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The complexity of assessing a pontificate

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 23, 2024

Along with the frustrations of the current pontificate for those most deeply committed to Catholic faith and morals, we do well to acknowledge not only the complexity of the papal job description but also the dangers of our own tunnel vision. In saying this, I am not retreating from my own assessment that the current pontificate has directly done more harm than good to the Church, nor from my position that we can still see God’s providence at work in the growing strength and commitment of bishops in many parts of the world who are extremely uncomfortable with the current Pope’s priorities, policies and pastoral vision.

I recently read that, according to Gallup, Pope Francis’ “approval rating” among Catholics in the United States is still as high as 77%, even though it is declining. I doubt it is that high among bishops and priests in this country, but the “Catholic” name is only very loosely applied in polls. In more instructive issue-oriented polls in the past, we have seen how closely poll results track with the frequency of Mass attendance. The more often people attend Mass, the more they disagree with positions which are contrary to Catholic teaching or downplay Catholic faith and morals, and (mutatis mutandis) the less favorable they are to the current Pope.

Nonetheless, once in a while it is good to notice the complexity of the pope’s task and the many things that Pope Francis does that remain positive and inspiring even to those who take the teachings of the Church most seriously—or even take longstanding Catholic practices seriously. For example, Pope Francis has repeatedly upheld the value of clerical celibacy (e.g., news stories one, two, and three). Moreover, the closest pope-watchers have serious difficulties in discerning Pope Francis’ underlying motivations. Why, for example, does he disparage those in the West who would like the priest to face away from the people during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, while insisting that in the Syro-Malabar Catholic rite, the faithful must accept that their priests should do exactly that? It remains unwise for us to ascribe motives in assessing policies which we either favor or abhor.

A day in the life…

With all this in mind, I particularly noticed the impressive series of positive news stories about Pope Francis posted on our website on a single day—yesterday, January 22, 2024. Consider:

A cautious perspective

The point I am making here, as a frequent critic of the leadership of Pope Francis, is that those of us who find ourselves in this position must take very great care that we are, in fact, being forced into it against our will for the good of souls. And this means it ought to make us sensitive to our need for care not only in how we analyze and present the bad news but also in how we appreciate and make known the good news. Moreover, our standard must not be the dictates of our own personal piety but the past official teachings of the Church herself, along with considerations of spiritual prudence rather than personal preference. Still further, in thinking, speaking and writing about any pope, it is essential to keep in mind this passage about Noah and his sons in the book of Genesis:

Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” [Gen 9:18-27]

Far be it from any of us, then, to make gratuitous assertions about the Pope to put him in a bad light, or based on our own assumptions about his motives. Nor is it spiritually helpful to assign greater gravity to news reports about the words and actions of the Holy Father than the situation itself requires to protect and nourish the faithful. It is one thing—and indeed, a good and necessary thing—to comment on public issues in a manner that clarifies the truth while seeking to protect and strengthen the faith of others throughout the Church. It is quite another to fail to give the benefit of the doubt, to increase the impact of scandals for some factional benefit, or to delight in our own proofs that the Pope is not as good a Catholic as we are.

Coda: The Word of God

Damage control is not the same thing as fanning the flames. As I have often emphasized in the past, if we see grave problems with the current pontificate (or with our own bishop or pastor), but we are not praying daily for the Pope (and our own bishop and pastor), it is far better for us to pass by quietly “on the other side” than to point and gawk without taking any responsibility for paying the spiritual bills. It is true that Catholics often find themselves in difficulty for their fidelity even within the Church. But in our personal discussions and public commentary, let us all remind each other of what it really means to be spiritual sons or daughters of this same Church, joined by our baptism to the sufferings of Christ.

It is evident that good people can be spiritually and morally misled, mistreated and injured even within the Church. It is evident also that we do not always receive the leadership we want. But it is far from evident, in God’s providence, that as adults we do not usually receive at least leadership from which we can benefit, if only through spiritual adversity, by leading lives of prayerful docility to the Holy Spirit. And so we recall God’s own warnings about our dispositions and how we reveal them in word and deed, and especially in comments which reach eagerly beyond vexing issues to judgments of our fellow Catholics and our Catholic leaders:

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Lk 6:37-8)

“For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’” (Heb 10:30)

And no matter our own indignation and pain: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God” (Rom 12:19).

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: justme - Jan. 25, 2024 6:31 PM ET USA

    Thank you for reminding me that all situations that distress or alarm me, even those within the Church, are invitations from God for me to grow in Christ-like virtue and charitable prayer in how I react to them. St. Léonie Aviat said: "I formed the habit of never approaching anyone without casting a glance at Our Lord. Try my little method--I can assure you it is a good one." May God help us to love Pope Francis in thought, prayer and speech, even when he errs. Christ died for both him and us.

  • Posted by: edward.caron2084 - Jan. 25, 2024 11:44 AM ET USA

    Many years ago, Father Jack, RIP, sternly reminded our congregation that only God can judge. He was so right. However, turning a blind eye to the state of our church is probably not what he had in mind. The sexual abuse crisis has decimated the church. It is discouraging to see the Pope appoint a cardinal who has written books that abuse victims describe as nauseating. Fernández should resign or be fired. Rome should be condemning sinful behavior not minimizing it.

  • Posted by: emahoney0013255 - Jan. 24, 2024 2:51 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Dr. Mirus. Excellent article. Motive is more difficult to assess and not always possible to discern. Charity is so important. Framing how we talk about the Pope in terms of Noah and his nakedness seems really appropo, as is the reminder of the last three scripture quotations.

  • Posted by: ILM - Jan. 23, 2024 10:10 PM ET USA

    There is nothing like some spiritual stress with someone close to us or someone in our leadership chain to get us to pray more and practice our religion with more commitment.

  • Posted by: tjbenjamin - Jan. 23, 2024 8:25 PM ET USA

    Trying to be a faithful Catholic in this secular stew around me has earned me criticism from family and friends, most of them Christians, many of them Catholics. I need backup from this pope, and I’m not getting it. My archdiocese is eliminating parishes. Young people are not getting married and having children. The only nearby parish that is growing is a Latin Mass parish, and we know what the pope has done about that. Lord, save us!