“I am a really, really undisciplined person.”
–– Pope Francis, interview with Fr. Spadaro
Is Francis just an extension of his most immediate predecessors, or is he not?
If he is, why are so many of the faithful, as well as leading theologians, rattled by his animadversions?
If he is, why has he been greeted as a “breath of fresh air” and “a great relief to all of us” by America’s most notable cardinal?
If he is, why do mainstream media outlets, average commenters at those stories, and even his Catholic backers, consistently note the changes he is making in at least the public consensus towards the Church?
Mark Shea believes that “the only real difference between Francis and his immediate predecessors is not a change in the Church’s teaching, but simply a particular gift for being able to make the Church’s teaching heard.” (Of course, Mr. Shea also thinks that persons who dare express discomfiture at the Pope’s words are “Francis haters” and “panicky bedwetters”, so you should take him with a pinch of salt.)
The claim––and I do not call it Mr. Shea’s, since he only makes it in response to a reader’s formulation of the elements behind it––is that Pope Francis is simply better at making the Church’s teaching be heard by more non-Catholics. The claim is false, however, for the simple reason that what non-Catholics are hearing is often just a cold-porridge, truncated, ambiguous telling of the Church’s teaching. [NB: I am hereby preempting the interminable debates not only with but even among soft ultramontanists about how to “discern” what Pope Francis “really meant,” “in context,” based on his immediate “audience,” yada yada yada, and simply noting that the crucial thing is to admit what message, right or wrong, spun or not, the world is getting from Our Francis of the Interviews.] If our Lord’s words (in the Gospel of John) and history are any indication, then, paradoxically, we’d know the world is hearing the truth when it howls and hoots it down, not when it applauds and celebrates a Pope who ‘finally’ understands real people.
Take a moment to ponder Jesus’ word on this paradox:
“[T]he light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. … He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me … and I will love him and manifest myself to him. … I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. … If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, … therefore the world hates you. … I will send [the Holy Spirit] to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment“.
I’ve seen more than a few of Francis’s defenders say that people “already know what the Church teaches on X,” so, they say, he’s “a humble genius” to change the emphasis, merely the emphasis, from the truth about X, Y, or Z to the sheer mercy of God. That’s a fine sentiment, to be sure, but is it true that most people already understand what the Church teaches on, well, anything of real import? In the immortal words of Abp. Fulton Sheen, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church—which is, of course, quite a different thing” (Foreword to Radio Replies Vol. 1, (1938) page ix). Or as William Schneider put it, “[T]he press is one of the most secular institutions in American society. It just doesn’t get religion or any idea that flows from religious conviction.” This holds even more so for Catholicism. So to say that we can move on to a nicer “tone” since the world “already knows” the Church’s teaching, is almost maliciously naive.
It’s just as vacuous to claim that, for once, the world is really “hearing” the Church, for, in fact, the world has long been hearing the Church––and reacting with utter scorn at what it hears. The world certainly heard Paul VI when he issued Humanae Vitae––which is why it stuffed its ears in outrage. The world certainly heard John Paul II when he preached year after year on the dignity of unborn life, the sanctity of non-contraceptive marriage, and so on––which is why it stamped its feet in disgust. The world also heard Benedict XVI when he preached, by word and action (and garment!), against the tyranny of relativism and the economic, moral and aesthetic barbarity of a world without Christ––and this explains why it crossed it arms and snorted in defiance.
Now, I am told, the world is finally really hearing the Catholic Church––yet for some reason it is clapping its hands in astonished approval. What are most people “hearing” from the Church that they did not hear before? In Cdl. Dolan’s diagnosis, “If the church comes off as a loving, embracing mother, who periodically has to correct her children, then we will be effective.”
The confusions nested in this statement are blinding in their fatuity.
First, at what point does Cdl. Dolan believe the Church stopped presenting Herself as the Holy Mother of God, as the universal Mother of mercy? Second, what does he mean by “periodically…correct her children”? Would there be an annual purge of dissident Catholics, or would each Catholic have to be disciplined twice every season? Or would Holy Mother Church only deign to rail every other sin, on a rotating cycle of variation, lest She ruin the sleepover? (“I mean it, this time, boys, you need to keep it down up there or I’m going to call your parents to take you home.” –– “Okaaaaay, mooooom, we’ll be quieeeet. … ZORCH TIME!” –– “Sigh.”) Is Dolan unaware that much of the Church’s ineffectiveness, both catechetical and evangelistic, blossomed precisely when She tried to dial down the moralizing and crank up the mothering? Is he seriously prepared to say that, under Francis, PBUH, the world is ‘finally’ hearing about the mercy of God, that the Church is finally “[leading] with the merciful face of Christ”?
Poppycock. All of it. Ecclesiastical yes-manning.
More likely, the reason the world has taken to giving the Church a “hearing”, and thus the reason the Church seems to be more “effective” now at drawing people in, is that the world detects in this “new pastoral strategy” (Dolan again) the tell-tale lisp of pluralistic compromise, perhaps much as dogs can smell fear.
At this point, the sop that Francisian Soft Ultramontanists usually dispense to those of us who, when our lidless, mouth-breathing headboxes manage to deliver enough oxygen to enable our atavistic small-minded brains to register any emotion besides blind, reptilian hatred––when we right-wingers, we addicts of bygone certainty, express our increasing and unshakable disquiet towards “our Jesuit Pope”, the sop we receive is that “Pope Francis has not changed a single point of Catholic dogma or doctrine.”
(Whoo, long sentence! Pardon me, I need a moment to slurp up a few mouthfuls of air before I can conti––OHNOOOOWHYISGODPUNISHINGUSWITHALIKEABLEPOPEANDCREEPYWORLDLYFANBOYS!!)
True as it may be that Francis has not changed any dogmas, this is a red herring: as Catholics we believe that dogma is inviolable, so Francis couldn’t change dogma even if he wanted to. So, I’ll pass on the sop. The problem lies elsewhere: the world is “hearing” the Church again because they like watching Pope Francis do this thing.
And that’s about it.
The majority of those now willing to “hear” the Church are, I venture, not interested in an encounter with Christ, much less in reforming their lives according to moral truth: at bottom, they are dying to know how far Francis will go to rock the boat. (Think about, or keep an eye out for, how many articles on Pope Francis you have read, or will read, that contain a sentence like this, “Although Pope Francis has not altered any official teaching, it will be interesting to see….”) From the many comments I’ve read at numerous news stories on “the Francis effect,” the consensus seems to be that, while Francis is just as dumb as any other pope for believing all that outdated Catholic dogma and moral bigotry, at least he’s more entertaining, more quotable, and in nothing else he seems like a “genuinely nice old man.” As long as the face of the Church is warmer, happier and totally-unlike-that-Nazi-nerd-pope, the world has an ear to lend.
Am I really such a scoundrel for breaking into a cold sweat at the fairly obvious truth that the world is more interested in “this Pope Francis” than in that old killjoy, Jesus Christ? I realize that Pope Francis has a knack for catching people’s attention. Unfortunately, it is because the world is so ‘open’ (for now) to hearing the Vicar of Christ that his reckless gaffes, imprecisions and half-truths are so damaging. Telling someone half a truth is just as bad as telling him an untruth. The truth which I believe Pope Francis is trying to convey is that Christ is wonderful and merciful and the source of joy, but the sins against which the Church normally rails are barriers to knowing Him. That is the Gospel: Repent because God loves you. Unfortunately, though, I think Pope Francis is improvising a little too much on one end of the melody, and the world is only getting the “relax” vibe.
Once––O! how I pray for him to do this––once Pope Francis rolls up his sleeves and unloads a double-barreled encyclical of sustained, high-octane, theologically balanced, philosophically precise Catholicism, the blowback will be immense, lit by the conflagration of duped worldlings chanting, “OMG! He’s just as bad as that Nazi Pope!” as their ‘openness’ to Christ flits away like ashes in the icy wind. That’s when I’ll believe, first, that the world is really hearing the Church and, second, that it really does make sense to “read Francis through Benedict.”
H/T to Dale Price for the lead on Cdl. Dolan.