The hyperbolic and exhausting papacy of Francis

My impression is that many Catholics are weary of the seemingly constant addresses, homilies, interviews, texts—many of which read like lectures—that come from the Holy Father

Earlier this week, the Catholic men’s reading group I’ve been meeting with for several years discussed Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si'”. There were fifteen men in attendance, including three priests, and while not everyone had been able to read the entire encyclical, it was a lively and compelling discussion. On a couple of occasions I was reminded of my October 2013 editorial, “Pope Francis: The Good, the Baffling, and the Unclear”, because it was quickly evident that the men thought the encyclical had good doses of all three stuffed inside its some 40,000 words. Many of them—including myself—thought that the strongest parts were the overtly theological and spiritual sections, notably paragraphs 228 and following. We generally agreed that the criticisms of technocratic visions of utopia, scientistic agendas, and consumerist societies were excellent. Surprisingly, most didn’t seem too put off by the passage on climate change, perhaps because it was essentially old news; they might not agree, but they weren’t too worked up over it after hearing about it ad nauseam for many months, if not longer.

Some wondered why the more theological and evangelistic sections didn’t appear earlier in the text (as they had in earlier drafts). Some questioned the pope’s understanding of markets and related matters. While I cannot speak for the entire group, it seemed to me that many of the guys were most deeply annoyed by the tone and style of the encyclical. Descriptives such as “hyperbolic” and “over-the-top” and “scolding” were used. “He repeatedly tells nations and leaders and individuals that they ought to do this, ought to do that, ought to do, do, do…” said one man, “It’s exhausting!”

Returning home, I had an e-mail from a colleague with a link to Elizabeth Scalia’s post, “Catholicism’s Future: Love and Mercy, with Scoldings”. The timing was, as they say, fortuitous. Scalia writes:

… I’m no longer interested in the “which pope is what” question. I’m frankly just tired of feeling scolded.

I love His Holiness Pope Francis, but for a while now, I have been feeling harangued by him, as he’s been harping on us to do more, and ever more, to practice mercy on the world; to welcome the stranger, to clean up the rivers, to bring about justice and peace in our time; to level the playing fields, visit the sick, and so on.

These are, of course, all very good things. You can’t argue with someone who is telling you to love the poor, or to make room in your pew for the transgendered, or to help poor kids get new opportunities, or to pay a worker what he is due.

But sometimes, when I read Pope Francis exhorting us again about the poor, or the environment, and urging people once again, to take action, to go out into the world and fix-all-of-the-things, because Jesus wants it (and yes, I’m sure Jesus does) I can’t help thinking, “but Holy Father, have mercy! Do you not know that many of us are already doing the best we can? Some of us are doing all we can to keep the family together, keep food on the table, and maybe go out to a movie once in a while.

Yes, we agree with you that excessive materialism is harmful to the spirit, but we’re really not “living large.” Some of us are commuting a total of four hours a day to our job, not to be rich — not to exploit poor people, or to oppress anyone, or to ignore anyone’s suffering; not to mindlessly keep up with ownership trends — but simply to pay the utility bills, and the taxes, and the student loans, and write the checks to support the charities we believe in, and support the parish, and get the car inspected and repaired, and keep the kids in a sport or activity, like Scouting, so they can learn some worthwhile skills.

We stumble in from work, eat something we can rustle up quickly, be “family” for a while — which is often a turbulent thing — and then around 10PM we plop down on the couch, looking to relax a little, turn on the news — and there you are, telling us to get up and go do something useful!

Scalia’s excellent post captures quite well, I think, the weariness I encounter, more and more, in a lot of Catholics. They are not “Woe is me!”, but they are certainly tired of the seemingly constant addresses, homilies, interviews, texts—many of which read like lectures—that come from the Holy Father. And it’s not just the quantity, although that is staggering in many ways, but it is quite often the tone and approach found in many of those texts: haranguing, harping, exhorting, lecturing. It probably doesn’t help that Francis obsesses over particular points, to a degree that is, frankly, grating.

Case in point: the Vatican website returns 104 results for a search for “gossip”; of those, 96 are by Francis. But, again, it’s not the quantity alone, but the hyperbole: “Gossip kills more than weapons do” and “Gossip can also kill, because it kills the reputation of the person!” And:

The greatest danger is terrorism in religious life: it has entered, the terrorism of gossip. If you have something against a sister, go and tell her to her face. But never this terrorism, because gossip is a bomb thrown into a community and it destroys it. Unity without the terrorism of gossip.

This, I have to note, from the same man who spoke publicly—in remarks reported on numerous websites and newspapers—about a mother of seven whose pregnancy, said Francis, “is an irresponsibility”. Do public scoldings over sensitive and personal issues qualify as acts of “the terrorism of gossip”?

Personally, I gave up long ago trying to parse and explain everything that Francis says. I accept that he’s often not that adept at communicating clearly, and I’ve decided that it’s often best to be quiet—especially since there are plenty of times I really have no idea what, exactly, he is trying to say. And there are plenty of times, in reading his many addresses and texts, that I’ve thought, “Has he never thought about this? Or been told about that?”

In other words, Francis often gives the impression that he hasn’t contemplated perspectives or sides of issues that really should be considered. Granted, his time and energy is limited, but isn’t that why he has advisers and experts? For example, the breathless insistence in “Laudato Si'” that “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Okay, but can they be met with calm criticisms and measured analysis (such as that provided by Michael Severance in his CWR feature “Is Less Really More?”). Such a statement, it seems to me, is a form of straw man argument, as if the only options are (1) embrace doomsday predictions or (2) be a snarky jerk.

Recently, the Holy Father admitted, in an interview given while returning from South America, that perhaps he needs to do a better job of thinking about important matters that are, for whatever reason, overlooked:

Ludwig Ring-Eifel, (CIC): Holy Father, on this trip, we’ve heard so many strong messages for the poor, also many strong, at times severe, messages for the rich and powerful, but something we’ve heard very little was a message for the middle class – that is, people who work, people who pay their taxes, “normal people.” My question is why in the magisterium of the Holy Father are there so few messages on the middle class. If there were such a message, what would it be?

Pope Francis: Thank you so much. It’s a good correction, thanks. You are right. It’s an error of mine not to think about this. I will make a comment, but not to justify myself. You’re right. I have to think a bit.

The world is polarized. The middle class becomes smaller. The polarization between the rich and the poor is big. This is true. And, perhaps this has brought me not to take account of this, no? Some nations are doing very well, but in the world in general the polarization is seen. And the number of poor is large. And why do I speak of the poor? Because they’re at the heart of the Gospel. And I always speak from the Gospel on poverty, no? It’s not that it’s sociological. Then on the middle class, there are some words that I’ve said, but a little in passing. But the common people, the simple people, the worker, that is a great value, no? But, I think you’re telling me about something I need to do. I need to do delve further into this magisterium.

I understand that one man cannot think about everything; no one expects so. But it is a startling admission (up there with Francis’ confession, in the same interview: “I have a great allergy to economic things”). And I’m even more perplexed that the pope’s advisers have apparently ignored the struggles of the ordinary, middle-class people who work, raises families, pay the taxes and, in so many ways, keep society afloat while chaos and madness swirls around. Come to think of it, last year’s Synod was supposed to address challenges to the family, but somehow ended up discussing nearly everything except fathers, mothers, children, and marriages. Yes, it’s a bit tiring and, at times, a bit troubling.

Andrea Gagliarducci, whose MondayVatican.com site has some of the most thoughtful and insightful Vatican reporting today, argues that Francis’ modus operandi reflects traditionalist thinking but a “pastoral approach” that “does not advance a given line of argument, he seeks to promote discussion.” Gagliarducci states the obvious problem: “But this attitude is risky: without a clear line, anarchy can rule.” And:

The problem is even wider. Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has put the Church in a sort of state of permanent synod. The establishment of the Council of Cardinals, along with the increasing impact of the Synod of Bishops and the use of Cardinalatial Consistories in order to promote discussion demonstrates the papal will to promote debate over needed reforms.

… On one side, there is the huge popularity of Pope Francis, his ability to convince everyone, the interest he attracts from powerful people in the world, his personal charisma. On the other side, there is the structure that requires a reform, not a revolution, but that still lives without reforms, because some players are still clamoring for a revolution.

… This problem is mirrored in the encyclical, where there are some innovations (mostly, in method), but still many teachings that accord with the Church’s tradition. … In the end, “Laudato Si” mirrors Pope Francis’ two and a half year-long pontificate, in that it is suspended among different interpretations.

As if to validate my decision, quite a while ago, to stop trying (at least publicly) to interpret and “translate” the many utterances of Francis, Gagliarducci writes:

The expectations for a revolution in the Church guided by Pope Francis were raised especially with regard to the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried. But Pope Francis’ pastoral views on the family, made explicit by this encyclical, prove for the most part that he is predominantly a traditionalist. It was predicted that the Pope was going to bring order to the Church, but the internal and external dialectics developed under his pontificate are fueling the debates more than they are leading to concrete actions.

There is everything and nothing in every description of Pope Francis, as there is everything and nothing in “Laudato Si.” And in the end there is everything and nothing in “Evangelii Gaudium,” the pastoral apostolic exhortation that Pope Francis has frequently indicated as his “Magna Charta.”

Make of it what you will. I’m not questioning the Pope’s orthodoxy, or sincerity, or innate goodness. I just know that beyond the scolding and the weariness and the frustration, there is, as Scalia notes, the reality of living, following Christ, giving witness to the Truth, and pursuing holiness. As I wrote nearly two years ago:

The bottom line, in many ways, is that the Church is not the pope’s to remake or revise or change. The role of the pope is more modest (which is not to say it is not divinely ordained or unimportant), as one pope explained not long ago: “The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path.” Yes, that pope was Francis, in Lumen fidei, his encyclical on faith.

Popes, as important as they are, come and go; the Word of God endures forever.

About Carl E. Olson 1043 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.