Five Reasons to Think Differently about Pope Francis
I’ve been surprised and even angered by the criticism of Pope Francis in the wake of his famous interview, but I’ve been forced to admit that a significant number of serious Catholics found his words upsetting. That’s not something that should be dismissed lightly. It could, of course, all be a misunderstanding, and I think there is some of that. But there is perhaps a deeper question. If there is some fault involved, should we be looking for that fault primarily in the pope or in those who seem so reluctant to receive his message?
Here are five reasons for choosing to adjust our own conceptions to think with the Pope.
1. The Grace of Office
The successor of Peter is not infallible in his private statements, and there is no guarantee even in Magisterial statements that they will be phrased in the best possible way for each person who encounters them. But the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the Roman Pontiff is not limited to what has been formally defined. If that were true, then the Church’s faith in papal infallibility would have been utterly vacuous until the nineteenth century. In fact, Our Lord promised to be with His Church until the end of time (Mt 28:20; Mt 16:18); further, He prayed for Peter that he might not fail in faith, and He commissioned Peter to confirm his brethren (Lk 22:32). It is ultimately the Church’s confidence in Christ Himself—His promises, His prayers, and His commission—which leads Catholics to know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that the pope cannot, even apart from infallibility, lead the Church in a direction which fundamentally severs it from the mission of Christ.
There are special graces which go with ecclesiastical office. These graces can, of course, be resisted in various ways, but the grace of office is uniquely powerful in the case of the papacy. This fact highlights two reasons why the default position of the Catholic faithful should be to follow the pope’s lead. The first reason is the obedience due to the legitimate authority of those placed over us in the Church. The second is the recognition that, by virtue of their grace of office (and especially the pope’s grace of office), our superiors (and especially the pope) are more likely to be right than we are. Moreover, in matters of purely prudential differences, there is more grace and merit in obedience than in refusal to serve. When a lower official, such as a bishop, acts contrary to his superior, then it is relatively easy to judge that he is wrong, and our obedience belongs to the superior authority. For the pope, there is no such appeal. He is preeminently our father in Christ, and any inclination to reject his leadership demands the most careful and cautious of self-examinations.
2. Spiritual Receptivity
Those of us who have insisted on adherence to the full truth of the Catholic faith—that is, on orthodoxy—have been beset particularly hard by the troubles in the Church over the past fifty years. The rapid secularization not only of the faithful but of too many leaders in the Church resulted initially in a failure of the renewal called for at Vatican II. Instead of learning to live the faith more deeply, too many simply accommodated themselves to worldly trends, downplaying or denying those of Christ’s teachings which proved to be signs of contradiction. The fight for orthodoxy has been difficult enough to make us gun shy, but the evidence is mounting that this is now mostly yesterday’s battle, despite some obvious holdouts. Unfortunately, a deep distrust of ecclesiastical authority was engendered in many of us during this period.
But the Church cannot be fully herself again until we learn to overcome that distrust. The reality is that orthodoxy is not an end in itself; neither is it any guarantee of spiritual receptivity. Moreover, dogmatic personalities (and here I raise my hand) typically add their own cultural attachments to the list of orthodox positions. So when we hear someone speaking in a different way than we would about the good of the Church, we tend to be suspicious, to react negatively, to condemn. What we should be doing is not just hearing but listening. Especially when the pope speaks, we ought to want to stretch ourselves, to see where our attitudes may need adjustment, or to discern how the Holy Father may be calling us to go deeper into some mystery, or to emphasize some neglected aspect of Christian faith and life. We should be looking for an opportunity to grow spiritually by paying very close attention to his words.
3. Cultural Failure
Earth to readers: Our contemporary culture has failed miserably. Over a period of several hundred years, Western culture has slowly been drained of the Christian faith which formed it, and we now inhabit an essentially secular social order which offers no place for Christ. Within this declining culture, we have carried on a certain kind of battle to prevent it from getting any worse, and to reverse the grave moral evils which have been permitted or even enjoined by law. Much of the pro-life and pro-family movement, for example, has revolved around this particular duty of public opposition to further moral collapse, in addition to the effort to roll back at least some of the anti-life laws and rulings over the past fifty years.
But there is a curious feature of public battles in the modern West which we unfortunately tend to take for granted. By mutual agreement with those who oppose us, we hold that the public square must be religiously neutral. The public square must be the one area which is closed to Christ. Some of this is purely pragmatic. For a while it seemed that natural law arguments had a better chance to succeed with a religiously-divided and highly-secularized populace. Now it seems as if purely pragmatic arguments will have the best chance to succeed, arguments based on the deleterious effects of contraception, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, or gay marriage. So when the Pope says we need to take a step back, regroup, and place a new emphasis on the basic message of the Gospel, we wonder why he is raining on our parade. Well may we wonder. I submit that we have not yet recognized that our culture lacks the spiritual resources for any sort of integral human development. But the Pope has.
4. Christian Paralysis
This next point is very closely related. We are, in fact, dangerously locked in to the failures of the culture that has done so much to shape us. We are uncomfortable speaking the name of Jesus Christ to our neighbors, let alone to a political opponent. We have fallen into a false understanding of Christianity as essentially private, something which simple fairness dictates should be excluded from discussions of broader cultural, social and political matters. We have gradually drifted into secularism in ways we do not recognize, and one of those ways is to believe that all significant change is political. One consequence is our fear that if we cannot engage in political battles, on the accepted political terms, then we have failed to do anything at all.
Obviously this is not universally true, and some of us can find ways to preach the whole Christ in much of what we do. But the secularization of which I speak has certainly infected our own Christian mindsets in various unintended ways. The hallmark of all purely secular cultures is political control—for without religion the default source of value for the common good is the State. Thus afflicted, we typically no longer even notice that we are fighting a war we cannot win—because we have ruled out in advance the very weapons which alone can win it. I mean, of course, the very Person who alone can win it, the same Person who won it in the first place so many centuries ago. For politics follows culture, and culture follows the beliefs and commitments of the people whose habitual activities create and form that culture. Here again, I submit that we have not fully recognized how ridiculously one-dimensional is our battle plan. We have not realized that without new spiritual resources from evangelization, we are socially and politically paralyzed. But the Pope has.
5. Unity in Mission
Pope Francis has indicated repeatedly that he believes the most effective strategy for our pagan culture is to preach the love, the mercy, and the redemptive gift offered by Jesus Christ—the fundamental message of the Gospel. And in this he is simply giving an even stronger voice to what Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI gradually came to emphasize before him: The need for a new evangelization. A new evangelization implies two things: First, announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ as if most people have not yet heard it (at least in anything like its complete and authentic form); second, addressing the peculiar misconceptions characteristic of a culture which, in the distant past, had embraced the faith, but now no longer cherishes or understands it.
This is not just the mission of Pope Francis, or of Pope Benedict, or of Pope John Paul II, or of the Second Vatican Council. It is the fundamental mission of the Church to preach Christ to the world, to emphasize a transformative relationship not with a set of principles but with the Person of the Redeemer Himself. Pope Francis is simply reminding us, as an exceedingly practical point, that no matter what we are doing, no matter how good it is, our efforts will be incomplete and bear little fruit unless we also find ways to make Christ known. Those in darkness cannot be healed only by being told what is wrong; and certainly they cannot be healed through political combat. They must be attracted to the light of Christ. Then and only then will they be able to begin to see and so, through grace, begin to heal.
If this is the mission of Christ and of the Church and of Pope Francis, then this must be our mission as well. In the context of this particular essay, we must also remember that the Church’s mission always depends on her unity. Her mission is subverted by internal squabbling and dissent, from whatever side. We need to see that those who are willing to break unity with the Holy Father—the principle and focal point of unity in the Church—show a marked disdain for the mission of the Church. This is the fifth reason why we should make every effort to think with the Pope.
Caveats and Conclusion
It would be very easy to quibble with one thing or another in the foregoing argument. I ask you not to do so. Any broad portrayal of the state of the Church and of Western culture and of the manner in which we currently expend our apostolic energies must ignore a thousand exceptions. I do not believe these exceptions, numerous as they may be, are sufficient to tip the scales of judgment in another direction.
What I ask the reader to do instead is simply this: Do not make an exception of yourself in submitting to the generalized scrutiny of the Holy Father. Let us assume that the Church is gathering strength again and that the Holy Father is trustworthy. Let us admit that our efforts to stop the terminal decline of Western culture over the past sixty years (and perhaps for the past several hundred years) have been largely unavailing. Let us understand that the only way to create a Christian culture is through the conversion of real people to Jesus Christ. Let us acknowledge that we very often fight our battles today with nine fingers tied behind our back and that we have been slow to break free of secularist patterns of thinking. Let us grasp the fact that genuine faith and hope are necessary for deep moral renewal.
Then perhaps we can begin to see the relevance of Pope Francis’ message. It is the message which lies behind his frequent chastisements of personal infidelity, ecclesiastical careerism, self-satisfied triumphalism, single-minded moralism, personal complacency, and every other form of self-exaltation, all so many restrictions of the Gospel. It is a message so simple that, when his bluntness meets the proud sophistication of our own theories, we can scarcely grasp it: Only Christ saves.
Only Christ saves, but Christ does save. And by His own will, Christ can be fully known only through His Church. Therefore every member of the Church must learn to know Him and to make Him known, as lovers speaking of their Beloved. Perhaps this message explains why Pope Francis is the successor of Peter today, instead of any of the rest of us. True, you and I may be guilty of nothing at all. But let us just say we can profit “anyway”.
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Posted by: ps119.329838 -
Oct. 10, 2013 12:38 AM ET USA
There is a helpful quote from Lumen Fidei that further helps me to understand the Pope's raison d'etre. In the section dealing with faith and reason he writes: "Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. I see truth possessing Francis in a vivid way.
Posted by: timothy.op -
Sep. 30, 2013 6:54 PM ET USA
Wish I had read this earlier. As much as I love the universality of natural law and obviously believe it to be essential, we seem too often to forget what we know from Sts. Paul, Augustine, Thomas, et. al., namely - that one cannot fulfill the moral law without the help of grace, which is received through faith in Christ. Your suggestion that pluralism has tempted us to neglect this fact is worth considering.
Posted by: chady -
Sep. 27, 2013 12:22 PM ET USA
There are parable overtones to parts of this interview. Do we not also share the same need of healing too? Is it not us that need to see our place within the 'field hospital'. Perhaps we are tempted to be like the 2nd son in Luke 15? We need to ask ourselves have our hearts become hardened and are our souls outside the Salvic healing offered by the Mass and Sacraments? Very true clergy/laity need to act together to bring back the lost sheep. We also need pure and merciful hearts to do this.
Posted by: JDeFauw -
Sep. 26, 2013 10:45 PM ET USA
The most important thing we can do is persuade as many people as possible to actually read the interview, especially the two or three pages that are being commented on. People need to hear Pope Francis without all the media distortion. Pope Benedict, said repeatedly that Christianity is not primarily an ethical code, but an encounter with a person, Jesus Christ, which is really the main point Pope Francis is making here.
Posted by: s.van.weede8661 -
Sep. 25, 2013 4:51 PM ET USA
I read the several articles upon the Pope's interview on your website. You and Phil Lawler are helping the readers to understand it, and helping yourself by writing, because apparently neither for you is it an easy matter and you are describing your thoughts and feelings honestly. Thank you for writing the articles. I have a lot to think and to pray about. One thing is for sure: your and my love for the Pope can only increase!
Posted by: bnewman -
Sep. 24, 2013 11:47 PM ET USA
Exactly right Jeff! “Let us understand that the only way to create a Christian culture is through the conversion of real people to Jesus Christ.” So true, and we must remember that it is not us that converts people: it is the work of Grace and the Holy Spirit.
Posted by: littleone -
Sep. 24, 2013 9:19 PM ET USA
I agree wholeheartedly, yet rather than seeing a PR debacle, I see he who is being wise and shrewd, as we all need to be when went sent out among wolves. He who causes us all to take notice,examine ourselves, our motivations, and our contributions to spreading the Faith, deserves much more than our obedience. Let us not be like those who would hand any brother,much less our Pope,over to the courts of public opinion, or to be scourged by his own.
Posted by: lak321 -
Sep. 24, 2013 9:04 PM ET USA
You nailed it, Jeff. This is the time to trust.
Posted by: vb24 -
Sep. 24, 2013 8:57 PM ET USA
Posted by: lak321 -
Sep. 24, 2013 8:00 PM ET USA
From Fr Faber in Precious Blood: We must be loyal to the Church...We must put faith in it in all its contacts and concussions with the world...We must not be discontented when its action intersects some little favorite anticipations of our own...When we are perplexed, we must stand still and believe. Silence makes us great-hearted, and judging makes us little-minded...Our attitude must be one of submission, not criticism...He who is disappointed with the Church must be losing his faith, even thougeven though he does not know it...A man's love of the Church is the surest test of his love of God. He knows that the whole Church is informed with the Holy Ghost..Infallibility is but a concentration...all the minor arrangements and ways and dispositions of the Church call for general submission, docility, and reverence, because of the whole Church being a shrine fulfilled with the life of the Holy Ghost.
Posted by: John Holecek -
Sep. 24, 2013 7:24 PM ET USA
Amen! Great take on the interview.
Posted by: ebierer1724 -
Sep. 24, 2013 6:19 PM ET USA
Excellent. Thank you.