[A few hours after posting this, I made a few minor revisions. I also recommend this comment by Dale.]
“6 Give strong drink to anyone who is perishing, and wine to the embittered; 7 When they drink, they will forget their misery, and think no more of their troubles. 8 Open your mouth in behalf of the mute, and for the rights of the destitute; 9 Open your mouth, judge justly, defend the needy and the poor!”
I began this post as a reply to a comment on a recent post, but it quickly expanded into a post in its own right. In speaking to this truly pitiable reader, I am speaking to all fellow Catholics who, despite all the pressure to conform and every reminder to “relax”, genuinely feel “lost at sea” these days. Since I am speaking on behalf of others as well as on my own behalf, please bear in mind that I may not hold or suffer every sentiment and idea expressed below, though I have experience all of them at one time or another since Benedict XVI abdicated.
Dear Lost Sheep,
I really appreciate your candor. I won’t try to sugarcoat your case with a rehearsed pep talk, much less an elaborate theological retort. You know how hard things have been in your faith-life, so I can only comment from the outside; to do otherwise, would be as presumptuous as it is obnoxious (think of Job’s friends). Whatever exactly Pope Francis stands for, and whatever he ultimately portends for the Church, he seems to be the apotheosis of the majority’s hopes, and the embodiment of the minority’s fears. To most of his supporters, he’s the epitome of what a pope, and contemporary Catholic witness, should be. To those of us unsettled by his leadership, he’s the distilled, animated version of much of what has gone off track in the last half-century. Make no mistake, those of us who can’t wholeheartedly embrace the pope’s leadership approach are a minority (of only about 7%), but we are still coheirs in Christ. To recall a maxim I’ve cited before:
“Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the Supreme Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See—they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations.”
Orthodox Catholics know that papal infallibility does not entail papal impeccability, but I am not alone in worrying at the emergence of a reflex among most Catholics these days to ascribe to Pope Francis a kind of personality impeccability. He’s just such a swell guy–he’s not just God’s man, he’s the man of the year! He’s the world’s man, too! (“What makes this pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church,” Time said in its cover story.) Even non-Catholics see how awesome this guy is! Is he perfect? Well, no, but–what? What are some specific examples of his personal imperfections? Oh, I don’t know, haters gonna hate. He’s so pastoral and charismatic!
The constant fawning over “The People’s Pope” is at times literally nauseating [NB: dizzying was my first word choice, but it is what it is] to those of us who can’t help but wonder if he’s not as interested in being, well, the Man of the Year, as he is in being the Universal Pastor. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way” (Luke 6:26). Believe it or not but there are actually some of us who would like for the pope to be unpopular in the world’s eyes. To recall that magisterial passage from Abp. Fulton Sheen (found in the preface to Volume 1 of Radio Replies):
“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be. … As a matter of fact, if we Catholics believed all of the untruths and lies which were said against the Church, we probably would hate the Church a thousand times more than they do. …
“If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates. My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world, as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church which is accused of being behind the times, as Our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned. Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior, as they sneered at Our Lord because He came from Nazareth. Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil, as Our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils. Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because he called Himself the Truth. Look for the Church which amid the confusion of conflicting opinions, its members love as they love Christ, and respect its voice as the very voice of its Founder, and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly, it is other-worldly. Since it is other-worldly, it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself.”
Having said all that, I will be blunt: you have no coherent basis for leaving the Church, and to do so would be apostasy, plain and simple. Certainly there are pastoral factors in your case which ameliorate the act, but we realists should not whitewash reality. To leave the Church because of a bad pope, much less because of the bad potential we portend in a pope, is simply to leave the Church. I am also a convert, and I assure you that I was sorely tempted to hit the exit when I got my first full picture of Pope Francis a couple of months ago. It’s the fairly open-faced indifferentism that gnaws at me, and I know that I’m not the only faithful Catholic beset by this. To hear most leading clerics tell it, the Church is not that essential for virtue and salvation. If that’s the case, though, why bother sticking around to endure mushy preaching, decadent liturgy, sloppy catechesis, and widespread doctrinal defection (on the lay and clerical levels)? Whereupon we panicky bedwetters are always given the reminder that, ontologically speaking, the Church is “necessary for salvation,” in the sense that without the Incarnation and its spatiotemporal extension qua Church, no one is saved.
Well and good, but when you inquire into the concrete mechanics of how salvation is wrought solely “in” the Church, the usual reflex is to say that “God is not bound by the sacraments, we are.” In that case, if immersing myself in the world and in other religious traditions would not only reflect the perpetual missionary openness which Pope Francis desires (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 25-28), but also not deprive me of God’s grace (for He can be found in all good things), then why must I immerse myself in the Church as some kind of absolute, legalistic condition for “salvation”? If God decrees that non-Catholics are best illuminated by God’s grace “where they are” (i.e., in their own traditions and spiritual milieux), then how do I know I am not to be similarly enriched by partaking of those non-Catholic graces, as well? All truth is God’s truth, so if conversion is bunk (“No, no, no!”) and if the “art of accompaniment” (viz., “remov[ing] our sandals before the sacred ground of the other”, EG 169) is the summit of Christian perfection, then I might as well rack up as much of that Universal Truthiness as I can. We all know that picky Cafeteria Catholicism is taboo, so, All-You-Can-Eat Catholicism, here I come!
Diagnosis? Day by day. As the affronted former aide to Benedict XVI, Abp. Gaenswein, put it recently, “I start each day afresh wondering what will be changed today.” It sounds cliche, Dear Ledger Dweller, but “I feel your pain”–I have been there. It’s a hard time for many of us to be Catholic, because, paradoxically it is such an “easy” time to be Catholic these days. Our Pope is the Man of the Year, we very likely will escape persecution under the ACA in the USA, the Muzak all around us is provided by Jeremiah the Bullfrog.
“________ was a good friend of mine; I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine. … Joy to the world!”
Unfortunately, joy is not something you can cajole people into. Giving a discourse about joy, no matter how sincere, comes off as badly as “explaining the joke” when no one gets it. Being hectored interminably to burst with joy and decapitate ourselves with a Real Christian Smile™, is as smarmy as it is condescending. But, well, we have our orders. So, I am “happy” to say that the Catholic Church seems hip again, precisely because it seems to be “in tune with” the Zeitgeist. Alas, some of us continue to struggle with this newest New Springtime, since we are cognizant of the flip side of Sheen’s quotation. In his day, the problem may have been hatred based on erroneous perceptions, but in our day we face the opposite problem: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who love The Catholic Church, but there are millions who love what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
I’m sorry, Pope Francis, but the Church’s teaching is not clear, and to presume otherwise is to imperil young souls and to trivialize the precisely magisterial authority of the papacy. We do not need a fresh wind; we do not need new wine. We need consistent clarity; we need time-tested, effective shepherding. Some of us quite literally desperately need a pope who gives us bread over stones, while we seem to have a pope more inclined to give interviews and make photo ops. It is because of such great need that we must embrace one more: we need to pray for our brethren, for each other, and for Pope Francis.