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How to explain Pope Francis without making things worse

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 08, 2019

Every seriously committed Catholic who is paying attention to Pope Francis has to figure out a way to deal with him both in their own minds, and in speaking about the Church with others. There may be as many different approaches to this problem as there are serious Catholics, but there are certainly several broad categories of response. This is evident from the reactions we receive to our own commentaries on contemporary Church problems.

Insofar as my own approach meets with criticism, it comes primarily in two forms. First, there are those who believe any criticism of a pope is too much criticism, a failure in our filial duty. Second, there are those who believe any acknowledgement of good things Francis has said and done is a betrayal of the Faith, either because the good things are only apparent (not real) or because recognizing them could lead the faithful to trust Francis more than they should.

I would not go as far as Mercutio did in Romeo and Juliet when he cried, “A pox on both your houses!” But I do think that both of these approaches betray an insufficient commitment to the truth, because their proponents prefer either the deification or the demonization of what is merely human. I understand the goal of each side to adopt a strategy which best serves the Church, but I am firmly convinced that no strategy which deliberately excludes some portion of the truth can be considered an authentic Catholic strategy at all.

In this world, we are called to struggle in the midst of an all-too-human confusion that will not be dispelled this side of Heaven. Pretending that things are simpler than they are is actually a dereliction of Christian duty, and so an obstacle to grace. Moreover, it is always necessary to point out that the Church has all the Divine protections she needs. If any Pope invokes his Petrine authority to teach what we think is an error in faith or morals to the whole Church, then we will know that we are mistaken about it. Short of that, we can live with confusion, but we can only live with it in a spiritually fruitful way if we are willing to acknowledge its full dimensions. Again, we may not deify or demonize the human dimensions of anything.

Leadership tactics

Most Church leaders—and the vast majority of serious Catholics with whom I have communicated—have come up with more subtle ways to deal with what we may honestly term the “Francis crisis”. I mentioned this in my recent painful review of Cardinal Sarah’s latest book (Robert Cardinal Sarah’s dilemma, and our own). There is no need to note again the various ways in which leading clerics have attempted to navigate through this confusion, but I did receive some complaints for explaining that Cardinal Sarah’s own approach is a bit over the top for me.

Cardinal Sarah chooses to take a few good things that Pope Francis has said in order to maintain the fiction that the Pope has in effect written the blueprint for the Cardinal’s campaign for authentic Catholic renewal. I get this; everybody has to deal with the problem somehow. But it still reduces my interest in Cardinal Sarah’s work, even though nearly everything he says or writes in his own voice is brilliantly and deeply Catholic. Nor do I particularly like the approach of those clerics who feel compelled to make public pronouncements to the whole Church on one question after another as if to dispel confusion in a way their office does not permit, in effect engaging in an effort to preempt the Pope.

Again, though, I get it; I really do. But I think that this last approach can be taken better by the laity, who can shed light on many difficult questions without being perceived to invoke a non-existent ecclesiastical authority. In fact, it is doubtless this very reality which leads the vast majority of good priests to get on with their jobs in accordance with their own proper apprehension of Catholic truth and spirituality, handling deeper discussions about Pope Francis privately, and seeking to avoid the unnecessary introduction of the more problematic points. I think we would all be amazed, in fact, at how seldom it is necessary to introduce the “Francis problem” into the duties of daily priestly ministry.

Privately, of course, each person can be confused, annoyed, angry and occasionally relieved by turns, just as he or she can pause to explain an issue, make important distinctions, express disgust or sorrow, laugh out loud, or resort to prayer, again by turns. I hope that most of us do this, in fact, because I think it is the most honest approach to a very imperfect human situation. But those who have any kind of public persona are still going to have to choose an honest interpretive framework. They must occupy some position on this spectrum in order to avoid adding to the confusion by their own vacillation.

This does not mean that they cannot offer different kinds of responses by turns, but it does mean that they must strive for a consistency of analysis: justifying each type of response in terms of the nature of the particular incident set before them; exhibiting a deeper understanding of the whole problem which leads to reasoned commentary, without emotional outbursts or waffling. I would add here that anybody who talks to anybody else has, in that sense, a public persona. Therefore, regardless of the mood of the moment, all should maintain a kind of consistent wisdom—a wisdom that fully admits all aspects of the truth.

Simpler solutions

Some people have discovered useful ways of looking at the situation. It is perfectly possible, in the vast majority of discussions, to take the position that Pope Francis is extraordinarily careless in his speech, and actually tends to see it as beneficial to stir up confusion to get people thinking more deeply about complex subjects. Other people have maintained—with significant credibility, it seems to me—that Pope Francis is psychologically troubled, and that this accounts for some of the back-and-forth swings we notice in his pontificate, and some of the ill-advised words and actions—along with an apparent difficulty in focusing clearly on issues and resolving them in an orderly way.

Still others emphasize the Pope’s Western liberal sympathies. He is far more comfortable with people who are more oriented toward the diversity of human persons than to the consistency of Catholic thought. He is preoccupied with the hope of attracting people to the Gospel without any negative judgments concerning anything but rigidity. In this sense, Francis can frequently be explained as somewhat culture-bound, yet not to the point of going nearly as far as many of his friends clearly do. Even as he stirs things up, he returns to the basic Catholic truths of redemption and conversion again and again in his homilies.

Finally, many note that the Pope’s odd combination of weaknesses tend to leave him saddled with bizarre interpretative frameworks. The conviction that criticism of his pontificate arises primarily from, and is orchestrated primarily by, American business interests is so ludicrous that it cannot be credited outside a certain ideological bubble. Interestingly, the same ideological bubble apparently leads the Pope to believe that he can futureproof the Church for himself by raising third-world bishops to the cardinalate. The assumption seems to be that to live in the third world is to accept the Western liberal-progressive narrative of the third world, an assumption which is demonstrably false.

Conclusion

Here at CatholicCulture.org we run the same risks as anybody else, but we tend to see more value in the simpler explanations that are rooted not in any cosmic crisis but in the particular, concrete human dimensions of the problem. We are not afraid to call attention to the difficulties posed by this pontificate, but we hope and pray that we engage this attention with a greater balance of truth than many others. We know that even great popes have weaknesses and even poor popes have strengths.

We do not know what only God can know, but we have an absolute trust in the very specific promises of Christ. We strive for well-founded analysis of good and evil, truth and falsity, prudence and its lack. To return to the issue with which I began, we prefer to praise and blame only as the occasion demands, and not so that we might bolster our own theories. Finally, we believe that the human dimensions of every crisis, when examined in the full light of Christ, offer more than enough topics for fruitful analysis.

We do not idealize the past, nor do we expect perfection, and certainly we have no room for despair. We have no need of apocalyptic theories to explain the range of evil in both the world and the Church. We avoid convenient lines of argument that paint everyone else black and ourselves white, as if we alone embody the full solution to every problem. We try to remember that each day’s own trouble is sufficient (Mt 6:34), and believe that it is precisely amid the day’s own trouble that we are called to become holy.

I will close with one final thought: I am far more afraid of myself—yes, and of my own pronouncements—than I am of the evils which surround me. Try as I might, I find that I cannot ignore the words of Psalm 69:

O God, you know my folly;
    the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me,
    O Lord God of hosts;
Let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me,
    O God of Israel.

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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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Today 3:38 PM ET USA

    Bveritas2322: I debated whether to simply delete your comment, but have let it stand as an object lesson. The accusations it contains are utterly unprovable, even by cherry-picking your favorite quotes; they cannot possibly be proven from any fair reading of even this Pope's worst statements. Despite theological concern about some of the Pope's positions, it is both absurd and unfair to categorize anything Francis has said as "implicitly atheistic denials of immutable truth and moral absolutes". Nor has Pope Francis ever shown indifference to unborn children; he has in fact condemned abortion repeatedly, and returns to the topic with reasonable frequency. His emphasis on other topics does not change that. I feel compelled to observe that this is precisely the kind of crazy talk which arises out of (a) hatred of the subject (that is, the person); and (b) overconfidence in our own interpretations of all the complex questions involved. Perhaps I should also mention that in a similarly wayward comment on evolution, which you erroneously posted in reference to this article (and so I deleted it), you asserted that evolution has been categorically disproved by competent scientists. But in fact, there is probably not a single scientist in the world, even among those who think the theory of evolution is false, who judges that it has been categorically disproved. This is typical of your constant assertion of whatever you are disposed to believe as absolutely true. You cannot continue safely down such a path. We are all tempted at times to let venom masquerade as thought, and we have all fallen (or at least I have). But each of us must pray fervently and regularly that we do not fall into that sin ever again.

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Today 12:01 PM ET USA

    This is such a thoughtful piece, Jeff, and I'm so grateful to have been able to read (and re-read!) it. I'm sure there will be many occasions when I'll need to read it yet again to recover my bearings -- which I'm ashamed to say I lose all too easily when it comes to Pope Francis.

  • Posted by: martydoucette4721 - Today 9:29 AM ET USA

    A little wordy, but still an excellent perspective. Thank you.

  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Nov. 10, 2019 5:48 PM ET USA

    Catholic Culture website has helped me immensely these past few years to navigate all this. I agree that sometimes, we just need to be willing to live with "an all-too-human confusion that will not be dispelled this side of heaven." I don't have a degree in theology, and I have never believed that at all times I MUST be able to completely figure everything out theologically. What's essential is that we never deliberately dissent against definitive Church teaching.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Nov. 10, 2019 3:57 PM ET USA

    Francis has made implicitly atheistic denials of immutable truth and moral absolutes while promoting a Kasperian belief in process theology, the notion that God is still in the process of learning how to be God. He has demonstrated a depraved indifference to the fate of the unborn whose destruction he facilitates by indirectly praising and supporting instrumentalities of abortion around the world, not to mention his recent cold-bloodedness to children buried alive. Sounds pretty demonic to me.

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Nov. 09, 2019 6:05 PM ET USA

    "[T]hose clerics who feel compelled to make public pronouncements to the whole Church on one question after another as if to dispel confusion in a way their office does not permit..."?? Doesn't it behoove clerics to uphold historical Catholic truth even more than laymen, if they see it called into question? Otherwise, I applaud & strive to emulate your efforts to be just & balanced. Very good article.

  • Posted by: tlewerenz7841 - Nov. 09, 2019 4:35 PM ET USA

    Thank you a million times over for the wisdom you have received. What you have said is, I believe, right on target, a level head amidst a whirlwind of crises in the Church and the world. A calm steady, eye on reality and how to deal with it is the way to be out while within the overwhelming realities of life on planet earth.

  • Posted by: SPM - Nov. 09, 2019 3:58 PM ET USA

    I will add a third possibility: Words that are meant for different parts of the world. I will go back to my seminary days. I was told to be a little less studious and to have a better balance with physical exercise. Another was told essentially the opposite. This doesn't indicate confusion, but rather different particular situations. What is new is a very different form of media coverage that tends to imply that words addressed to a particular locale are taken as applying to everyone.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 09, 2019 11:20 AM ET USA

    I am very surprised to see people still getting hung up on the evolution question, considering it does not and never has undermined what Catholics are obliged to believe. It is completely unnecessary--as Pope Pius XII made clear many years ago, and as Pope St. John Paul II reiterated in far greater depth--to deny evolution in order to "save the faith". That itself is a huge category mistake. The question of evolution must be evaluated entirely on scientific grounds; there is no objection to it based on Revelation or Church teaching. Differing scientific opinions are possible, but it is a mistake to argue for one or the other as if sound Faith depends on it.

  • Posted by: not applicable - Nov. 08, 2019 6:47 PM ET USA

    Thank you very much for that.