More Catholic than the Pope

Is Francis too radical for his flock?

When an estimated three million enraptured people gathered on Rio de Janiero's Copacabana beach on Sunday, July 28, Pope Francis's pilgrimage to Brazil suddenly went from big news in Latin America to huge news around the globe. The beachside Mass confirmed for the press corps his charisma and sent reporters scurrying for superlatives. The Guardian described the Pope's trip as "triumphant." The Wall Street Journal said he had received a "rock star reception." Al Jazeera's correspondent Lucia Newman declared the scene on the beach in Rio as "extraordinary."

Following the Copacabana Mass, Francis flew home to Rome aboard a chartered jet. After the plane leveled off at a cruising altitude, he wandered to the back of the cabin to mingle with reporters and conduct a press conference in the manner of a presidential candidate. The moment was unexpected, especially since the pope had previously declined all requests for interviews since taking office in March. But Francis was buoyant from the reception he had received in Brazil and, perhaps, emboldened to spend a bit of the capital he had accumulated.   

No question was off limits and the reporters rose to the occasion, inquiring about controversies ranging from the Vatican Bank to gay priests in a Church that condemns homosexual activity. On that subject, Francis said, "If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they're our brothers." It was the kind of statement -- humble, direct, and friendly -- that makes people feel he's like the priest who asks for second glass of wine at Sunday dinner and encourages you to have one too.

Even if Francis's olive branch toward homosexuals in the church falls short of a shift in substance, his words represent a major break with the church's long history of deep-seated social conservatism. While the Church still regards homosexual acts as sinful, no previous pope has offered a "who am I to judge?" response to the question of what to do with gay priests.

Indeed, under the reign on Francis's immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, top church officials frequently blamed gay priests for the terrible sexual abuse crisis afflicting the church worldwide. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana even suggested the church could benefit from the some of the anti-gay prejudice seen in his country, echoing similar sentiments expressed by churchmen in the U.S. In this context, Francis's comments about gay priests mark him as a very different leader who may be heralding the end of an era deep and abiding intolerance of homosexuality. (During his flight home Francis also said that the church needed a new theological perspective on the role and status of women. "Let us remember," he said, "that Mary is more important than the bishop apostles, so women in the church are more important than bishops and priests.")

In speaking so boldly, Francis risks alienating Catholics in the industrialized West who have supported conservative theology, doctrine, and leadership. This significant minority is energized by the fight against abortion and resistance to those who would welcome both women priests and an end to mandatory celibacy for clerics. They have loyally supported the church with donations and activism and can be expected to oppose any change in direction of the sort Francis has signaled. With his comments, Francis poses a challenge to those who felt comfortable with the conservative leadership they have known for more than a generation. But this constituency cannot sustain the church in the long term, and the church now needs a figure able to bridge the gap between its rightward movement and the reality that Westerners are leaving the church in droves. That problem requires a wily pope with the skill and charisma to pull off the high-wire balancing act of unifying these two disparate impulses. Could Francis be that man?

Beginning with the election of John Paul II in 1978, the institutional Catholic Church entered a period of conservative theology and politics. Even as he encouraged the flowering of democracy in his native Poland and across Eastern Europe, John Paul II shut down efforts to give national bishops conferences and laypeople a greater role in decision-making. He punished theologians who challenged orthodoxy, delivered searing attacks on the secular world, and filled the ranks of Catholic bishops with men committed to his own brand of orthodoxy -- isolating those who expressed a more expansive view of Christianity. 

As John Paul II sought to build a stronger papacy, he also allowed problems to fester in the Vatican Bank and in the priesthood. Years passed before he addressed the sexual abuse scandal that has involved thousands of priests and many times that number of child victims. When he finally spoke of it, he excoriated the media for publicizing cases and blamed the mores of the broader society for corrupting clergy. Meanwhile, hundreds of clergymen went to jail, the church spent billions of dollars on settlements of civil claims, and the church's moral authority declined.

Upon John Paul II's death in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany became Pope Benedict XVI. He might not have been cut from the same cloth, but he clearly carried on John Paul II's legacy. Ratzinger had been dubbed the "Pope's Rottweiler" in his previous job as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the powerful arm of the church charged with enforcing doctrine. The CDF, which replaced the office that ran the Inquisition, identified and investigated liberal theologians whom John Paul II disciplined. One was fired from his university job, another was ordered to refrain from writing and speaking for a year. Under then-Cardinal Ratzinger, the CDF (which oversees proceedings against priests accused of molesting and raping children) moved so slowly against officials charged with abuse that some priests served a decade or longer before being defrocked. Others died in good standing, even after their victims had been compensated for being harmed.  

As Pope Benedict, Ratzinger continued a kind of leadership consistent with his early writings about a future "remnant church" that would be much smaller and less engaged with the world but comprised of true believers. This vision was of a church in a self-protective crouch, waiting for a day, perhaps centuries in the future, when its message would once again be relevant. It is a view which no doubt contributed to Benedict's decision in February to step down from office. The first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, he seemed a discouraged if not defeated man as he spoke of being fatigued by the demands of his office.

Francis, the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years, is clearly more interested and inclined to engage with the world. Where Benedict often seemed distressed and uncomfortable with the public, Francis wades into crowds, embraces children, and hugs women. Before he was even elevated, Francis rejected the trappings of his office -- the gold ring, ermine stole, red shoes -- worn by previous popes. He shocked Vatican watchers by refusing to stand above his fellow cardinals after his election and then by visiting the hotel where he had stayed during the conclave to pay his bill and collect his luggage. Even his choice of name, honoring Saint Francis of Assisi, signaled a departure from the regal papacy and an embrace of the poor, the downtrodden, and the powerless. He has declined to live in the official papal quarters, refused to spend the summer at the beautiful Castel Gandolfo, and insists on carrying his own briefcase to meetings.

In his first months in office, Francis has reached out to women, Muslims, atheists, and now gays with insistent gestures of humility. He has also promised a dialogue with victims of abuse, reforms at the Vatican Bank, and greater commitment to the poor. Possessing the same singular power as John Paul II and Benedict, he seems to be wielding it without concern for a backlash. His maturity -- he is 76 -- may have something to do with his aura of calm confidence. But he can also draw strength from the knowledge that he was elected by the very men who owed their place in the College of Cardinals to Benedict and John Paul II -- even if the cardinals are now having second thoughts about their pope, there's little they can do to rein him in.

On the specific issue of homosexuality and Catholicism, the pope has begun a discussion that will continue in parishes worldwide and may lead, over the long term, to a revision of official teaching. More generally, by enthusiastically wading into controversial issues, Francis is clearly rejecting the "remnant church" approach to the modern world. He's not interested in withdrawing and prefers, instead, to swim in the stream of history. Here, finally, is a pope willing to grapple with the implications of a social trend -- the increasing acceptance of homosexuality -- that threatens to relegate the church to irrelevance. Unlike his predecessor, Francis is not content to wait out the millennia with his head in the sand until Catholic orthodoxy once more becomes in vogue. Rather, this is a pope eager to explain how this ancient church should fit into a changing world. 

For 30 years, conservative church leaders have stood by and watched as the Church failed to end its sex abuse crisis and the scandal afflicting the Vatican bank. They have watched while the people of the industrialized West, including those in that most Catholic of countries, Ireland, have abandoned the Church in droves. Issues like homosexuality, the status of women, and the desire of many priests to be married, were never going to be addressed successfully by men who could not reach out with authentic warmth. Francis, the man they selected, seems up to the task. As he pursues it, the old guard appointed by John Paul and Benedict may feel he is leaving them behind. But he will be catching up to modern Catholics who believe the equality of persons as well as souls.   

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The Land of the Sinking Sun

Is Japan’s military weakness putting America in danger?

Since returning to office in December, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done little to reassure his neighbors that Japan comes in peace. Within his first two weeks of office, he ordered a review of his country's defense guidelines, which his defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, described as "a priority we must work on with no letup." On July 26, Japan's Defense Ministry released interim results of the review, urging significant military upgrades. It included plans to create an amphibious island defense force, and hinted at the possibility of preemptive strikes against foreign military targets.

Over the last seven months, Abe's staunchly nationalistic views and desire to revise Japan's post-war constitution, which prohibits the use of military capabilities except in self-defense, have exacerbated tensions with China and South Korea. A Pew Research Center poll, released in July, found that 85 percent of Chinese and South Koreans view Abe unfavorably, and that sentiment towards Japan has worsened sharply. The now regular flare-ups over the disputed Senkaku islands in the East China Sea have increased the risk of conflict between Japan and China, which calls the islands the Diaoyu. And Abe's decisive victory for the Liberal Democratic Party in late July's upper house elections brought him closer to the two-thirds legislative majorities in both houses of the Diet required to initiate constitutional reform.

There is a paradox at the heart of Abe's bluster. Although his calls for a stronger military have worried his neighbors, a decade of budget cuts and a struggling economy means that Japan's military is surprisingly feeble. Despite Abe's bluster, the real threat posed by Japan is not that its military is growing too strong, but that it is rapidly weakening.

Even accounting for the 0.8 percent increase contained in Abe's 2013 budget, Japan's annual defense budget has declined by over 5 percent in the last decade. During the same period, China's defense budget increased by 270 percent (South Korea's and Taiwan's grew by 45 percent and 14 percent, respectively.) In U.S. dollar terms, Japan's defense budget was 63 percent larger than China's in 2000, but barely one-third the size of China's in 2012. In fact, since 2000, Japan's shares of world and regional military expenditures have fallen by 37 percent and 52 percent, respectively. Japan's defense review will likely frighten its neighbors more than it will improve the military.

These figures understate Japan's predicament. Steady declines in defense expenditures over the past decade forced Japan into a series of measures that are beginning to take a toll. In a nation where lifetime employment is the norm, aversion to layoffs and pension cuts have made personnel expenditures virtually impossible to reduce. Consequently, much of the burden fell on the equipment procurement budget, which has declined by roughly 20 percent since 2002. Japanese defense policymakers have coped by extending the life of military hardware, such as submarines, destroyers, and fighter jets. As a result, Japan's focus has shifted from acquisition to preservation, and maintenance costs have skyrocketed: at the end of the Cold War, maintenance spending was roughly 45 percent the size of procurement expenditures; it is now 150 percent.

Because of declining procurement budgets and higher unit costs, Japan now acquires hardware at a much slower rate: one destroyer and five fighter jets per year compared to about three destroyers and 18 fighter jets per year in the 1980s. In the coming decade, Japan's fleet of destroyers stands to be reduced by 30 percent. Although Japan plans to order 42 F-35 fighter jets in the next decade to replace what remains of its aging F-4EJ aircraft, project delays and cost overruns will likely lead to the order's reduction or postponement

There is significant concern in U.S. policy circles that Abe's aggressive remarks, coupled with Japan's waning military power, could undermine U.S. interests. Power transitions are notoriously destabilizing: Japanese defense officials now publicly fret about the threats posed by China's improving maritime capabilities, while vessels from both countries patrol the waters around the disputed islands on a daily basis, raising the likelihood of unintended escalation. The United States, as Tokyo's principal ally, risks being drawn into a military confrontation. Japan's decline also threatens to undercut the Obama administration's "pivot" towards Asia, as the United States now needs to compensate for Japan's decline.

The United States expects Japan to support its efforts in East Asia and to help ensure that China's rise is peaceful. Indeed, Tokyo played a similar role in the late 20th century, when, despite constitutional restrictions on the use of force, Japan was a respectable military power: as recently as 2002, Japan had the third largest defense budget in the world, with particularly robust, albeit defensive, naval capabilities. Japan's forces in East Asia helped the United States focus its military assets elsewhere without risking instability in the Asia-Pacific region.

Getting back to that place won't be easy, and might even be impossible. A deep structural and economic malaise is at the heart of Japan's military austerity. Japan suffers from the highest public debt levels of any major nation -- 235 percent of GDP -- and a severe budget deficit of 10 percent of GDP in 2012. It has the most rapidly aging population in the world, which means its tax base is shrinking, and its pension and healthcare costs are rapidly mounting. The Japanese government now spends more on debt service and social security than it raises in tax revenues: all other spending, including national defense, is effectively financed through unsustainable debt. Whether fiscal consolidation comes through draconian austerity or a debt crisis, defense spending will continue to be squeezed.

To compensate for the growing gaps in the Japanese military, the United States needs to cooperate ever more closely with Japan. Outstanding issues that threaten to undermine relations, such as Futenma air base relocation and host-nation support, must be resolved quickly. Joint capabilities need to be adapted in anticipation of further fiscal troubles, which may make it impossible to replace aging hardware such as Japan's Asagiri- and Hatsuyuki-class destroyers and F-4EJ fighter jets.

Abe would be wise to use his new, large legislative majorities to pursue pragmatic reforms instead of ideological ones. A constitutional revision that relaxes constraints on Japan's military will be a hollow victory if the country's economy and military capabilities sink into oblivion. Japan would be better served if Abe's party expands the prime minister's bold economic plan into a long-term reform program that addresses the country's enduring problems: economic stagnation, public debt, and demographic decline. Indeed, Abe's attempts to boost defense spending are unsustainable unless these underlying structural issues are resolved.

Tackling these issues will do far more to restore Japan's international status and credibility than symbolic gestures that stoke nationalism and antagonize Japan's neighbors.