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Warning: Our strengths are often our weaknesses. Same with the Pope.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 17, 2017

How many times have you fallen into the traps set by the very strengths of your own personality? This is one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life. As we come to grips with divergent personalities within the Church, it is worth thinking about.

I’ll start with a personal example. When I was a young man, I fairly frequently rubbed other Catholics the wrong way with my “orthodoxy first” personality. I’ve always been intellectually-oriented, and the first priority of what I call my personality type is to communicate the principles that ought to govern each situation. This approach makes it easy, in assessing the input of others, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Now it goes without saying that there is much to be said for my wonderful personality, but to put the matter in the least favorable light, I’ll simply state the obvious: This constant assessment of orthodoxy has often made it easier than it should be to differentiate between those who pass my time and energy test and those who don’t.

This example suggests an obvious way in which one of my strengths (love of truth and attention to doctrinal clarity) also becomes one of my weaknesses (a tendency to devalue and dismiss those who give little evidence of a similar love and attention). Nor am I so naïve as to assume that this syndrome is unique to myself. To the contrary, since CatholicCulture.org is run by people who share this particular strength, it is safe to assume that a great many of our readers share it as well. The question, then, becomes this: How many have recognized the corresponding weaknesses and tried to guard against falling into them?

Enter Pope Francis

While nearly every personality strength tends to a corresponding weakness, this particular strength can lead to rather obvious Catholic troubles today because we have a Pope who most definitely does not possess it. It is fairly clear that in every situation Pope Francis thinks first not in terms of orthodoxy but in terms of suffering. Where someone like me sees orthodoxy as liberating when used as a guide to ordering both our understanding and our goals, Pope Francis apparently sees the judgments formed by those who prize orthodoxy as decidedly unkind to those who suffer from a wide variety of modern ills.

Pope Francis, then, instinctively looks at the other side of the coin, at the ways in which orthodoxy, if not cherished in the right spirit, can be used as an agent of marginalization. But if this particular strength tends (when we are incautious) toward a corresponding weakness, then the same question arises about the strengths of Pope Francis. In fact, nothing would be more likely than that a person with Pope Francis’ strengths would, if he or she were not very careful, become dismissive of the spiritual necessity of assessing our situations and behaviors in the light of what is true. Eager to express love and understanding, such persons may well do so only superficially. They may too frequently forget that just as truth cannot be used to pursue the good without charity, neither can charity foster the good of others without truth.

Many of us already know that we must struggle fairly hard to keep a proper balance, and that we cannot succeed without spiritual growth. Ultimately, the synthesis of the true and the good in any person’s life comes only through holiness. In my lifetime, I have been blessed to see great signs of grace in popes of very different personalities. In John XXIII and Paul VI, I have seen personalities very different from my own avoid many common pitfalls through their holiness; and in John Paul II and Benedict XVI I have seen personalities more similar to my own consistently avoid the corresponding pitfalls through, once again, their manifest holiness.

Though it is too early for the Church to assess Pope Emeritus Benedict, she has already formally recognized the holiness of St. John XXIII, Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II. In this discussion the term “holiness” simply means a life shaped successfully by a deep love of God, the first principle of which is the preference for God over self. All four of these popes, at least so it seems to me, deftly avoided being victimized by their own personalities because they committed themselves absolutely to the one path necessary for a Christian—the way of life identified at the very beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry by John the Baptist:

No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease. [Jn 3:27-30; emphasis added]

He must increase.

I am sure it will occasion no surprise when I state that we simply cannot see such telltale signs of holiness, or at least not yet, in Pope Francis. I cannot say he is not holy; I do not know him personally; and I may well be a very poor judge. But I can say that many of the usual signs of holiness are conspicuous by their absence. You may take this observation as evidence of my own breathtaking conceit. But precisely because Pope Francis frequently appears to denounce and condemn those whose personalities prize doctrinal orthodoxy and the moral law, it seems that we who are thus condemned have a serious responsibility to consider whether this constant criticism is coming from a person with all the earmarks of a saint—or not.

When I raise this question, I stumble immediately on five significant clues to how it must be answered. The first clue is that the more time that goes by in this pontificate, the more we see that Pope Francis is regarded as great and wonderful almost exclusively by non-Catholics and what we call cafeteria Catholics—those who pick and choose which teachings of Christ and the Church they will accept. Moreover, the opposite conclusion is reached with something very close to unanimity by those who are very willing to make the Act of Faith:

O my God, I firmly believe that you are one God in three divine persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I believe that your divine Son became man and died for our sins, and that he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the holy catholic Church teaches, because in revealing them you can neither deceive nor be deceived.

The second clue may be even more significant. It is now very clear that there is a sharp clash between the public persona of Pope Francis and the way he acts more or less privately. In public interviews, the Pope frequently expresses himself as both open to and untroubled by criticism, eager to surround himself with a wide variety of advisors whom he trusts to be frank with him. But we know that behind the scenes he is seriously disturbed by those who criticize him. He very quickly makes them pay a high price for having tried, as they saw it, to speak the truth. The contradiction is striking, and it is part of a most unfortunate pattern. Pope Francis’ public comments are phrased to indicate a great serenity in God’s grace which his private behavior suggests he does not possess.

Now here is the third clue. Insofar as Pope Francis deviates from the way the Church has traditionally responded to perennial human problems (such as irregular marriages, sexual immorality and issues affecting the common good), he consistently adopts positions which are favored by the dominant secular culture of the contemporary West. This is a major symptom of being culture bound. The pattern is a sign not of holiness, but of worldliness.

On to the fourth clue: We see in Pope Francis a habit of making dramatic gestures, by which he calls public attention to unusual forms of contact with those in some sort of need. In this he clearly wishes to communicate an example of pastoral concern and charitable interaction with those whom he would describe as marginalized. But the acid test of charity is not found in dramatic gestures which make good press. It is found, first, in how we treat those with whom we are bound to interact in the course of fulfilling our daily responsibilities; and, second, in those hidden acts of love which have a significant personal cost without generating positive publicity.

Finally, here is the fifth clue. This pope has put himself in the very rare position of privately advocating, and pressing others to advocate on his behalf, pastoral practices which directly contradict both the express Magisterial teaching of previous popes and the current Code of Canon Law. He has clearly and deliberately fostered the reception of Communion in situations in which it has always been, and actually currently is, strictly forbidden by both the Church’s Magisterium and her laws. He has done this without any Magisterial effort to make sense of it, without expressly changing the law, without attempting to explain the principles he has chosen to follow, and in fact without even being willing to answer the questions of high-ranking Churchmen who are scandalized by his behavior.

Conclusion

Where, then, does this leave us? Anyone who reads Pope Francis’ homilies, addresses and messages regularly can point to themes in his work that also reveal considerable spiritual perception and goodness. But I believe at the very least we would be foolish to respond to Pope Francis as if his every word is the wisdom of God. Without permitting ourselves to be predisposed to reject what he says (for again, much of it will continue to be very good), we must learn nonetheless to take what he says with the proverbial grain of salt. It may need to be seasoned—that is, interpreted in important ways—to keep it from spoiling. This will be even more true of those Churchmen whom Francis uses to present ideas that have been ruled out by previous popes, and which Francis has not in fact officially taught himself—very likely because the Holy Spirit would not let him. Such men cannot be taken as reliable guides. Here we have a clear case of the need to “test everything and retain what is good” (1 Thes 5:21).

But it would be fruitless if suspicion of Pope Francis were to become just another easy way to ignore the beam in our own eyes. When it comes to spiritual growth, our priority must remain our own perfection, not the Pope’s. If his strengths have a dark side, what about our own? How many times have we spoken glowingly of what it means to be a Catholic only to undermine our own words by selfish grumbling, rash judgments, harsh criticism, and a refusal to help? How often do we reflect on our own tendencies in ways that help us not only to see what is good but guard against what is bad? Are we prone to snap judgments or do we accord others the benefit of the doubt? Does our own distress over the problems in the Church make us angry or disgusted or shrill? Or are we able to enjoy a serenity not of our own making—a serenity maintained through our acceptance of the grace of God.

This serenity will also enable us to pray constantly for Pope Francis. When we consider the troubles within the Church, as when we consider all troubles, we must always resort to prayer and cherish the lesson offered by St. Paul in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans. I have mentioned this before, but I do not think it can be repeated too often: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.”

Yes, St. Paul really did say “in everything”. But be warned: This works only for those who love God more than they love themselves.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Feb. 21, 2017 3:21 AM ET USA

    I have appreciated your balanced and charitable treatment of the problems many have encountered with this pope. I have gone from being an ardent supporter of Pope Francis to wishing he would resign and return to serving the poor of Argentina.

  • Posted by: Elan - Feb. 20, 2017 11:21 PM ET USA

    I guess you wrote the last three paragraphs with invisible ink.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 20, 2017 3:07 AM ET USA

    I jotted down some notes while reading this article: touchy-feely, guided by emotion (will) before intellect; in a word--leftist. Before the recent ascent of Clinton and Sanders, we referred to Pope Francis-style worldviews as "liberal." But now we more precisely call them "leftist." The article is a good summary of the main points of contention that I and many of us orthodox types find with Francis. I think that we orthodox types focus on the crucifix, while the left on the "risen" Christ.

  • Posted by: MWCooney01 - Feb. 19, 2017 10:07 AM ET USA

    This is the most profound and accurate analysis I have seen to date. I am forwarding this to all who will read it.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Feb. 18, 2017 11:17 AM ET USA

    In the church where I grew up, we had two priests. The head guy was the hard-nosed introverted intellectual, and the assistant was the kind, gentle soul whom the old ladies and children loved, but tended to cause confusion in catechism class. Both personalities effectively served God in their own way, but with the intellectual in charge, at least we knew where we stood.

  • Posted by: Saved by Grace - Feb. 18, 2017 9:17 AM ET USA

    This is one of the best analysises I have read to date. Much food for thought and much to ponder about my own spirituality. Since we are all called to holiness, no matter our personalities, there is always much room fo work. May we all strive for the holiness we are called to - including Pope Francis!

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Feb. 18, 2017 6:43 AM ET USA

    Thank you, again, Jeff. Like you, I have to keep reminding myself that "thinking" orthodoxy is right, is not at all the same thing as living it.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Feb. 17, 2017 7:49 PM ET USA

    Sadly, Dr. Mirus' analysis is probably on target. What, then, does it say about the cardinals who elected him? Or the Holy Spirit that we trust they were listening to? Did they err? Did the Holy Spirit not speak? Many questions but few answers.

  • Posted by: kaypriddy6060 - Feb. 17, 2017 4:36 PM ET USA

    Bravo!!! You have not ignored the elephant in the room (fifth clue) which so many others have done!