Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Francis knows the Church is in a rut. But does he know why?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 16, 2021

I haven’t written much about Pope Francis’ bizarre pontificate for a long time, but I am moved to do so now by the decision to focus the next General Synod of the Church on synodality (see Synodality and the evasion of responsibility). In this, clearly, Pope Francis hopes for a vibrant response which will pry the Church out of what we might call the “same old rut” (however defined) so that it becomes more actively evangelical (however defined). There is much confusion about the problem the Church finds herself in today, but there is no question that she has a problem.

My resolve to address the pontificate again was strengthened by the Pope’s recent comments on withholding the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who support abortion—strengthened because Francis’ remarks were characteristically confusing. Fortunately, there is no need for me to parse these remarks, since Phil Lawler has already done such an admirable job (On abortion and Communion, the Pope temporizes), and you can also read the actual text of the interview, which is very brief.

But this calls attention once again to the overwhelming problem which afflicts the Church today (and, truth to tell, afflicts the Church to some extent in every time and place). Let us borrow a page from Francis’ own favorite lexicon and call this the problem of comfort zones.

Leaving our Comfort Zones

It is very clear from a great many of his remarks that Pope Francis sees far too many Catholics, at every level of the Church, stuck in a kind of a box, expressing their faith primarily in minimalistic and personally comfortable ways. Though Pope Francis is far from being either “a conservative” or “a traditionalist”, a great many “conservative” or “traditional” Catholics would agree with him that Catholics must somehow learn to leave their comfort zones behind in order to evangelize more effectively and offer greater assistance to those who are marginalized.

Never mind for the moment that, from the standpoint of the dominant culture, all those who cherish what we might call traditional evangelical values are deliberately marginalized and even ostracized. I am more interested first in the positive aspects of Pope Francis’ desire to shake things up. We already know, I think, that this desire is full of contradictory elements which make it very difficult to fulfill in any consistent way. But there is still something substantial in the Pope’s consistent message, particularly under these two headings:

  • The danger of comfort zones: Francis wants priests (and, metaphorically, all of us) to have the courage and flair to get “out of the rectories” and “out into the peripheries”. On this point, no reasonable person can doubt that very few Catholics at any level are mission oriented. Far too many bishops, priests, and lay people have contented themselves with the security provided by being a member of a smallish Catholic community in which they feel comfortable. Rocking the boat often angers others, most attempts at outreach are rebuffed as “intrusive”, both the work place and the dominant culture are hostile, and, anyway, “I have enough trouble getting through my day as it is, without going out and looking for trouble.” For the word “rectories” above, read comfort zones. For attachment to comfort zones, read rigidity. This is a constant theme of the pontificate.
  • The priority of persons: Francis wants every Catholic to exercise material detachment in favor of concern for persons. What he observes as characteristic of both contemporary Catholics in general and the representatives of the institutional Church, at least in the still-dominant West, is a persistent concern about maintaining a comfortable and stable status quo instead of giving the needs of others an effectively high priority. The poster children for this attitude are of course those who have been sexually abused, but it has manifested itself in many ways in the course of my own lifetime. One example is the refusal of the clerical club to take seriously the concerns and even the rights of the laity both before and after Vatican II (though in different ways). Another is our contemporary emphasis on doing everything through “programs” instead of through one-on-one engagement with real persons who have unique needs (whether for discipline or instruction or material support or spiritual help).

I admit that there are plenty of active Catholics at all levels who avoid these traps through a genuine interior commitment and creative flair for forms of apostolate and ministry which significantly transcend the limitations of these two categorizations of Catholic life. But who can doubt that the larger part of the Church today suffers from a very limited range of vision, and a very limited range of expectation for evangelical commitment? And this is true of all the major groupings of Catholics—the vast majority of those who have in one degree or another fallen away from their practice of the faith, the vast majority of those active within the ecclesiastical mainstream, and the vast majority of those aligned with more traditional communities.

“My” comfort zone and “my” separation and shielding from persons outside the zone: If we are honest, these are most often the dominant considerations. I am not throwing particular stones at particular glass houses. I am simply observing that the vast majority of us are weak on outreach. The vast majority of us have our own psychic comfort as our first priority. But what Pope Francis seems not to recognize is that there are two primary ways of creating and inhabiting ecclesiastical comfort zones. The first is the approach which Francis so frequently condemns, namely, the tendency to prefer a comfortable ecclesiastical life in which one welcomes peace, quiet, and enjoyable ecclesiastical activities (including liturgical activities)—with very little engagement on the less comfortable “peripheries”.

But the second path to comfort zones is the one that Francis seems so seldom to notice, presumably because it is so often his own tendency. This is the habitual preference for those ecclesiastical expressions—including, for example, topics for homilies, preferred Catholic activities, public positions and gestures—which meet the approval of the dominant culture.

Two traps, but Francis tends to see only one

The problems created for the Church by operating within the parameters acceptable to the dominant culture are legion. They may seem even worse (for those who care) on account of a common historical misperception. Somehow we tend to think that in the past good Christians were welcome and active in the larger society, whereas now they are rejected and restricted. But in living memory this has been merely a matter of degree and of shifting points of conflict; and in the long history of the Church the story is exactly the same.

Christianity has been in rapid retreat in the West now for some five hundred years. Under a gradually-increasing cultural pressure, Christians have had to choose how and where they acted, and on what issues, in order to receive a favorable response by what we call the dominant culture. It’s just that since the 1960s, even the moral common ground of the natural law has disappeared, and this has led the dominant culture not just to channel Christian commitments along “acceptable” lines but increasingly to distrust Christianity entirely and to eliminate specifically Christian action altogether. Moreover, if we study the whole history of the last two thousand years, we find that there were always cultural pressure points which channeled the words and activities of most ecclesiastics, and colored the vices (and virtues) that were deemed acceptable by Catholics, whether bishops or laity.

Since the Church’s members are always to some degree culture-bound, we should not be surprised to see two trends today: (a) A consistent channeling of Catholic energies along the lines most acceptable to the values of the dominant culture, and so a rapid narrowing of the range of those energies; and (b) A continuing shrinkage of our comfort zones which gradually reduces our range of action, in inverse proportion to increasing risk. As adherence to a genuine and active Catholicism becomes less and less comfortable, the problem becomes simple: We cannot be effectively missionary unless we change our expectations, to welcome martyrdom in all its many forms.

In other words, we cannot expect to be at once authentically Catholic and culturally comfortable. Moreover, serious, faithful Catholics have never been able to do this. Pope Francis sees the failure to recognize this very clearly and condemns it effortlessly when it comes to ecclesiastical comfort zones such as sinecures, but he has great difficulty in both seeing it and condemning it when it comes to the comfort zones created for us by the dominant culture. Again, Pope Francis sees fairly clearly, and he wants us to “get over”, our attachment to older Catholic ways of doing things—enjoyment of particular liturgical forms, for example, or the division of labor occasioned by high levels of vocations, or the proud and comfortable privileges of ecclesiastical rank. His weakness, however, is that he views the Church too often through the lens of the dominant culture, and this leads him to exhibit two tendencies that are serious roadblocks to genuine Catholic renewal.

The Pope’s first tendency is to place a disproportionate official emphasis on those few topics on which the dominant culture still welcomes insights that have Christian roots. Environmentalism is one example of this; penal reform is another; human fraternity, including immigration, is yet a third. Pope Francis speaks and writes often on such topics, salting his observations with at least some uniquely Christian insights. But since the Church’s positions in these areas mirror the default positions of the dominant culture, almost nobody who is part of the dominant culture needs to hear the Church’s voice. Rather, the dominant culture finds itself in the marvelous and magical position of saying all the right things on these issues without going any farther than personal convenience permits in terms of any sacrificial interior conversion, and without deviating from the pattern of relying on the power of the State rather than the power of personal sacrifice.

And please notice how many of these subjects, even as the Church addresses them, are primarily political in their application (an issue to which I will return in my conclusion). Francis far too often exhibits a tendency to “go out to peripheries” which are not, culturally-speaking, peripheries—to play the Catholic “game” within the rules established by the ideological values of the dominant culture. Even granting that ideological values are often modified somewhat by deeper personal values, we can see that much of what Pope Francis speaks and writes about fits nicely within the range of acceptability established by the ideological values of the dominant culture of the declining, materialist, secularist West. I am referring, in the main, to a culture which recognizes and sympathizes with material hardship, but fails to recognize, let alone sympathize with, spiritual and moral hardship.

The Pope’s second tendency is to exhibit an astonishing impatience with all those whose attachments to the status quo are significantly different from his own. Francis is very happy in a small apartment and clearly enjoys the prospect of making paternal gestures to the marginalized (such as buying gelato for prisoners, distributing tickets for the circus to the poor, or calling a relatively obscure lay person on the phone). Without any desire for personal affluence, he warms to the kind of gestures that our dominant culture approves. He is far more likely on any given day to offer observations and gestures approved by the dominant culture than to offer observations and gestures which cut across the grain of the dominant culture—in effect instructing either the Church or the dominant culture in a culturally oppositional way (though we know he does do this occasionally).

Particularly in considering individual personal situations, Francis seems uncomfortable in offering a spiritual challenge to the sinner (a discomfort many good Catholics spend considerable spiritual energy attempting to overcome). His statement in another recent interview was quite telling: “When I am in front of a person, I look him in the eyes and let things come out. It doesn’t even occur to me to think about what I’m going to say if I’m with him, those potential future situations that don’t help me.” In fact, judging from subsequent statements by a number of those to whom he has spoken privately, it seems that Francis is very likely to say what they want to hear—especially when it comes to a failure to confront the evils of a “sexual life style” chosen with the world’s full approval. In other words, in personal encounters, he seems to find it just as difficult to defy the dominant culture’s expectations as we do. Moreover, he often seems less capable than many of overcoming that difficulty—to the point, perhaps, of considering those who succeed in doing so as “rigid”.

Escaping the box?

If so, this is a grave spiritual problem for the leader of the Catholic Church. I am speaking, however, of the impressions this Pope conveys. Nobody can know what is in his heart, which is between Francis and God. But he often gives the impression of considering “rigidity” to be a mark of those who have the courage, in awkward situations, to speak the truth forthrightly, even if at times they have not yet established a relationship conducive to a trustful discussion. But there are dismissive and inclusive ways of speaking the truth, just as there are condemnations of evil and invitations to virtue. I will take but one example: To dismiss as “rigid” all those who do not interact with others as Francis chooses to do is exclusive. To emphasize the importance of learning to speak the truth in love, even to those who embrace the errors and sins of the dominant culture, is inclusive, not only for all in the service of the Gospel but for all with ears to hear.

And this brings us back to the latest interview in which the Pope discusses excommunication. I wish to remind everybody (including, I suppose, Pope Francis himself) that every pastoral intervention is subject to political abuse. Such words and actions may be politically motivated or, along exactly the same lines, motivated by the secular values of the dominant culture. Moreover, these words and actions may be dismissed as “political” by the recipient and others who know about them, even when they are not politically-motivated at all. We need to understand that there are many political sins, and sins with political repercussions, that need to be addressed precisely for spiritual and moral reasons.

When it comes to excommunication itself, St. Paul gave the rationale, establishing firmly that it is a pastoral tool:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. [1 Cor 5:1-7]

Finally, we are wise to remember Hilaire Belloc’s admirable comment from what we now so oddly consider a happier Catholic era. Belloc was born in 1870 and died in 1953, but he was no Pollyanna; he was rather a keen Catholic historian. In any case, he quipped: “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

In our own situation, one of the signs of the times we ought to be able to read is that Pope Francis is far more popular among those who reject many Catholic teachings than among those who accept them all. I have explored here one of the reasons this is likely to be so. We have little choice but to attempt to improve this often hapless pontificate through ever more fervent prayer.

Finally, it will be especially interesting to see whether the next two years spent on the concept of synodality will be marked by statements, proposals and strategies which ensure that unpopular truths are muted in the old effort to appear “relevant” (read acceptable) to the dominant culture. If our prayers are answered, it will be marked by statements, proposals and strategies which emphasize creativity and courage in leaving our comfort zones to both live and preach even the hard sayings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—beginning within the Church herself.

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: td4207 - Sep. 17, 2021 6:22 PM ET USA

    Without real guidelines, I fear that widespread synodality will yield more of what the German Church is producing,than any real progress in engaging the laity, and stimulating true evangelization. Does the Church really need more confusion?

  • Posted by: edenjohnson364256 - Sep. 17, 2021 6:04 PM ET USA

    What can we do, O what can we do?