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The other side of the Francis effect: Hypersensitivity and hysteria?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 01, 2015

David Bentley Hart has expressed his perplexity over the “anxiety, disappointment, or hostility” Pope Francis inspires “in certain American Catholics of a conservative bent.” Hart is the typically profound and often entertaining writer of “The Back Page” essay in First Things, and in fact he finds the conservative Catholic reaction to Pope Francis “inexplicable”:

And frankly I find it no more inexplicable in its most extreme expressions—which at their worst verge on sheer hysteria—than in its mildest—an almost morbid oversensitivity to every faint hint of hidden meanings in every word, however innocuous, that escapes the Pope’s lips or pen.

Hart admits that, as a member of the Orthodox Church, he cannot really get inside the Catholic mind, but no matter how hard he searches through Pope Francis’ statements, he still wonders what such Catholics can possibly disagree with.

This is a fair question, but it does not require a litany of official statements to offer a fair answer. It is easy to see both legitimate and illegitimate reasons for this sensitive or even suspicious response to Pope Francis on the part of “conservative” Catholics (“conservative” being a term which Hart applies in its distinctively American sense). But in American Catholicism, the term “conservative” most often means “doctrinally committed”. As we will see, the use of this more precise expression will be quite helpful.

I will begin with the admission that there really is a chronic hypersensitivity on the Catholic “right”, and that the most sensitive among the “doctrinally committed” display a certain lack of restraint in their responses. They rather impressively magnify their own nervousness (as each and every one of us is prone to do). I think that’s a fair criticism, and I can see how an outsider could scratch his head over it. But an insider who is not “doctrinally committed” will view it as a clear proof of spiritual insanity—and this too is part of the problem.

The real answer

There are at least four legitimate reasons for the hypersensitivity David Bentley Hart has identified. They are very closely related. Let us consider each in turn:

1. The Lesson of Recent History: Doctrinally-committed Catholics were severely burned just a generation ago by a rapid relaxation of Catholic discipline and a rapid falsification of Catholic doctrine as Western culture secularized from the 1960s on. During the period from 1965 until 1985 (and beyond, depending on the location), orthodox Catholics were dismissed as troublemakers in nearly every diocese and parish in the West. This is still true in some places today, and it is most definitely still true in many older religious communities and most Catholic university settings.

Almost the only thing that kept such Catholics sane and grounded during this period of real darkness and suffering was their ability to demonstrate that this aberrant Catholic teaching and behavior was contrary to the wishes of the See of Peter which, despite an astonishing ineptitude when it came to discipline, at least upheld the truths of the Faith in its teachings. (Those who refused to accept the essential safety of the Magisterium during this period spiraled off into Traditionalist sects.)

2. The Insecurity of Self-Reliant Spirituality: Forged by this experience, many doctrinally committed Catholics became increasingly self-reliant in their spirituality. Having been taught again and again that they could not trust the Church’s ministers, they gradually slipped into the habit of making themselves their own rule of faith except where clear papal statements were available. It ought to be obvious that, in the absence of strong doctrinal leadership in Rome, this understandably defensive piety would be marked by a measure of spiritual insecurity.

Many people sense, with some justice, that the Church had finally begun to grow stronger under popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Consequently, they are astonished—yes, astonished—to see in Pope Francis a fairly consistent lack of emphasis on Catholic doctrine, which they (rightly) see as essential to a proper ordering of loves. Now I am the first to grant that hysteria does not come from the Holy Spirit. But having lived through a period of ersatz “renewal” at the expense of Revelation, such doctrinally-committed Catholics fear its resurgence under a pope who, at the very least, seems to eschew clear instruction.

3. Pope Francis’ Weaknesses: This brings us to this pope’s particular weaknesses. Every pope has them; they are all human. Francis is very good at perceiving the plight of those who are materially poor and marginalized, as well as the ways in which even Church leaders can hide behind formal structures and duties to avoid a more direct and risky engagement with those in need. He is also very good at dramatic words and gestures which reach beyond the Church’s conventions (whether codified in rules or not). Not infrequently, his perceptions and his willingness to stir things up are profoundly inspiring.

But there is always what we might call a human cloud around every silver lining. The distinctions among personal habit, cultural convention, ecclesiastical law, and Catholic doctrine are not always easy to discern. These all intersect in the life of the Church, and Pope Francis is better at dramatic gestures than he is at carefully parsing these distinctions to explain what must be retained and what may (and even should) be altered or jettisoned. He is also typically impatient and even dismissive of those who insist on such a careful examination before committing to a new direction.

To put the matter bluntly, Pope Francis is very good at opening the window or pulling the drain plug, but not particularly good at explaining the differences between the bathwater and the Baby.

4. An Apparent Emphasis on “Worldly” Problems: There are many good reasons to insist that Pope Francis recognizes the deep spiritual roots of the problems he is most interested in addressing. For example, his treatment of the instrumentalization of nature in the encyclical Laudato Si’ was well worth the price of admission—the need to read about many particular debatable issues. Nonetheless, Pope Francis tends to emphasize the visible or material side of widespread human problems (poverty, unemployment, physical violence, cultural exclusion, lack of medical care, human trafficking, migration, destruction of the environment, etc.). In most cases, these are concerns which our modern secular culture still recognizes. Therefore, perhaps, greater traction is possible.

But he is less prone to emphasize, at least in any practical way, the far less visible spiritual wreckage which underlies nearly all widespread modern evils: The failure to recognize the person as the beloved image of God to be treasured; the refusal of personal integrity, self-mastery and purity; and the resulting confusion and hopelessness. The results of this spiritual malaise are despair and suicide; the treatment of others as objects, including pornography, sexual license and perversion of every kind; the utter emptiness of modern law on matters such as marriage, divorce, abortion, and euthanasia; and the destruction of the family—which is the greatest single contributor to even the material evils itemized by the Pope.

Again, it is not that we cannot tell that Pope Francis is concerned about all these things. But to the doctrinally-committed Catholic, who believes with all his heart that the common good depends ultimately on a shared moral framework, derived from the truth about the human person as revealed by God through both nature in general and Jesus Christ in particular, a preoccupation with social problems that are already at least partially recognized by modern governments can seem like fiddling while Rome burns—in a very different and ultimately more terrifying spiritual sense.

A More Faithful Response

It is here that the prejudices of American “conservatism” do contribute to the angst of the Pope’s critics. Conservatives are noted for their “rugged individualism”, their wariness of social theories, and their opposition to using the State to reshape social life. At the same time they tend to regard received political arrangements (like US sovereignty) as sacrosanct and absolute. For example, this deeply clouds the conservative Catholic response to the problem of immigration. But surely the prejudices of American “liberalism” are as bad or worse. More to the point, there is nothing new about the inability to come to terms with Catholic social teaching when one views it through the modern left-right dialectic.

So, yes, our prevailing ideological categories inspire a selective reading which makes it very difficult for Catholics—and particularly American Catholics—on any side of contemporary social questions to learn from Catholic social doctrine. But it is the additional concern about doctrinal purity which unfortunately triggers an especially sensitive or even hypersensitive attitude specifically toward Pope Francis. The truth matters. To illustrate by example, doctrinally-sensitive Catholics know that a proper grasp of the full extent of Catholic doctrine on the sacraments is precisely what the Church needs to decide the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried; they also know that a proper grasp of the limitations of Catholic doctrine renders the Church incompetent to pronounce on the nature and extent of climate change.

If the philosophical and even dogmatic precision of Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI tended to make “progressive” or “doctrinally uncommitted” Catholics nervous, so too does the lack of these personality traits in Pope Francis make “conservative” or “doctrinally committed” Catholics nervous. Nothing could be more natural. All of us need to realize that this nervousness—far from being incomprehensible—is deeply rooted in real and even obvious causes.

At the same time, there is a right way and a wrong way for a Catholic to respond to his fears. Any type of hypercriticism, hysteria or panic—especially when accompanied by accusations which go beyond a strict and necessary construction of the evidence—is, as I have already noted, not of God. This sort of anxiety, and the quick (and even petty) trigger finger that goes with it, always comes from the Devil. What comes from the Holy Spirit is interior peace, joy, generosity, and trust in God.

Most of us need to recognize that our arguments and complaints have little chance of directly influencing the Holy Father. And all of us must realize that hyperventilation accomplishes nothing good. Letting off steam through speech is invariably harmful. The holy are, except in their lapses, always recognized for their serenity. A perturbed or angry emphasis on the Faith is actually a classic sign of diabolical attack. It is a sign that we have failed to practice the presence of God.

I agree with David Bentley Hart that it is easy for him to pass by unscathed by Catholic turbulence. Let me add that I do not regard this as an intellectual virtue. But if we approach our most deeply-rooted fears with the kind of trust I have just described, we will make much better sense to those both within and beyond the fold.

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 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Dec. 09, 2015 12:52 PM ET USA

    Most interesting!! it's the throwing of clear church teaching that gets thrown in the air that leaves people wondering if the expected answer will come down.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 03, 2015 9:25 AM ET USA

    I agree with the 4 points you identified, but I disagree that our arguments and complaints have little chance of directly influencing the Holy Father. You may perceive this as narcissistic, but I do think our arguments have directly influenced the Holy Father. Time and again a sore spot is raised in this and similar Catholic forums. Then the Holy Father appears to respond within a week or two. Example: consider his deference to our concerns in his recent addresses in Africa. Coincidence?

  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Dec. 02, 2015 8:10 AM ET USA

    Excellent, well thought article. Even an average person, like me, can understand it. Thank you for all the work that you do for our Catholic faith.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Dec. 02, 2015 6:38 AM ET USA

    Very balanced and fair, that's about it.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Dec. 01, 2015 10:49 PM ET USA

    For once I can understand what you are saying and completely agree with you.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Dec. 01, 2015 7:21 PM ET USA

    Catholic doctrine originated with Jesus and His apostles. Conservatives are committed to it because it's the word from the Word. Without it there is only whatever the contemporary culture agrees on, e.g.,today, universal contraception. Before 1930 or so, contraception was universally rejected. Today, baby organs are for sale in the U.S., before only Nazi's did that stuff. Conservatives wonder, how much proof is needed to show the error of being doctrinally uncommitted ?