On Pope Francis: Getting our heads out of the sand

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 10, 2015

Every pope is controversial, but not all are controversial in the same quarters. You may recall how controversial (indeed, how annoying and even appalling) Pope John Paul II was to all those who aspired to worldly sophistication (and to schismatic Traditionalists). How they loved to denigrate the unsophisticated pope from Poland! You may also recall how controversial Pope Benedict was to those who distrust ecclesiastical discipline. Beware the German Shepherd!

Every few weeks (or perhaps every few days), Pope Francis says something that annoys or even appalls those who like their Catholicism neat and tidy. Pope Francis seems to enjoy not only shaking things up (which he has admitted) but speaking colloquially, and therefore with less theological and pastoral precision than might otherwise be the case. My readers know that I don’t think this is nearly as dangerous as many do, nor do I think Francis is attempting to push the Church in an unacceptable direction.

Maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, so I’ll restate my opinion in a single paragraph and move on. I don’t think Francis thinks in the categories of left and right, liberal and conservative, that so many Western Catholics use as a kind of ecclesiastical shorthand to categorize conflicts over doctrine, liturgy and moral principles. Rather, I think Francis takes Catholic faith and morals for granted, but is really fed up with clericalism and formalism (call it systemic rigidity or riskless ministry) which prevents the Church (in her members) from being profoundly evangelical and constantly engaged in sacrificial service to those who are materially, morally and spiritually poor. This does lead to misunderstandings, but those misunderstandings are at least half due to our own inadequate categories of reflection.

Again, maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong. Either way, the result among conservative Catholics is surpassingly strange: Many people who regard themselves as in possession of the fullest, deepest and securest form of the Catholic faith are perpetually in a spiritual panic. When it comes to the Faith and the Church, they think the sky is falling.

But the first principle of the Faith and the Church is that the Catholic sky cannot fall. Thus we perceive a massive disconnect. It calls into question our spiritual self-knowledge.

A Case in Point

Today we posted a news story covering Pope Francis’ blessing of the British youth who were gathered for a Flame 2 Conference in London. The message was delivered by the Apostolic Nuncio, who quoted from the Pope’s January address to youth in the Philippines:

In the challenge of love, God shows up with surprises.... So let yourselves be surprised by God: Don't be afraid of surprises, afraid that they will shake you up. They make us insecure but they change the direction we are going in. True love makes you "burn life", even at the risk of coming up empty-handed. Think of Saint Francis: he left everything, he died with empty hands, but, with a full heart.... Let yourselves be surprised by God’s love, then go out and burn life….

Here the Pope’s passionate rejection of mere formalism is evident. The emphasis is on spiritual surprise, on the risk of insecurity, on openness to a change in direction, on a Christian passion that “burns” through life. This is quintessential Francis—and it is enough to give a “conservative” Catholic a bad case of the shakes.

Once again, my opinion is that this is mostly our problem, not the Pope’s. Therefore, when I hear endless criticism of every word out of the Holy Father’s mouth, and every act or non-act of his pontifical administration, by those who claim to be supremely knowledgeable and strong in their Faith, I am reminded of the axiom that orthodoxy and spiritual maturity are not the same thing.

Another Way to Process the Pope

It does not really matter if my opinion of the Pope is right or wrong. Plainly, it is a personal Christian responsibility to reflect on what our Supreme Pastor says and to make a constant effort to use what he says in a positive way, to examine and enrich our own spiritual lives. There is, of course, no harm and much good in praying for the Holy Father, explaining his words to others in the context of the overall mind of the Church, and making our concerns known to him in respectful ways.

But constant public criticism of the Pope, in which we put the worst possible interpretation on his words and actions, is more than merely scandalous and corrosive. It very often reflects a dogged determination to lead an unexamined life. Do we conservatives think this failing is restricted to culture-bound liberals? Frankly, it is a sign of spiritual immaturity for any of us to yelp each time a pope makes us uncomfortable, stubbornly refusing at least to try to penetrate the spiritual point he is making, so that we might apply it to our own lives.

This tendency is so marked that sometimes Pope Francis is excoriated simply for paraphrasing Christ. “Who am I to judge?” asks Francis. And, oh!, the outcry. But those who complain should not be able to read Matthew 7:1-5 without being stung by Our Lord’s use of the word “hypocrite”.

I already hear some readers saying “but, but, but”. Because of confusion, there will always be “buts”, and some of them will be legitimate. Nonetheless, a mature Christian will always seek to extract good from the Pope’s comments on the assumption that good is what he intends. The opposite assumption—applied to anyone without significant evidence—already represents a spiritual failure on the part of the listener. The bottom line is that, if we love God, we have not only the responsibility but the power to receive all things in a way that enables them to work together unto good (Rm 8:28).

We have a standing joke in my household. When I express an opinion about Pope Francis, my wife asks: “How long are you going to keep your head in the sand?” She is quoting my critics, who continually ask me this question. But I am convinced the shoe belongs on the other foot.

The first rule of Christ—and therefore of Catholicism—is that constant self-examination is needed to recognize and cast off the idols we make of our own conceptions of God. I read too many people who seem unacquainted with this wellspring of grace. Whatever may be said of the “real” Pope Francis, responding to his words first as an impetus to self-examination in Christ is a far, far better way.

In any case, the sky is not falling, and only the spiritually immature talk, write and act as if it is. There is certainly legitimate work to do. But Our Lord has already rebuked us for being “anxious and troubled about many things” (Lk 10:42).

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: Randal Mandock - Mar. 13, 2015 12:44 AM ET USA

    The issue is not the words that Pope Francis used, but how they would be received by the audience of journalists and by their audiences. As pointed out below, it is the duty of the pope and all bishops to judge wisely. This form of judgment is most likely the form received by the uncatechized, i.e., by those who do not equate "judgment" with "condemnation to hell." The anticipated presence of even one uncatechized hearer in the audience should be sufficient cause to provide adequate context.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Mar. 12, 2015 9:58 AM ET USA

    I have always felt I personally, understood Pope Francis when he asked "who am I to judge?" After all, the question was preceded by the inference that someone was attempting to make avoid sinning. I've never been worried about my reaction. I was, and still am, worried about the reactions of those who didn't connect the two statements. I will always believe it is the responsibility of the Holy Father to teach clearly the full truth entrusted to him, give up his enjoyment of "shaking things up"

  • Posted by: lak321 - Mar. 12, 2015 12:40 AM ET USA

    GymK, good point. So we need to work on trust. The gates of hell, etc. Thanks for that.

  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Mar. 11, 2015 3:56 PM ET USA

    So, did the Holy Spirit check out at the last conclave?

  • Posted by: garedawg - Mar. 11, 2015 10:36 AM ET USA

    Who was it, St. Catherine of Sienna or St. Teresa of Avila, who admonished the Pope? All I know, is that I'm no St. Catherine or St. Teresa!

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Mar. 11, 2015 2:46 AM ET USA

    Let us pray for Pope Francis to pursue clarity and pray for each other that we obtain understanding.

  • Posted by: Canonigo Regular - Mar. 11, 2015 12:30 AM ET USA

    Reliable sources report that some prelates manipulated the Synod, and that this dishonestly influenced both the interim and final reports. Most of those prelates were appointed directly by the pope. Now the prelates say that the pope knew about these tactics beforehand. I know nothing of this personally, so "who am I to judge?" Is this just another innocent papal shake-up? Objectively speaking, manipulating a Church Synod is a grave sin against the Holy Spirit. What am I to think?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 10, 2015 9:14 PM ET USA

    I think I could say that "I" understand "him" (the Pope), because I tend more to the "charismatic" and less to "the traditional...." but I am STILL a Roman Catholic and NOT a protestant, and I appreciate the wisdom of the Catholic way of "doing things..." "Who is 'he' to judge...?" I can seem to understand that in a certain context, but "he" IS after all "the Pope..." and in another sense he MUST judge, like situations like the LCWR and the homosexual sub-culture within the American Jesuits...

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Mar. 10, 2015 8:27 PM ET USA

    I agree with EVERYTHING you wrote, BUT, the objections raised could be from folks who feel they were "burned" following Vat II. The documents were good but the "interpretations" we're radical, & the Bishops in charge were the radicals! When Pope Francis says something "different" than text book, the Trads get nervous. This is a lack of trust. The trusted Bishops and priests in the 70's & 80's left us with liturgical abuse and child abuse lawsuits. I think a lack of trust is today's main problem.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 10, 2015 5:58 PM ET USA

    We must always be confident in Christ. The mystical kingdom on earth is the Church. She is our treasure. It is permissible to believe this; it is even necessary to believe this. By baptism we are heirs to the treasure and we're family. Thus, a statement like "my opinion is that this is mostly our problem, not the Pope’s" is problematic. Further, I would argue that it's impossible. In charity and in truth it must be the Holy Father's. Our problems are his. Thanks for your candid essay.

  • Posted by: Elan - Mar. 10, 2015 4:58 PM ET USA

    Thank you!