[NB: I first published this post this morning, but this afternoon I slightly modified it and significantly expanded the middle portion of it. So, if you are interested, or even just feeling masochistic, give this post another go.]
“I am completely opposed to the error of the modernists who hold that … dogma may be tailored according to what seems better and more suited to the culture of each age; rather, that the absolute and immutable truth preached by the apostles from the beginning may never be believed to be different, may never be understood in any other way.”
— Pope St Pius X, “Oath against Modernism”, 1910.
“A pope who today would not undergo criticism would be failing in his task in the face of these times.”
— Cdl. Ratzinger, August 10, 1978
Yes, I pray for the Pope.
In fact, I pray with the Pope!
[Granted, I sympathize entirely with Dale P. in a recent comment on this post, and admit that my own prayer life is pretty forced and bleary-eyed these days. I’m fortunate enough to attend a parish that has, so far, been free from the spreading “Francinsanity.” Maybe it’s just a matter of time, though.]
I admire his warmth and vigor as a “people guy”. I value the softening of hearts that is reported to have happened in some quarters in response to his presence. That’s all good and very good! Praise God!
So, if you’re not interested in reading what follows, maybe I can sum it all up like this and spare you the trouble:
I’m having as hard a time adjusting to Pope Francis’s doctrinal voice as I think many had adapting to Benedict XVI’s pastoral awkwardness.
I realize that Pope Benedict said things very much in keeping with some of Francis’s recent head-scratchers, but he always made a distinct effort to speak as carefully as was necessary in virtue of his office. By contrast, I, along with others, cannot shake, and can’t simply abide, Pope Francis’s almost willful obscurity on key matters, since his basic approach is that the details don’t matter as long as people feel loved and the Church looks more “attractive.”
The intransigent feeling I have about Francis comes from Luke 6:26, “Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” Thus, the hand-wringing by many of his conservative brethren is, in a very real way, saving Pope Francis from the “woe” of being liked by the world for bearing a corpseless Cross. I express my “extreme” disasppointment with Pope Francis on some matters precisely because I esteem him as the Pope.
The guiding principles to which I’m striving to hold myself are:
1 Timothy 5:1 —
Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-21 —
But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil.
Ephesians 4:14-16 —
[May we] no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.
and the Catechism #2478 —
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
The above quotations, by the way, are not simply pro forma concessions to the “play nice” or “it’s all good” blandishments of worldly wisdom.
I admit that I have erred against the above counsels by excessive sarcasm here and there, and that I need to trust as much as I can in God’s redemptive power over the power of scandal and compromise.
Well, I’m trying.
So, without further ado…
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I am a Catholic, a convert, in fact; living the Catholic life and proclaiming the wisdom of Christ matters immensely to me. I am not a “radical traditionalist”; I grant the legitimacy and certain real benefits of the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, I am not even really a “traditionalist”; I don’t have a strong hankering for the Tridentine Rite and all things Latin, and I’m not even very well read in the early twentieth-century Magisterium.
As a convert, though, I am extremely sensitive to the distinctive realities of being Catholic. I left my otherwise very happy life as a Protestant precisely in order to conform myself to the Church as the True and Living Voice of Christ on earth, and to be ingrafted into Her as His One Body. I chafe, therefore, against every attempt to dilute the Catholic Thing–or, to paraphrase Chesterton, to bend the Cross into a globe. I set my face against every Küngian step towards deforming, in the name of an obscurely Montanist “spirit of reform,” the Catholic Thing into the Sincerely Nice Thing, or the Mystically Undogmatic Something, or the Great and Powerful Anything.
Hence, the most persistently stinging “vulnus” that I have received from the Pope’s words and actions of late–and please keep in mind that I am writing with a genuinely wounded, baffled, confused, and prayerful heart–is the slow fade from the Catholic Thing towards a More Englightened And Inviting Catholicesque Thingamabob that he has legitimized in countless subtle ways. For example, Pope Francis has openly said he does not believe in “a Catholic God”–silly proselytizer, there’s no such thing as the “Catholic God”! This thunderbolt of a claim, of course, entails that he does not believe in “the Catholic Church,” either. For, insofar as there is no “Catholic God,” there is no “Catholic Church;” there is just the unqualified People of the unknown God and every individual’s conscience. All effects are (pre-)contained in their cause; no cause can give what it does not first possess. If, then, there is no Catholic God, and if God is the One who calls the Church into being, then there can be no Catholic Church as, precisely, that communion called by the God known by Catholic teaching.
I don’t understand why this statement of his has not received more attention. Oh, I realize that the most charitable way to interpret his point, entirely uncontroversial in its own right, is that the God he believes in is not a God for Catholics only. Unfortunately, I think his meaning goes much farther than the most charitable reading can sustain. And if his meaning is not simply that “God is for everybody,” then it gets to the root of my discomfort with this Pope. Indeed, I have no recollection of a Pope, much less any Catholic priest or orthodox theologian, ever saying, “there is no Catholic God,” full stop. This is yet another case of the Pope resorting to needlessly abstruse and scandalous phrases when just a few extra words would have clarified his point.
For all you fans of “context” these days, keep in mind that the run up the Pope’s denial of the Catholic God is that he asks Scalfari the following question: “I am asking what you think is the essence of the world, indeed the universe.”
Scalfari answers, “I believe in Being, that is in the tissue from which forms, bodies arise.”
Then, Pope Francis–well, then, not having been asked about religious pluralism or Catholic chauvinism, but as from the bottom of his heart, he replies, “And I believe in God, not in a Catholic God, there is no Catholic God, there is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation.”
The mind reels.
So, if Jesus is the incarnation of the really real God, and not just the Catholic God, then Jesus is really God.
But if Pope Francis believes in Jesus as the Catholic God, then he believes in the real God by believing in the Jesus-God.
But then he’d be believing in a Catholic Jesus, but since Jesus is God, he’d be believing in the Catholic God as the real-God Jesus-God, but since there is not a Catholic God–
All right. Let me try that again.
The key here is that Pope Francis explicitly pits a “Catholic God” against “God” per se, and thus implies that we must choose between them: “Are you with me for God, or are you with the restorationists for a Catholic God?” In Francis’s bizarre “off-the-cuff” eschatology, when we finally see God as He is, it will turn out that all those Catholic-God features were just accessories, concessions, illusions, and mere metaphors. (Praise God, turns out God’s not Catholic, after all!) For whatever reason, Francis favors a God of whom the distinctively Catholic theology (theory?) of God is at best only contingently and partially applicable, for if it were wholly and essentially true of God, then God would by his very nature be a “Catholic God.”
Think about it: by saying that he does not believe in the Catholic God, the Pope is saying that he does not believe in the God of Catholicism.
Now, believe it or not, I’m trying to be charitable. It’s just the same damned thing all over again: I don’t know what to make of the things Pope Francis actually says sometimes, and that bothers me immensely. His reasoning seems to be this: if you say that God just is the God of Catholicism, then you’re saying that God just is the Catholic God, and if you say that, then you’re implying that God is only big or loving enough for Catholics. But that’s not nice. It smacks of clericalism, isn’t modern-sounding enough, and, darn it, it doesn’t do anything to advance the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. So there is no Catholic God.
Imagine a parallel argument: if you say that God just is the God of Jesus Christ, then you’re saying that God just is the Jesus-Christ God, but if you say that, then you’re implying that God is only big or loving enough for Jesus Christ. So, if his logic is anything like this, the Pope might as well say that he doesn’t believe in the Jesus-Christ God. That would be absurd, of course, and he doesn’t accept that conclusion, but he apparently has trouble saying the same about the God of Catholicism.
Or we can run this syllogism: The Catholic God is the God of, or the God revealed in, Catholicism, just as the Muslim God is the God of, or the God disclosed by, Islam. There is no such God as disclosed in Islam, and therefore there is no Muslim God. By modus tollens, insofar as “there is no Catholic God”, then there is no such God as revealed in Catholicism.
I just recently had a very knowledgeable and devout Catholic friend tell me that Francis is right that there is no Catholic God, since all he’s saying is that God is not limited by the actions or teachings of the Church. Again, though, I might as well retort that there’s no Jesus-Christ God, since God–we’re talkin’ God here!–can’t be limited by the actions and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps you can see why I’m conflicted about our Pope’s disbelief in the Catholic God, and why I think the most charitable reading doesn’t work here? It’s a horrid thing for a Catholic, even a Pope, as it were, to say to the world and Francis needs to knock off all this reckless sloganeering. (Indeed, I quite liked his statements about Jesus bringing us to the Father and how love is the only way to find the path of salvation, so I’m agonized that this “Catholic God” thing is so maladroit.) Rejecting the Catholic God on the grounds that such a God would be for Catholics only is as illogical as denying the Jesus-Christ God on the grounds that only Jesus could know or enjoy God, and since the Pope just couldn’t have meant something so obvious and trivial, I’m left tottering, wondering just what this modern Jesuit might have meant.
Francis does not resign himself to mere belief in the God that is known by and through the Catholic Church in Christ Jesus; he has “the humility and ambition” to believe in the loftier, less provincial Unknown God, the God who is but contingently expressed in and but partially reflected by what we call the “Catholic God.” (Meanwhile, we are left to wonder how the Pope has access to this Goddiest of Gods. Perhaps he’ll tell us in the next big interview!) Here we have Pope Francis nonchalantly asserting that the description of God (i.e. the set of truth claims about God as found in Catholic dogmatic theology) does not truly pertain to God per se, but is simply a Catholic “take”, a thick Catholic veneer, on God, just one ‘vision’ of God among many equally valid competing models of the otherwise nondescript universality of “God”. His faith in God does not rest on essentially and irreducibly Catholic teaching, since Catholic teaching qua Catholic can only deliver that tin god some small-minded folk refer to as the “Catholic God.” For, again, no cause can effect what it does not first contain. Now, the Pope allows, we can, if we really must, speak of and proclaim “the Catholic God,” but to speak of that God, and in those terms, is ipso facto not to speak of God as such. Francis thus rejects the traditional Catholic claim that Catholics worship and promote the one true God. It is as if he is saying that there’s enough God to go around: we can all have one!
So, in a handful of words, the Pope has openly and unblushingly said that, while God per se does exist, the specific God whom Catholics worship, and proclaim in the Creed, at every Mass, is not simply an unfitting object of universal credence, but also that that God does not even exist. His faith is in a God who is not properly contained in, limited to, or defined by Catholic theology. It should go without saying that this is an enormous claim for a Pope to make. His crypto-relativist “three blind men and the elephant” view of God explains, of course, the Pope’s expressed lack of interest in the “conversion,” not only of Scalfari, but of anyone outside the Church.
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The above analysis concerns only one of the Pope’s statements lately that have unsettled many in the flock. As lengthy as my analysis might have seemed, it’s actually just indicative of the more fundamental worry I have with Pope Francis: he often seems oblivious to, or even to disdainful of, the fact that he is never not speaking on behalf of the Church.
Which is where what I’ll call the Papal Categorical Imperative comes into the picture:
In light of his duty always to form consciences according to the truth, every word the Pope utters, regardless of the anterior context, and regardless of the interlocutor–but especially when it’s uttered from a global platform–is to be judged based on whether the Church itself could and should consistently speak in the same manner.
Read that again. Ponder it.
Imagine if, from here on out, we simply parroted the Pope’s ‘diplomatic’, ‘fragrant’, ‘radiant’, ‘off-the-cuff’, and ‘bridge-building’ platitudes about the supremacy of conscience, the redundancy of conversion, the historical openness of dogma, the non-Catholic nature of God, and so on. Imagine if we all spoke as Francis has been speaking in these interviews, and fumbled the key caveats as eye-poppingly well as he has.
The thought literally makes me dizzy with Catholic dread.
And yet, I am told over and over that I must, simply must, back the Pope, that I must simply rejoice at how the Spirit is using him, and that I should cool it with all the criticizing and try imitating “the people’s pope.” (Everybody loves him, after all!) But, alas, the model Francis has given us lately of how to engage the world, as far as the truth is concerned, is characterized by “his utter, utter incoherence, his mental sloppiness, his neglect of any precision in these recent acts of communication, and the confusion that has resulted from them.”
Just as we may favor a certain “Our Lady of…”, which is to say, just as we may favor a particular manifestation or aspect of the fullness of graces given to Mary, so we can legitimately have different feelings towards “Our Pope” as one manifestation or aspect of the mystically integral Petrine chrism. By extension, we can–and, as catholic persons, perhaps even should–have variegated feelings about various aspects of a particular Pope. Though it completely baffles me, a lot of people are just gaga for Pope Francis, but as for me and my house, I never again want to hear from “Our Pope of the Interviews.” I never again want to have to defend, and certainly not laud, what I call the “Pope Guido” dimension of Pope Francis: the treacly, vaguely spiritualist, improv-open-mic, “The Future Is Now,” semi-modernist, Teilhardian, Whiteheadian, over-familiar-shoulder-slapping-two-handed-handshaking-used-car-salesmanesque Francis of “the Spirit of Vatican II.”
For, when he “gets like that”–when it’s time for Our Pope of the Interviews to take the stage–that’s when, frankly speaking, Papa Frankie scares the shit out of me.
It is not mockery to point out how Pope Francis looks and sounds to his intended audience, i.e. to worldlings and to the enemies of the Church. It’s not mockery to insist that we lowly Catholic layfolk are under no obligation to disentangle, prop up and valorize the Pope’s off-target statements and actions. For instance, when Vanity Fair, in a recent piece titled ‘Blissed Out Hipster Pope Has Favorite Fellini Movie’, summarizes the Pope’s message as “let’s stop worrying what other people do with their genitals and uteri, and start spreading God’s love”, I’m well within my rights to say, “Well played, Pope Guido, well played.”
And so I write.
And keep writing.
But do I defect? Do I renounce the Pope as a heretic?
I do not. I remain Catholic. For that is what being Catholic means: to abide with Christ as revealed in the Scriptures, the Tradition, the Liturgy, the Magisterium, and the brethren even in spite of many headdesks that “the world’s parish priest”, or any other of the brethren, may induce in me. Despair is not an option, but groaning out loud certainly is. (Scroll back up to see the first papal intention for this month.)
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And so, let me close with two quotations which buttress whence my ongoing disquietude stems.
The first is from a Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization:
“[The universal right to hear the Gospel] implies the corresponding duty to evangelize: ‘If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast; it is a duty for me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!’ (1 Cor 9:16; cf. Rom 10:14). Thus, it is evident how every activity of the Church has an essential evangelizing dimension and must never be separated from the commitment to help all persons to meet Christ in faith, which is the primary objective of evangelization: ‘Social issues and the Gospel are inseparable. When we bring people only knowledge, ability, technical competence and tools, we bring them too little’.
On this front Pope Francis is hitting home runs, and I’m all for it.
“There is today, however, a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective (cf. Mt 28:19). Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church.”
There you have it. We the Whiny, We the Small-Minded, are stricken to realize that “the perfect Pope for our time” has radically and explicitly legitimized precisely the defect rejected in that 2007 Vatican statement.
Oops, there I go again, letting the world see my unhinged, dissident, arrogant scorn for the Pope.
But I’m Just following my conscience, so it’s all good. #LOLZ #YOLO
The second quotation comes from John Paul II in 1994, when he was asked about the then-perceived imbalance in the focus of the Church on moral issues:
“The legalization of the termination of pregnancy is none other than the authorization given to an adult, with the approval of an established law, to take the lives of children yet unborn and thus incapable of defending themselves. It is difficult to imagine a more unjust situation, and it is very difficult to speak of obsession in a matter such as this, where we are dealing with a fundamental imperative of every good conscience – the defense of the right to life of an innocent and defenseless human being. […] Therefore, I must repeat that I categorically reject every accusation or suspicion concerning the [Church’s] alleged “obsession” with this issue.“
What a proselytizing restorationist! It’s talk like that that has made the Church lose the fragrance of the Gospel.
(Then again, who am I to judge?)
So, if I may be permitted to ask: Is it really so hard to understand why many of us are trying to fit the square peg of some of the Pope’s expressed witness into the round hole of traditional Catholic truth?
In order to cleanse my spirit of any undue snarkiness, and believe me I spent a lot of time on this post trying to weed that out, I will leave you with this: