of the Year.”

    You did not ask this question of Barack Obama, the Queen of England or even the Dalai Lama.

    Point 3:
    Good PR of this kind is actually a *terrible* sign, see why Methodists don’t go to heaven
    http://rectifiedname.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/why-methodists-dont-go-to-heaven/

    I can’t help but appreciate the deep wisdom of Stalin’s well known sarcastic question of how many tank divisions does the Pope of Rome Have. People like to knowingly, in a cynical of cynicism kind of way, scoff at this comment as if it represents an underestimation or misunderstanding of so called “soft power”. To channel my inner James A. Donald I think they are idiots or don’t know history. This is perhaps excusable, as the history of the 20th century is completely insane and doesn’t fit at all, even by the low standards of history.

    I think Joseph Stalin knew *everything* there is to know about soft power, as this to me seems the most reasonable interpretation of his expert handling of Western elite public opinion and leaders. People like FDR of course *wanted* to excuse any horror in the name of leftism, but it still takes some skill to get as much Joe Steel did out of them.

    The Papacy if it was serious about sovereignty and its own moral authority…. well let us just say if I was crowned Holy Roman Emperor I would give them Italy, Switzerland and nuclear weapons to give them at least some autonomy.

    I expect readers to laugh at that paragraph or not believe I’m serious about the Vatican needing weapons of mass destruction. Directly relevant is a disturbingly plausible case made by revisionist fringe history that the Conclaves where indeed swayed by actual threat of nuclear annihilation. For example the theory about a coup in the Vatican during the infamous five minutes of white smoke on October 26, 1958.

    Pwnage of this kind by one or some other demotist demon in the 20th century looks pretty inevitable after the Pope became a Prisoner in the Vatican. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner_in_the_Vatican

    Point 4:

    I give Jim kudos for making a correct prediction about Benedict being the last Catholic Pope at a time when I was still cautiosuly optimistic that he would be followed by more Catholic recovery from the disaster that was the post Vatican II era.

    http://blog.jim.com/culture/no-the-pope-is-not-catholic.html
    http://blog.jim.com/culture/the-last-pope.html

    The Catholic Church has a special language about morality, because it used to be a server of morality and a competent institution+ for thinking about it. Indeed I think a good case can be made the Catholicism 11th century AD did experience moral progress relative to say the Catholicism of 5th century AD. It was a formidable institution that used to define and reason effectively on its own value system.

    It can still now speak this old language, but its vocabulary will be interpreted as speaking Progressive and thus systematically misunderstood. Worse theologians barely understand the old meaning of the words and have been ideologically pwned, by the same Modernism that Pope Pius X denounced as basically heresy, for most of the 20th century. The popes have known this for at least 40 years. That the current Pople knows this and consistently speaks in ways that are misunderstood as implying he is more progressive than he actually is by the media and his followers is damning.

    The Pope doesn’t and can not unfortunately effective speak directly to nominal Catholics anymore. He instead speaks to the NYT and CNN, who then speak to the people. They will either use his vocabulary to promote Progressive morality or use it to damn him for insufficient progressiveness. The current Pope knows this yet chooses to speak in ways that have the net effect of shifting away from the Catholic value system towards the progressive one.

    It is game over for Church. It can no longer be normative, but only try and compete in a phariseeical holiness game with the master Pharisees. The only winning move is not to play. Should restoration ever come I would argue the Church should be saved for its crucial symbolic place the Western mind’s self-conception, I no longer have any hope it will recover from this infection on its own.

    Aside 1:
    If any post-rationalists/post-reasonablists interested in Catholic history and theology are reading this, does anyone have a clue what was up with Pope Pius X and his emphasis on Mary? It looks like a belief engineering attempt that has gone terribly wrong in the late 20th century. I’m confused by it because he otherwise seems to have been basically good on important points of defense and even offense, but still failed. I have a hunch this was part of a well thought out long game that unfortunately backfired. Any ideas? Am I seeing things, was he just a mutant on this or did following Popes fail to stick to the grand plan or what? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Pius_X

    Marianism seems really weird in how it comes out of nowhere relatively recently.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      Could you rewrite that in English?

      No seriously, I’ve concluded that your goal is not to be understood – I can’t quite put my finger on what your goal is though. Perhaps I’m wrong in assuming you have a goal? Perhaps you’re simply doing your best imitation of unintelligable Moldbugspeak?

      • Konkvistador says:

        I’m not a native speaker of English, I think this shows.

      • Konkvistador says:

        I made about 5 different and mostly unrelated points and numbered them hoping to make reading this a bit easier.

        I will try and rewrite this as a more comprehensive opinion piece on the pope.

      • Konkvistador says:

        ” Perhaps I’m wrong in assuming you have a goal? Perhaps you’re simply doing your best imitation of unintelligable Moldbugspeak?”

        Yes yes I know I’m not welcome here anymore because I’m outgroup.

        • oligopsony says:

          Reactionaries are in-group here, just not exclusively, but I suspect Alex may be correct to say (translating charitably) that you’re using a lot of NR shibboleths (pwn, pharisee, &c.) and background assumptions that may heighten inferential distance. (Consider how this comment would read if you’d never heard of “shibboleths” or “inferential distance” or if, worse yet, they had much less specific meanings outside the social context I was habituated to use them in.) It was perfectly intelligible to me, though, for what it’s worth (but then I’ve always felt we’ve been oddly simpatico? idk)

        • Anonymous says:

          oligopsony: I think you nailed much of it, but it’s not all vocabulary/known concepts level. Moldbug, and Konkvistador in that post, seem to meander around the idea they really want to state, with a concept salad I’m forced to assume is aesthetically pleasing to them. Bizarre metaphors and clichés seem to funge against explicitly laying out important parts of what they’re trying to say.

          Therefore, I instantly knew exactly what Alexander meant by “your goal is not to be understood” and “unintelligable Moldbugspeak”.

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          You think that’s what I’m objecting to? I’ve praised Athrelon several times in the past as well as Scharlach for making concise and compelling points with a high content to word ratio and not too much fluff or rhetoric. I’m objecting to this comment for being almost pure rhetoric with some hyperbole and obscure terms thrown in for good measure.

          I suppose if English is not your first language, then my judgement may have been too harsh.

          • Konkavistor is normally a reasonably clear writer. I assume he was experimenting with writing more playfully than usual, and the experiment didn’t work out. It happens.

        • Konkvistador says:

          @oligopsony: I think you are right, I ?was* using a lot of reacto vocabulary now that I look at it again.

        • Konkvistador says:

          @Anonymous: Disagree.

          I actually did want to be understood here and am dissapointed little engagement of the points was made.

          That I’m meandering around something might be an impression you’d get if you thought I think all my points are closely related. I don’t. But when I started writing I realized that I could either spam 10 separate comments or try and structure it in a single post. So I did the latter.

        • Konkvistador says:

          On second thought I was a in a particular mood when writing this, so maybe I didn’t want to be understood as much as have fun.

      • I’ll try to translate the last few points. Konk, correct me if I’m wrong.

        ——
        Good PR is a bad sign. From the link:

        The problem is measuring success in part by how popular and well-received your sermons are and how your congregation grows. Once the market-optimization process starts, your principled beliefs will be worn down to pablum in a few centuries.

        Market optimization selects for what people already want to hear. What makes Pope Francis different from previous popes is that, although he speaks Catholic, he isn’t heard as speaking Catholic—he’s heard as speaking progressive. The words that he’s using have different meanings in different contexts, different lexica. (I don’t speak Catholic, so I’ll leave it open to anyone who does to provide examples—but I hope it’s clear to everyone here how it’s possible for the same string of letters to mean different things to different readers with different educational/ideological/etc. backgrounds.)

        The Church doesn’t have hard power, and therefore exists and operates at the mercy of anything that does have hard power. If the Church really took seriously its claims to moral authority, it would be working to fix that.

        The Church has lost its soft power: it can’t directly speak to its believers, but has to speak to the people in general through the media, which has its own interests and ideology—and those are directly opposed to the interests and ideology of the Church. Pope Francis isn’t trying to fix this; in fact, his statements look like they’re engineered to sound progressive to progressives. So it is no longer useful in the fight against progressivism.

        ——

        As for ‘pwn’: An institution that has the soft-power ability to persuade is pwned when it uses that ability to advance/propagate/spread a memeplex (set of ideas / belief system) that meets the following two conditions: 1) advancing/propagating/spreading that memeplex is not advantageous to the survival/health/power-accumulation of the institution, 2) advancing/propagating/spreading that memeplex was not in the original goal-set of the institution.

        So “ideologically pwned by the same Modernism that Pope Pius X denounced as basically heresy” means that: 1) the Church was previously opposed to modernism; 2) the Church is now modernist; 3) the Church’s modernism does not serve the ends of the Church. Moldbug’s ‘memetic parasite’ analogy is apt here.

        • Andy says:

          Embedded in this argument is the assumption that Francis’ actions are bad for the church’s power/influence. And that Catholics who disagree with Catholic hard-liners on gays, women, abortions, etc are not real Catholics. These are groups that have been ecstatic over Francis, especially here, where the Vatican’s stance on sex abuse in particular was seen as massively counterproductive and un-Christian by many laity.
          I’d argue that the Catholic Church has *not* been pwned for condition 2. Certain lines in the Gospels about passing a camel through the eye of a needle, for example, and throwing money-changers out of the temple, are as much part of the Catholic meme-DNA as the cloth of gold and majesty and impressiveness.

          As to “hard power,” I think that the Catholic Church going after hard power would actually be worse for the Church’s survival/influence over the long run. Everyone who associates Catholic hard-power with the Crusades and the 30 Years War and the Inquisition would be terrified, perhaps enough to ally against the Church. End result if the Church loses: it’s reduced in power/influence while losing much or all of the goodwill it’s achieved over the last few hundred years of soft-power, or might be destroyed entirely.
          That’s an extreme scenario, but it’s one that should be considered a possibility for anyone who wants to see the Vatican get its way with hard power or nukes.

        • Embedded in this argument is the assumption that Francis’ actions are bad for the church’s power/influence.

          It’s believable within the context of America/the West in general, given that within that context, Francis is [at least seen by progressive institutions as] benefiting progressive institutions, which the Church is supposed to oppose. (This ties into condition 2: the whole point is that, yes, he is still legitimately speaking Catholic—but he is doing so in a way that is very easily misinterpreted as speaking something that is anti-Catholic.)

          These are groups that have been ecstatic over Francis, especially here, where the Vatican’s stance on sex abuse in particular was seen as massively counterproductive and un-Christian by many laity.

          Where is here? I’ve heard it argued that the game plan is to shift focus away from the Western culture war to elsewhere.

      • Ah dammit I think I confused things even more.

        Point 1: The reason Pope Francis gets positive coverage from progressive institutions is that progressive institutions think Pope Francis is on their side—at least enough so to be worth promoting.

        Point 2: If Pope Francis signaling humility is so obvious, why isn’t equally obvious for Obama, the Dalai Lama, the Queen of England, etc.?

        Point 3: The Vatican can’t help but be pwned, since it lacks hard power, and so can be threatened by anyone who does [and can get away with it].

        Point 4: Pope Francis speaks Catholic, but is heard as speaking progressive. He isn’t doing anything to try to fix this.

        Aside 1: What was Pope Pius X trying to do with Marianism? What purpose/s was it intended to serve?

    • Andy says:

      Point 4:

      I give Jim kudos for making a correct prediction about Benedict being the last Catholic Pope at a time when I was still cautiosuly optimistic that he would be followed by more Catholic recovery from the disaster that was the post Vatican II era.

      http://blog.jim.com/culture/no-the-pope-is-not-catholic.html
      http://blog.jim.com/culture/the-last-pope.html

      How do you define “Catholic,” then? Because this feels a bit like defining a Scotsman, if you get my drift.

      It seems to me that every Pope, as leader of a tradition with as long and diverse a history as the Catholic Church, has a wide variety of different tools. The holy-poverty tradition of St. Francis (or that obscure “Jesus” guy) is just as much part of that tradition as the ostentatious wealth and luxury of the Borgias, or the Crusades, or the sadism of Tertullian that Scott quoted in his piece on Chesterton, or the Inquisition. This gives a lot
      If Francis is not a “true” Catholic, then what should a Real Pope look like?
      Launching Crusades, which empirically does not work very well? Trying to wipe out Protestantism? Which also did not work well terribly well, as a few million German ghosts can testify.

      I think Francis is doing exactly what Scott said Chesterton was really good at: taking the best of the modern world and packaging it in traditionally Catholic memes, and handing it back to the world.

    • Multiheaded says:

      People like FDR of course *wanted* to excuse any horror in the name of leftism, but it still takes some skill to get as much Joe Steel did out of them.

      Sorry, this bit is absolute misdirection. Because the hardened reactionary Churchill – check it – gave more concessions to Stalin in the name of realpolitik than the supposedly idealistic pinko commie FDR. And, logically, if realpolitik is so important that it’d make Churchill appearse Stalinism… well, it and not PR might be the name of the game, after all!

      • Konkvistador says:

        We might be reading different spins on history then? From what I read Churchill was consistently surprised by how much FDR gave the Soviets.

      • Because the hardened reactionary Churchill – check it – gave more concessions to Stalin in the name of realpolitik than the supposedly idealistic pinko commie FDR.

        How so? And were FDR’s concessions made in the name of realpolitik?

    • Anonymous says:

      To channel my inner James A. Donald

      Please nobody ever do this.

      • Andy says:

        :/ That’s really not nice. I like arguing against James, even when I don’t much like what he says.

        And back to Konk’s original point:

        This is perhaps excusable, as the history of the 20th century is completely insane and doesn’t fit at all, even by the low standards of history.

        This sounded really typically-Reactionary in my head, in the sense that I had a mental image of an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn.
        But it actually made a lot of sense on my second read, since the rate of technological progress and the resulting social change went off like a scalded cat in the last 150-200 years, in contrast to the tortoise-on-heroin speed of the previous 5000, and society is still scrambling to catch up and adapt. But it is probably not good news for Reactionaries, as social structures developed for medieval agrarian societies might not work well wherever technological change takes us next.
        (yes, strongly paraphrasing Scott’s “We Wrestle Not Against Flesh and Blood…” here.)

      • To channel my inner James A. Donald

        Please nobody ever do this.

        Please nobody ever do this. It’s pure signaling, and pure signaling creates an environment that is not conducive to rationality (or reasonable debate or finding the truth or whatever else you want to call it / whatever phrase you prefer to be used) unless carefully deployed with attached explicit or technically-implicit-but-obvious-to-everyone-in-the-audience explanations/citations reinforcing norms conducive to rationality/etc.

        If you want to play cooler-than-thou, Gawker is that way.

        • Anonymous says:

          :/ That’s really not nice. I like arguing against James, even when I don’t much like what he says.

          Please nobody ever do this. It’s pure signaling…

          Fair enough. I apologize.

          (This apology might work a little better if I hadn’t been anonymous, but I think I picked the same only-visible-to-Scott fake email address at least.)

          On the other hand, signaling was not the pure, or even primary, goal. I was expressing an actual dislike of both the quality and content of James’ arguments. But doing that in a snide one-liner also

          creates an environment that is not conducive to rationality

          and is pretty lazy besides, so I wish I hadn’t.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “You did not ask this question of Barack Obama, the Queen of England or even the Dalai Lama.”

      Barack Obama and the Queen aren’t trying to signal holiness within the context of a religious tradition that’s been obsessed with humility and with helping the poor for thousands of years.

      A Pope washing someone’s feet is a highly symbolic action. Barack Obama washing someone’s feet would be really bizarre and kind of creepy.

      I think many presidents have donated their salaries to charity and tried to refuse a lot of the pomp around the Presidency, and I know that they already inherit something of a baseline of doing this (eg the form of address Mr. President, traditional dress is just a nice suit rather than any kind of regalia). Beyond that I’m not sure what the President could do.

      The Queen seems to have no purpose except looking important, so abandoning the emphasis on looking important would be a bad move for her.

      The Dalai Lama to my understanding does exactly what Francis is doing. He makes a big deal out of being just “a simple monk”, although I’m not sure how conscious it is. And he seems to live in a simple private house. How much more humble do you want him to be?

      You haven’t justified your statement about Stalin, which is especially confusing given how much influence the Pope traditionally is believed to have had on the collapse of Communism. You also haven’t justified your statement that the Vatican needs more sovereignty to be independent. Right now the only way I could imagine anyone exploiting the Vatican’s military weakness to influence them is to invade them or threaten to do so. The only country that can do that effectively is Italy – anyone else would have to go through/nuke Italy to manage it and start a war with the EU/NATO. I’ve seen no evidence whatsoever that Italy or anyone else has considered invading the Vatican or that anyone in the Vatican takes the slightest bit of account of that in their planning. It may also be useful to compare the Vatican to eg Rwanda when analyzing just how high a barrier there is for countries to invade other countries, even when those other countries are very tiny and militarily weak.

      “The Pope doesn’t and can not unfortunately effective speak directly to nominal Catholics anymore. He instead speaks to the NYT and CNN, who then speak to the people. ”

      I think you’re missing the point of this post, which is not that the Pope is doing things that are controversial to Catholic morality (he’s not pro-choice, or pro-gay marriage, or anything like that). He’s doing things that are popular among seculars AND popular among Catholics, like being humble and saying nice things about the poor. There’s no abandonment of Catholicism at all here, which is why I’m surprised other Popes didnt try it.

      • Konkvistador says:

        Ugh. Italy. Does Italy’s military leverage over the Pope matter? The answer of history is yes. Where the crazy demotist driven ideologies of the 20th century willing and capable of invade Italy to pwn it? The answer again is yes.

      • Konkvistador says:

        The well recognized ability to deploy force is more potent than deployed force.

      • Konkvistador says:

        I was about to do a Muldbugspeak style rant on what I see as the fail of the first point. I deleted it before posting. You being so close to hitting the mark but so pwned is quite infuriating. I started my rant just by quoting you on how the one job of the queen of England is to look important and adding exclamation marks.

        I’m just going to chill and get high or something instead.

      • Konkvistador says:

        Dear lord you invoke NATO membership guaranteeing saftey from moral crusading invasion. Dear lord. Well techniclly I guess being dead counts as being cancer resistant too?

  13. Konkvistador says:

    “Perhaps previous Popes were interested in public opinion, and did do a good job managing it, but believed that people would be more impressed by golden thrones and fancy regalia and ritual than by conspicuous humility. Perhaps that belief was correct.”

    You know at some point you will have to realize that people who lived in the past where sometimes quite rational. Let me share one of the few George Lucas quotes I like:

    “Not that we need a king, but there’s a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There’s a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled.”

    • Andy says:

      Not that we need a king, but there’s a reason why kings built large palaces, sat on thrones and wore rubies all over. There’s a whole social need for that, not to oppress the masses, but to impress the masses and make them proud and allow them to feel good about their culture, their government and their ruler so that they are left feeling that a ruler has the right to rule over them, so that they feel good rather than disgusted about being ruled.

      Yes, back when most people couldn’t read, the symbols of power were much more visual than verbal.

      I would argue that Progressive democracy has the same social need for impressiveness as one basis for legitimacy – look at the US Supreme Court building, or the black robes worn by (unelected! at least on the federal level) judges. I’d argue that fills the same function – impress the people who have to live by the decisions of the court that This Institution Has Power. The impressiveness of the Capitol dome, the grandeur of the White House, the formality of standing when the President enters a room – the Progressive system is filled with the same function.

      And it works. There’s enough momentum and history and legitimacy (call it PR if you want) behind the Supreme Court that even when people disagree with it, they abide by its decisions (mostly – exceptions exist), or try to find a better legal argument, rather than go to war and try to get the result they want by force. Though that part might, in some cases, be linked to the federal government’s monopoly on force. Think of Lawrence v. Texas or Windsor last year, which social conservatives disliked, or Citizens United or Heller, which liberals loathed. They also decide a number of less significant decisions that really wouldn’t be best decided by elected politicians, such as a dispute between the states of Texas and Oklahoma over water rights. (Tarrant v. Herrmann for short, or Tarrant Regional Water District v. Herrmann) Given how important water is in the West US, and that these states have been arguing over this issue for over a decade, any politician who ever wants to run for President will side with Texas and its electoral votes, especially if it turns into a swing state, and let the bigger state sovereignty over its smaller neighbor’s water. (I am simplifying, the issue is rather more complicated than this, but it’ll do as a summary.) The Supreme Court sided 9-0 with Oklahoma, and though I haven’t found any reaction to this on the Texas side of the border, I can’t imagine it was very popular.

  14. Perhaps previous Popes were interested in public opinion, and did do a good job managing it, but believed that people would be more impressed by golden thrones and fancy regalia and ritual than by conspicuous humility.

    Perhaps previous Popes did similar things and neither of us ever heard about it, because their ideological/political/etc. stances were such that the media would if not actively side against them (thus running the risk of offending Catholics and losing their viewership) but hurt them/not help them through silence.

    If the current pope was a staunch traditionalist and he did the same things the possibly-not-modernist-but-misrepresented-as-modernist-and-taking-no-steps-to-correct-that-misrepresentation Pope Francis does now, would the media have reported on it as much as they report on Pope Francis? I doubt it.

    • Oligopsony says:

      The media loved JPII. They didn’t love Benedict (who was politically indistinguishable) but they were hardly afraid to report that he was a brainiac who didn’t pander, &c. Also the humility of his abdication, although I suppose that’s hard to miss.

      It is true that the other pope who’s most famous for shedding goofy imperial luxuries specifically is JPI, so if conservative popes are doing that sight unseen there might be something interesting going on.

      • The impression I got was that people liked JPII because he and the US had common enemies. Benedict became pope in 2005, so the Iron Curtain wasn’t really an issue anymore.

        I distinctly remember coming across articles saying that Benedict was in the closet and fucking his secretary, but I don’t know if that was media outlets proper or what.

        • oligopsony says:

          The impression I got was that people liked JPII because he and the US had common enemies.

          Yup (granting that “US” here is metonymy.)

    • Erik says:

      Again with the supplementary notes:

      At the end of the second session of the Second Vatican Council in 1963, Paul VI descended the steps of the papal throne in St. Peter’s Basilica and ascended to the altar, on which he laid the tiara in a dramatic gesture of humility and as a sign of the renunciation of human glory and power in keeping with the renewed spirit of the Council. Since then, none of his successors has worn a tiara.
      It was announced that the tiara would be sold and the money obtained would be given to charity; the tiara was in fact bought by Catholics in the United States and is now kept in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in the Washington, DC.

      Paul VI is the author of Sacerdotalis Caelibatus and Humanae Vitae reaffirming certain controversial church teachings, so I expect he counts as a staunch traditionalist.

      • oligopsony says:

        Gracias. I don’t think the overall pattern fits a “media discrediture of all conservative popes” model at all, but there may be something interesting going on here if only in my biased head (i.e., I may well have heard of Paul as the humble guy and edited it into JPI or whatever.)

  15. Pingback: Papal PR Slate Star Codex | Vatican Report

  16. MugaSofer says:

    Well, you would know, I suppose.

    You’ve been talking about the plight of us low-social-skills … people a lot recently. Any chance you’ll ever share these advanced social skills you learned during your Five Thousand Years?

    Obviously, some of these techniques may be evil. But you have unparalleled access to the rationalist community, so I’m guessing the instrumental value could be high.

    Oh, and I’m crazy curious, of course. Hmm, I think I’ll ask this on a few posts in the hope it’ll be seen.