So my Facebook feed exploded yesterday after they announced the new pope. Most of my Facebook friends are lefties—that’s what comes from seven years in grad school and half a decade in Chapel Hill—and naturally they’re none too happy to hear that Pope Francis has a history of being anti-gay, anti-abortion, and all that.
I get that much. But what I don’t understand is why they all seem to be so surprised. “I wanted a progressive,” they say. “I was hoping for progress.” By which they mean, “I was really hoping the Church hierarchy would pick a leader with a history of defying the Church hierarchy.” As if that was ever a legitimate possibility. Face it: even if the cardinals had been so inclined, none of the available candidates would have qualified—certainly not to the satisfaction of my leftie friends, many of whom take it for granted that John Paul II was a reactionary.
Seriously, nothing about Pope Francis ought to be surprising. Politically he’s in lockstep with all the Church’s official positions: conservative on social issues like abortion and gay rights, more progressive when it comes to economic justice. Not to sound like a valley girl or nothing, but that describes, like, every pope. This is exactly the sort of candidate you knew the cardinals were going to choose; even if it hadn’t been Jorge Bergoglio per se, it would have been someone else with the same qualifications. We’re surprised by this? This is a thing?
The obvious answer: “Well, no, I wasn’t surprised—I was indignant. Or I was disappointed. Or I was upset.” But no, that doesn’t work either. You can’t be “indignant” or “disappointed” unless you’re also at least a little bit surprised. “Indignant” and “disappointed” imply that certain hopes went unfulfilled, certain expectations went unmet. It’s that surprise that makes you indignant, disappointed, upset. You can’t have one without the other.
And in this case—in this case, the surprise is just unrealistic. Being “surprised” that the cardinals went with Bergoglio over some liberation theologist is like someone in 2012 being “surprised” that the Republicans nominated Mitt Romney over Jon Huntsman. If that surprises you, then you’re not paying attention—or else you’re so firmly ensconced in your own bubble that you’ve literally lost the ability to comprehend the behavior of anyone outside it. I’m not sure which is worse. (That’s actually not true. The second one is way worse. The first one can be fixed.)
And all this is emblematic of a larger trend. Everywhere in political discourse, people are just shocked, shocked, by things that really ought to be obvious. Remember how “surprised” we all said we were right after Sandy Hook, when the president of the National Rifle Association came out in favor of guns? Or how stunned we all claimed to be after it turned out Lance Armstrong was taking just as many performance enhancers as all the guys he beat for seven years straight? Or when multi-millionaire Mitt Romney got caught on hidden camera confessing that he didn’t think poor people liked him very much? Or—flip side—how “indignant” conservatives became right before the election, when Nate Silver looked at all those polls showing Obama with a lead and suggested that Obama probably had the lead? Sheesh.
We waste so much of our time pretending to be surprised.
At least I want to say we do.
Because on the one hand, all this pretend surprise is silly. It makes our discourse silly. It makes us sound dumber than we really are. Worst-case scenario, we actually manage to convince ourselves of the obviously-false hope—and then we actually become dumber than we really are, and our lives suffer because of it. (“George W. Bush would never invade Iraq! Congress will totally reach a deal before sequestration kicks in!”)
But then again, on the other hand—in politics, nothing happens without action, and (for better or worse) there’s no action without passion. And passion equals anger. Indignation. Disappointment. Shock. Surprise. People who speak out, write letters, take to the streets and make things happen—they do it because they’re surprised. Faux-surprised, maybe. Stupidly surprised, maybe. But they’re out there, and the surprise is what’s prodding them on.
Then there’s me. I can’t get worked up over anything these days. I’ve read Pope Francis’ nastier comments about homosexuality. And I’m gay. They really should upset me. But I’m not upset. Why? Because I’m not surprised. If anything I’m pleasantly surprised: as Father Scott McCue told us yesterday, this is a pope who’s committed to social justice and compassion for the poor—maybe even especially committed, because of his Jesuit background. And that moment, yesterday at St. Peter’s, when he asked the crowd to bless him—did you see that? Hear it? That was a real moment. That was genuine. That was good. I kinda like this guy. We could’ve done a lot worse. I’m—surprised.
And that’s all I’ve got. Otherwise, nothing. So I don’t get upset when Wayne LaPierre tells me that guns are the solution to all the world’s problems. I yawn when the D’s and the R’s bicker past the point of sequestration. And I don’t protest. I don’t write my Congressman. I don’t seize the microphone at 3:00 every weekday and go on angry rants. (I think this pleases my boss.)
Is that realism? Cynicism? Pessimism? Despair? I’m not sure. But it’s inaction, one way or the other. And in the meantime, there’s all that passion out there on the streets, all of it driven by surprise. Is it silly? Yes, it is. Can it lead us astray? Yes, it can. But is it worth it? Is it better than the other path? Is there something inherently wrong with me?