Taking a risk with Pope Francis; avoiding a risk to ourselves
I think it is time to remind ourselves once again of what we might call the other side of the Pope Francis coin. Back in 2013, when we were first adjusting ourselves to this Pope’s “all over the map” style of leadership, including his apparent lack of doctrinal precision and his waffling in matters of discipline, I paused in my own litany of complaints to suggest ways to recognize the values implicit in his particular way of proclaiming the gospel and offering the mercy of God. A little later, after Amoris Laetitia was promulgated in 2016—and given the confusion and conflict following its reception—the shortcomings of this pontificate became even more apparent, and I myself grew somewhat less willing to call attention to the Pope’s virtues, or to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But perhaps it is time to take another step back, if for no other reason than to avoid hardening ourselves into positions which make it no longer possible for us to be open to those aspects of the good in this pope which are too frequently overshadowed by his shortcomings. I’ll begin by reminding readers of two of my essays in 2013 which encouraged a greater sensitivity, on the part of myself and other so-called “conservative” or “orthodox” Catholics, to what I am here calling the other side of the coin:
- Five Reasons to Think Differently about Pope Francis (9/24/2013)
- Reading Francis: The Furor Continues (10/2/2013)
The abuse scandal can be instructive here
One of the problems that many of us face in responding to Pope Francis is that, as the frustration increases, the willingness to recognize counter-arguments diminishes. Let me give just one example: I would like Pope Francis to conduct a thorough, public investigation of the network of blindness and collusion that led to widespread homosexual abuse in the clergy in the 1970s and 1980s, and the extreme tardiness in effecting a root-and-branch removal of this blight over the past thirty years. I yearn for conclusive identification and punishment of high-ranking clerics who participated in or covered up such abuse.
But Pope Francis (who admittedly seems as blind as our general culture in choosing his closest friends, advisers, and clerics to be promoted) has taken another tack. He has not exactly argued the position, but his approach has been something like this: “Determining exactly who is guilty of what in the past in these matters is extraordinarily difficult. Therefore, I am going to avoid as much as possible protracted investigations of who did or knew what in the worst periods of abuse. Instead I am going to concentrate the Church’s energies on ending abuse and increasing accountability going forward.”
Unpalatable as this approach is to many, there are arguments to be made in its favor. First, it really is difficult to determine guilt or innocence with precision when examining problems within a clerical culture which was in many ways seriously deficient. Second, those of us who identify as “orthodox” Catholics are not going to find that the most guilty were on one side or the other of the orthodox-heterodox divide. In one common pattern we find abusers justifying their behavior through changes to their view of moral theology and a broadening commitment to the platitudes of modern secular culture. But in another common pattern, we find abusers excusing their behavior through punctilious observance of orthodoxy, liturgical propriety, sound preaching, and all of the other requirements of priestly life. Third, it can be a distraction from the main goal to focus on exposing those who were guilty in another time and culture, especially since the pattern of abusiveness has been in steep decline now for a generation.
I’d still prefer more emphasis on exposing “who” in the clerical club were most at fault and “how” the clerical club came to be used as a cloak for such moral horror (though the latter question is pretty easy to answer in broad attitudinal terms). I also want nests of homosexual influence, in the Vatican and elsewhere, rooted out and destroyed. Therefore, let us call this essay an exercise in recognizing merits in the approach Pope Francis has chosen. I do not say he is right; I do not say he is prudent; I do not say he himself has not had a tendency to select the wrong people as his closest collaborators; but I cannot reach infallible conclusions myself either. I do not even say that I find the spiritual arguments he makes against my preferred approach to be sound. But I do say that a case can be made for his approach, and that it can at least be understood on its own terms as potentially good for the Church.
The Decalogue for Nuncios
I am referring in this essay to the almost lost art of making a sincere effort to recognize the values of Pope Francis’ vision and actions for the Church. He remains, after all, the Vicar of Christ and chief paternal figure in the Church during the course of his pontificate, however long it should last. All aspects of the pontificate, like all of creation, are encompassed in God’s Providence, and this means that we ought never to lock ourselves into a final conclusion based on our desires and experiences, a conclusion which closes us to goods which we might otherwise be able to recognize.
What brought this need to my attention again now is a simple little thing, really. I had been noticing that Francis seems to have been offering some more solid and promising statements and addresses of late, and I was actually charmed by the recent Decalogue for Nuncios that he presented to the meeting of papal representatives in Rome between June 12th and June 14th. I would urge everyone to read it.
Now, some might immediately say, “Aha, Francis stresses that ‘being the papal representative is irreconcilable with criticizing the Pope behind his back, having blogs or indeed joining groups hostile to him, to the Curia or to the Church of Rome.’ See? See! He will go to any lengths to berate those who criticize him.” But really? That’s our response?
This caution appears under commandment 5, “The nuncio is a man of the Pope”. Here are the two paragraphs which precede it:
As a papal representative, the nuncio does not represent himself, but rather Peter’s Successor, and acts on his behalf in the Church and before governments; that is, he concretizes, implements and symbolizes the Pope’s presence among the faithful and populations. It is good that in several countries the nunciature is called the “House of the Pope”.
Certainly, every person may have reservations, sympathies and antipathies, but a good nuncio cannot be a hypocrite as the representative is a conduit, or better, a bridge connecting the Vicar of Christ to the people to whom he is sent, in a specific zone, for which he is appointed and sent by the same Roman Pontiff.
Now, more generally, one thing I noticed is that this “decalogue” is a far more gentle, mature and deeply spiritual admonition by Pope Francis than were his early scalding Christmas addresses to the Curia! (But I wonder who would now think that the Curia did not deserve to be shaken out of its “more human” patterns even then.) In any case, I urge upon my readers the exercise of reading this decalogue while making every effort to think well of their Holy Father. To whet your appetite, I will list the ten points of the decalogue here:
- The nuncio is a man of God.
- The nuncio is man of the Church.
- The nuncio is a man of apostolic zeal.
- The nuncio is man of reconciliation.
- The nuncio is man of the Pope.
- The nuncio is man of initiative.
- The nuncio is a man of obedience.
- The nuncio is a man of prayer.
- The nuncio is a man of industrious charity.
- The nuncio is a man of humility.
The last point of this “law” is actually the famous Litany of Humility composed by the noteworthy collaborator of Pope St. Pius X, Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val.
Whatever we may think of Pope Francis’ personal character, abilities and effectiveness, we have here a concise statement of what he thinks it means to represent the Roman Pontiff to the local churches—which means we have a statement of what this pope would himself hope to represent to the Church as a whole. In some ways, the Decalogue for Nuncios is also applicable to each Catholic throughout the world.
We face a great many problems in the Church today, which is clearly in labor to emerge from the secularized culture of the West—a culture she once shaped but which has long since played too great a role in shaping her. But every problem is exacerbated by those who reject Pope Francis outright, and also by those of us who fall into the very bad habit of allowing our own judgment of his shortcomings to obscure those goods which we should also clearly recognize.
That is why I believe it is time to reflect again on how we might choose to learn from the good in Pope Francis, or at least to avoid locking ourselves into a perpetually dismissive attitude which refuses to recognize the good where it exists. The danger is a double one, which I will state in the first person: First, my own judgments are inescapably fallible, even with my best effort to put on the mind of the Church. Second, after concluding that faithful Catholics (like me!) have taken it on the chin again and again, I am always in danger of dismissing everything that comes out of the mouth of Rome.
What, then, should I conclude? Only that this is dangerously close to the reaction of a person who feels his own suffering so much that he begins to reject every word that comes from the mouth of God.
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