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Calling names without naming names: What I like least about Pope Francis

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 27, 2015

We’ve all done it. We have all ascribed certain characteristics to groups of people in a general way, but without identifying whom we are talking about, or why. Sometimes we do this in a constructive manner by explaining, teaching or preaching about the virtues we all should possess and the vices we should avoid. And sometimes we go off on a rant, leaving others to assume that they know who and what we have in mind—that everybody knows who “those people” are.

It is especially unfortunate when someone in authority appears to be speaking negatively about a certain group, but gives no examples of the specific persons or particular behavior he is criticizing. Unfortunately, I believe Pope Francis himself has a tendency to do this, and it is the characteristic I like least about his very interesting and often inspiring pontificate.

I cannot find all the examples quickly enough to meet my deadline, but everyone who follows Pope Francis knows that he has little patience with characteristics such as formalism, elitism, bureaucratic functionalism, lack of human sympathy, self-righteousness, legalism, and so on. Early in his pontificate, he gave a homily in which he criticized a certain stiff punctiliousness in celebrating the liturgy, and of course everybody assumed he was talking about Traditionalists—but that was not necessarily the case. Indeed, he told the cardinals in 2015 that he regarded the “lugubrious face” as a spiritual illness. We must remember that solemnity and lugubriousness are not the same.

Another example was heard around the world in one of his early interviews, when he seemed to rebuke those who stress moral issues for a lack of genuine compassion and love for sinners. Readers will recall his emphasis that we do not need to be talking about the life issues all the time. That’s certainly true, but the world was left wondering whether he was singling out pro-lifers for particular criticism, while letting those who do not give a hoot about Christian morality off the hook completely. It is clear from other remarks that this is not the case, but let’s face it: Pope Francis seldom appears friendly toward those who, in their commitment to truth or orthodoxy, put the least foot wrong.

Now me, I always figured it this way: “Fine. Those of us who have been given much can take the flak. We are not the bruised reeds or smoldering wicks. We can turn all criticism to spiritual good.” Nonetheless, at times this acceptance—shall we call it generosity under fire?—grows wearisome. It is a daily requirement in the Catholic trenches. No surprise then, that we feel we ought not to have to hear it so often from the Pope.

Documented Examples

An even more famous example was Pope Francis’ Christmas address to the Curia in 2014. Under the guise of enumerating the kinds of spiritual diseases that can infect those who serve in ecclesiastical administration, the Pope offered about as delicious a rebuke to the officials of his own curia as an anti-clerical layman could ever savor. He warned against no fewer than fifteen deadly attitudes, including:

  • The disease of mental and spiritual “petrification”…found in those who have a heart of stone, the “stiff-necked”
  • The disease of excessive planning and of functionalism…when the apostle plans everything down to the last detail and believes that with perfect planning things will fall into place
  • The disease of rivalry and vainglory…when appearances, the color of our clothes and our titles of honor become the primary object in life
  • The disease of indifference to others…where each individual thinks only of himself and loses sincerity and warmth of human relationships
  • The disease of closed circles, where belonging to a clique becomes more powerful than belonging to the Body and, in some circumstances, to Christ himself

Of course, everybody knows at least one person who, as far as we are able to judge, is afflicted by each of these diseases. Moreover, nobody in an empowered position is entirely exempt from such temptations. Still this was the Pope’s Christmas message to his own Curia, and it seemed pretty pointed. Was he teaching or accusing? As you can imagine, the litany was not well-received.

The pattern surfaced again in Pope Francis’ address for the closing of the 2015 Synod on the Family. He reflected on the question of what the Synod was really about. Among about a dozen points of emphasis in his answer, he included these:

It was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would “indoctrinate” it in dead stones to be hurled at others.
It was also about laying bare closed hearts, which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families….
It was about trying to open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints, so as to defend and spread the freedom of the children of God, and to transmit the beauty of Christian Newness, at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.

The World’s Interpretation, and Mine

These remarks were inescapably interpreted by the media as directed against those commonly regarded as “conservative” or “orthodox”, because the Pope’s words so obviously echo the criticisms voiced by the “progressives” or Modernists. I ask you: Who, in this world of ours, is typically regarded as doctrinaire, dead, judgmental, superficial, blinkered, archaic and incomprehensible? Although each deeply committed Catholic can think of someone in his own circle who fits this description in some ways, the shoe really is usually on the other foot. Yet these words all describe one thing in the lingua franca of modern secular culture. They refer to people who really do believe it is the truth that sets us free.

Now in fact I think Pope Francis is too deep for his words to be taken solely in the usual cultural sense. It is obvious that he does not think in our standard cultural categories, and that he has a deep love of Christ, whom he most certainly regards as the way, the truth and the life. He repeatedly refers to the doctrinal security of a Church cum et sub Petro. He seems to work reasonably well with liberals and conservatives alike. But at the very least it would appear that he is either unaware of what everybody else is thinking when he makes such statements, or that he does not care.

Moreover, have you ever wondered this: Is it perhaps likely that those who are unreservedly committed to all that God has revealed—God “who can neither deceive nor be deceived”—are in fact the only group that is spiritually mature enough to even try to apply these mysterious accusations to themselves?

In any case, my larger point is that when he fails to identify clearly the cases to which he is referring—choosing instead to allow his audience to interpret his words according to conventional cultural prejudices—Pope Francis offers criticisms that can do more harm than good. As I said, I am perfectly willing to apply everything to myself; I know I will find in the application some cause for painful growth. I heartily recommend the same approach to everyone.

But this tendency to denounce publicly in general terms, and to accuse without sufficient specificity, is still Pope Francis’ least attractive characteristic as the Vicar of Christ.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 31, 2015 10:06 PM ET USA

    Ross Douthat has an interesting piece worth a glance entitled (NY Times): Letter to the Catholic Academy. In it he says the following: "At which point we come to the third argument, which makes an appearance in your letter: You don’t understand, you’re not a theologian. As indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts." He is confident in the catechism, and he is ready to suffer for it. He makes my point.

  • Posted by: Terri11 - Oct. 30, 2015 4:58 PM ET USA

    Yeah.... I read those words and thought to myself "Thanks. I'll consider myself off-the-hook if I get a divorce then." Nice to know I no longer have to worry about throwing stones at myself aka "having a conscience" when I do something wrong.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Oct. 30, 2015 3:23 PM ET USA

    Late to this party and, as a result, can only say amen to each and every one of the existing comments.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 29, 2015 7:45 PM ET USA

    Jeff demonstrates humility and a genuine spirit of self-reflection. This is good but only to a point. When the faithful, and even bishops, reiterate the teachings of the Church and the teachings of pontiffs- indeed even the Gospel itself- trusting confidently in God's word through scripture and tradition, this is laudable. When chastisement is incurred for recourse to our patrimony there's trouble. "You have the words of eternal life" exclaimed Saint Peter. Witness requires no apology.

  • Posted by: adamah - Oct. 28, 2015 5:17 PM ET USA

    Instead of looking forward to statements by Pope Francis I read them with great angst.

  • Posted by: BlaiseA - Oct. 28, 2015 4:59 PM ET USA

    I'm afraid I agree. I feel like I'm always trying to "measure up" somehow - to the MIND OF THIS POPE. It leaves one in what to me seems a state of confusion: does he mean this? Or that? Or just a 'touch' of this, or that?? We must pray and sacrifice for the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church today.

  • Posted by: DCpa - Oct. 28, 2015 3:30 PM ET USA

    I'm glad someone has finally said it. You were exceedingly charitable, Jeff. The fact is that the Pope has been engaging in "name-calling" instead of argumentation, an unworthy tactic of rhetorical marginalization. Nobody wants to be called a Pharisee. What about answers to the arguments of the Africans and Poles about the harm which easy divorce has caused children and societies? What about the express words of Jesus (Mercy Incarnate) about divorce? Have we "advanced" beyond Jesus now?

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Oct. 28, 2015 11:30 AM ET USA

    "(H)is very interesting and often inspiring pontificate" - I can only pray that some day I will be able to regard this pope's reign like that, and I commend Dr. Mirus and others who already can.

  • Posted by: dmva9806 - Oct. 28, 2015 10:53 AM ET USA

    This is the best description of my own discomfort with Pope Francis I can imagine - thank you so much, Jeff. I hope he reads it himself, and gives it some thought. It is very hard to feel loved when experiencing such constant apparent scolding. I'll try to understand his criticisms in a helpful light, but it is not easy, especially when he provides so much ammunition to those who are trying to dismantle the magisterial Tradition of the Church.

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Oct. 28, 2015 8:26 AM ET USA

    I agree Jeff. While I am in need of spiritual growth as much as anyone and know that I definitely possess self-righteousness and "the older brother" syndrome, I also know that I need some encouragement from my chief pastor in continuing to fight the good fight. I suspect curial officials using their gifts for administration (in St Paul's sense of the many gifts in the one body) could use a bone thrown to them as well instead on constant upbraiding by this Pope.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 28, 2015 7:47 AM ET USA

    One problem in this is the challenge to unity. A mark of the Church is that it is one. Along with this oneness is confidence. We recite the Nicene Creed at Mass as one. We are confident in our Mass and sacraments; we are confident in the Trinity and in the Communion of Saints. We are confident in God's grace, freely and generously given to those who desire to love as He loves. We erode this Christian confidence to our peril. Sanctification involves the humility of Christian confidence.

  • Posted by: btursiopsdn9079 - Oct. 28, 2015 1:19 AM ET USA

    I agree whole heatedly with your analysis. Such an approach of Pope Francis has too much of a secular flavor. It also reflects a lack of charity and openness towards those who think differently from him. One can not just off-hand dismiss those who uphold moral truths as spiritual stiff neck or dead stones. Moral truths and the truths go together. Such kind of harsh language is heavy-handed, it sounds bitter, slamming the door at the others. It seems that true humility is lacking here!

  • Posted by: LCRich - Oct. 27, 2015 9:42 PM ET USA

    Amen, Dr. Mirus! I have been praying, regularly, that the Holy Spirit guide Pope Francis so his communications with the Church and the world would be clear. I still sense a very strong need for my continued prayer.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 27, 2015 8:21 PM ET USA

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 27, 2015 6:35 PM ET USA

    Agreed. I've had my fill of the papal accusations. It's time to name names, discipline the guilty, and move on. Is God merciful? Yes. Is He just? Yes. Does He know consciences? Yes. Do we know consciences? I hope the priest in the confessional does; otherwise how can he judge whether the purpose of amendment is firm and absolution is possible? "Gee Father, why doesn't the Church have the same certitude about the invalidity of my sacramental marriage that I have? The Church is so archaic."