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Hopefulness and the assessment of Pope Francis

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 06, 2022

In response to my commentary of last Friday (Again I say, “Discern!”), one reader commented that my “fine essays are always marked by a hopefulness that ultimately undermines them”. One must, of course, be careful about how we use the word “hope”, which is a theological virtue that we cannot have too much of. But I think I know what he was getting at, and it raises an important question. For even when I am criticizing significant aspects of the current pontificate, I often either temper the criticism or turn my attention to the related good on which we all need to focus to respond constructively to the need for Catholic renewal and Catholic mission.

Put simply, my writing seldom (but, sadly, I won’t say never) stops with a sharp strike against Pope Francis which gives readers the satisfaction of thinking that “he’s really nailed him this time.” Or, by extension, my writing seldom stops with a total condemnation of the condition of the Church today, which similarly might give readers the satisfaction of having their darkest suspicions vindicated, along with the mistaken assumption that in, former times, the Church was pure as the driven snow.

By design

This, of course, is by design, and there are two reasons that I typically frame my topics in this way. The first is that it is extraordinarily difficult for a Catholic to strike exactly the right balance in calling attention to the deficiencies of a pope or the problems of his pontificate or the Church as a whole. There are at least four considerations which underlie this difficulty: First, no Catholic is in a position of sufficient authority to definitively judge a pope (or the Church as a whole); second, every Catholic is bound to respect, love and pray for the pope as a spiritual father and for the Church; third, most commentators (including myself) are operating at a considerable distance without detailed inner knowledge of the complete situation; and fourth, for every distressed Catholic whose spiritual balance is upset by a bad pope or other Church problems (including the failure to call a spade a spade), there is another Catholic who is distressed by criticism of that same pope or of the Church generally.

With respect to this reason—that is, the difficulty of striking the right balance—please note that scandal can be given either by calling attention to a problem of which someone was happily unaware, or by encouraging delight in those who, already aware of the problems, are not only relieved but somewhat gleeful to see a bright light shining on the deficiencies they abhor. Where criticism is concerned, there is a very fine line between, on the one hand, providing spiritual encouragement and reinforcement of the faith, and, on the other hand, inducing a sense of delighted vindication in the reader because he or she was right in thinking ill of the pope (or the Church generally) in this matter that has now been laid bare.

Now, I said there were two reasons. I at least intend in each essay to emphasize a spiritual solution involving our own Christian responsibility (in which I find the “hope”), rather than focus only on the particular personal or more broadly cultural guilt. And the reason is that this opens a greater possibility for a positive outcome. There is no reasonable likelihood that anything I write will cause a major Church figure to recognize his error or sin, repent of it, and do significantly better going forward. But all of our prayers and sacrifices, our improved understanding and deepening commitment to Christ and the Church might have such a result and—even if not—will strengthen the Church in its own way. For it is not by gleeful vindication but by joyful suffering that, as St. Paul says, we make up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church (Col 1:24).

Moreover, whenever I am writing, I pray and therefore hope that this process of renewal will begin with myself. Each time I think and write about something, I am trying also to deepen and increase my own commitment to the Catholic understanding of that thing. If growth in holiness—growth in grace, growth in friendship with Christ—is not uppermost in my mind when I write, then I am in that instance failing in my vocation as the Catholic writer I claim to be. The same rule applies to those in my audience who aspire to be genuinely Catholic readers.

The Triumph of the Cross

Now, let me consider again these two reasons: First, the difficulty in striking the right balance for readers; second, the likelihood of a positive result. Clearly, it is to maximize the latter that any writer ought to pay close attention to the former. Stop and think, dear reader, how much easier my situation is than your own. There you are, living in the world, collaborating and interacting with many other people who (more likely than not) do not share your faith, suffering constantly under artificial restrictions on your witness, and frustrated by the frequent deficiencies of those you look up to in the Church (and even, perhaps, by the deficiencies of writers and podcasters on the very website you consult—please God—for positive reinforcement in the Faith).

And here am I, sitting at my desk, staring at my computer screen, isolated from real contact with Just About Everybody, and therefore free to say (write) whatever I please, post it, and face no serious consequences—unless we do our job badly enough to lose the generous support of our readers and listeners. And maybe I can even increase our ratings simply by giving readers more vicarious satisfaction by sensationally denouncing the weaknesses of our ecclesiastical leaders, or by claiming that we have finally discovered the sure-fire solution to Ousting the Unfaithful and Making Things Right. There have always been those who operate in this way.

Still, don’t get me wrong. Some of our staff are capable of applying the sure swift kick to better effect than I am. And sometimes I forget myself, or I decide that being a little more pointed (or perhaps abandoning hope for the situation) is justified. But a large part of what I am saying here is that, whatever our differences in style, all who labor here own mirrors. And one of the requirements of working on is knowing what a mirror is for, and examining what we see there.

Walt Kelly, the creator of the Pogo comic strip, coined the phrase, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. He was humorously paraphrasing the American officer Oliver Hazard Perry who, following a naval engagement in 1813, sent the message “We have met the enemy and he is ours.” But Kelly’s rephrasing had a point, though the apostle James put it somewhat differently:

For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. [Jas 1:23-24]

I try very hard to remember what I see in the mirror, and it makes me fearful of writing things that too easily justify my own rectitude while patting the like-minded on the back. I am not personally sanguine but I am, in Christ, hopeful that we in the Church can struggle forward. I like to think, in saying this, that I have not missed the point—but further comments are most welcome!

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: jreborn20006525 - Sep. 17, 2022 10:47 AM ET USA

    I have always appreciated the balanced commentary I find here on (and few other places). There is enough hopelessness in the world and almost never enough nuance. Keep up the great and inspirational work.

  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - Sep. 08, 2022 10:57 PM ET USA

    I admire your perspicaciousness.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 08, 2022 5:24 PM ET USA

    CorneliusG: It is true that there are drawbacks to every system. But the world is full of open-comment websites and social media which expose people to the rants of the ignorant and the anti-Catholic. We studied this early in our history and found that only about 10% of our users are interested in commenting or reading comments at all. To avoid constant anti-Catholic baiting, we accept comments only from those who demonstrate interest and commitment to Catholic principles by donating at least $5 per year (a shocking imposition!). And we exercise a highly-valued editorial function by posting only those comments which we believe have intellectual and spiritual merit, and will enrich our community. The vast majority of our users and supporters appreciate this restraint, which differs so markedly from what they must encounter elsewhere. This is part of our mission to provide good Catholic service and a sound Catholic environment.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Sep. 07, 2022 5:10 PM ET USA

    Jeff, a huge problem with your website is that, because you require a $$ contribution to permit comment, you only attract folks that already agree with you. The result is a Combox full of sycophancy. Or, if the commenter is not adequately obsequious, you don't publish their comments.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Sep. 07, 2022 7:51 AM ET USA

    When does hope (not the theological virtue) become foolishness or a refusal to acknowledge the reality before us? When a well repeatedly yields foul water, is it wise (or even reasonable) to hope that the next drink will be pure? Better to avoid that well altogether.

  • Posted by: till8774 - Sep. 06, 2022 8:44 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Jeff, for this balanced article, for explaining clearly why you (and all of us!) should try to maintain hope, and not viciously condemn others. You remind us what all the saints and Christ himself has taught us: we won't answer for someone else, but for our own actions, and that we have to help the world by becoming saints ourselves!

  • Posted by: martinheron834431 - Sep. 06, 2022 5:51 PM ET USA

    Well said brother.