Catholic World Report
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September 28, 2015
As the Synod of Bishops approaches, Catholics are faced with contradictory perceptions and pressing questions about Francis' longterm goals
Pope Francis walks near an image of the Holy Family during the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

As I watched coverage of the papal visit to the U.S. and waded through the steady—if wildly uneven—stream of articles about the same, I began to wonder: "A month from now, after the Synod, how might perceptions of this visit and this pope be revisited and revised?" It is a question that goes beyond the level of a curious thought exercise. By the end of October we will, I think, have a far clearer understanding of exactly how radical this pontificate is—or is not. 

I purposely use the word "radical" since it is, by my entirely unscientific gauge, the most used adjective for this pope and his pontificate. To hear some pundits tell it, Francis is the first pope to walk, talk, hug babies, and chew gum at the same time. Nearly everything he does (or doesn't do) or says (or doesn't say) is construed as radical, unprecedented, unique, unusual, and new. It's an approach worth reflecting on for a moment because for it dominates how so many people view and interpret Francis' actions and words. 

A fine example of this breathless approach is found in the handsome coffee table book Pope Francis and the New Vatican, published a few weeks ago by National Geographic. Take note of the hyperbolic quality of this descriptive copy:

Since his ascent to the papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has electrified the world and infused the Vatican with unprecedented energy. ... The Vatican finds the pope to be a paradox. Known as the “available pope,” a contradiction in terms, he is hailed by the press as a reformer, a radical and a revolutionary. Those close to him in Rome say he is all of these things, and yet none of them. The answer to the question reverberating around the world remains a mystery: Will Pope Francis change the Vatican, or will the Vatican change him? ... Timely and poignant, POPE FRANCIS AND THE NEW VATICAN reveals this spiritual revolutionary through a new lens. 

Other words that make regular appearances in the book are "change", "revolution", "contradictory" (as in Francis' "seemingly contradictory subtleties..."), "new", "remarkable", and—well, you get the picture. And if you want actual pictures, the book is loaded with them: beautiful, exceptional photos, as one expects to find in a National Geographic book. But what is also remarkable, besides the regular use of "remarkable", is a deep but unaware thread of incongruity and contradiction in the effusive essays, all written by Robert Draper. Writing about the early months of Francis' pontificate, Draper recounts how the Pope had said to a small group of visiting friends: "I really need to start making changes right now": 

To them, his remarkable sentiments were both remarkable and thoroughly unsurprising: remarkable, because to many observers—some delighted, some discomfited—Pope Francis had already changed seemingly everything, seemingly overnight. 

Draper then states: "No one saw him coming; perhaps even those cardinals who voted for him did not know what they were getting." Of course, anyone who has read the far more detailed account in Austen Ivereigh's The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope know that the St. Gallen group—aka, the "radical 'mafia' reformist group opposed to Benedict XVI—had a pretty good sense of what they wanted and hoped to achieve in pushing for Bergoglio's election. The so-called reformisti (reformers), which included Cardinals Martini, Danneels, Kasper, Lahmann, and Murphy-O'Connor, "wished to be credible in a pluralist society", notes Ivereigh, "wanted greater freedom of action in applying church norms to local situations", and "preferred to keep some things open, believing that, in matters of ecclesiastical discipline, rather than unchanging doctrines of faith and morals, the local Church should help the universal Church discern the need for changes in pastoral practices." 

So, yes, many of the cardinals did know what they are getting. Of course, Draper seems intent on a sort of secularized hagiography, one that is not always consistent. Thus, later, he writes:

Yet the likelihood that Pope Francis will radically alter Catholic doctrine approximates the chances that he will ever advocate violent revenge. What seems instead to rivet audiences throughout the world ... is a message more basic than speech itself. It is the very fact of Francis: the blinding whiteness of his papal aura reimagined as an approachable simplicity. It is the fact of His Holiness countering the adoration of the masses with the humblest of dares: "Pray for me".

Indeed, that brings to mind this powerful papal remark:

One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves. “Feed my sheep”, says Christ to Peter, and now, at this moment, he says it to me as well. Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word, the nourishment of his presence, which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament. My dear friends – at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more – in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Let us pray for one another, that the Lord will carry us and that we will learn to carry one another.

Of course, that was Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily at his inauguration Mass. (Strangely enough, he was rarely described by journalists and pundits as "a model of vulnerability" or humility.) And who were "the wolves"? Did they include members of same red-robed "mafia" that apparently worked for so many years to undermine him? It surely seems so.

"More than any public figure in recent memory," claims Draper, "Pope Francis evinces a mesmerizing gift for plain yet penetrating speech." That, I suggest, is debatable. Still, there were some good moments in the various addresses and homilies given by Francis while in the U.S. Referring to religious freedom in his address at the White House, Francis told President Obama: “All are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” He later made an unplanned visit to a house of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the women's religious who are being bullied by the Obama administration for their refusal to put coins in the culture of death coffers. (Obama, apparently unmoved by the papal speech, last night reiterated that the Reign of Gay trumps any and all religious freedoms.)

Addressing the United Nations, the Pope renounced “ideological colonization” and, speaking of care for creation, said that “defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” And speaking in Philadelphia, at the Independence Hall, he stated, "Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families." And: 

Our religious traditions remind us that, as human beings, we are called to acknowledge an Other, who reveals our relational identity in the face of every effort to impose “a uniformity to which the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us” (M. de Certeau).

In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.

Of course, there was nothing new or radical in those statements, as good and necessary as they were. Less than four years ago, Benedict XVI told the American bishops that

it is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.

Thus, even Francis' remark in his in-flight interview about conscientious objections—"I can say the conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right."—is hardly unique. Yet, considering recent events in the U.S., it is a notable statement. But, so far, it has been entirely ignored by the mainstream media; I suspect that if Benedict had made the remark yesterday, the headline would be: "Pope Supports Kim Davis; Stumps for Homophobic Conservative Troublemakers". (As I once pointed out, media bias is not evidence of a conspiracy but the symptom of a particular culture.)

The puzzle is not found in Francis' clear statements (even if those remarks are sometimes ignored), but in his other statements and in what he doesn't say. Why, asked Phil Lawler, were Francis' "objections to conservative stands ... clear and direct, while his criticism of liberals subtle and oblique. Why?" Lawler further pondered:

Some conservatives have protested that the Pope never mentioned abortion. It’s true that the word does not appear in his speech, but when the Pope reminded legislators that “you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness of God on every human face,” no one should have missed the message. If anyone did, he came back to it a few minutes later, speaking of “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

The messages were there, evident to anyone who was ready to listen to them. But why did the Pope approach these topics indirectly, when he had dove straight into other political topics?

Lawler posits the logical theory that Francis was following the advice he had given to the bishops: "Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor." Yet Francis has hardly been shy about employing strong and critical language that could well be understand as harsh, even divisive. There is, dare I say, a sort of passive-aggressive quality about this papacy, both in rhetoric and emphasis, that is, yes, remarkable. 

For example, a September 23rd National Review Online piece noted: "Pope Francis praised America’s Roman Catholic church for its 'unfailing commitment' to the pro-life cause on Wednesday, saying it was 'the primary reason' for his visit to the country." Then, the following day, the same author reported:

Pope Francis focused more on the abolition of the death penalty than abortion as he urged Congress to protect every human life in his address this morning. The pontiff made only one oblique reference to abortion during his speech, urging lawmakers to consider the Golden Rule when making policy. ... The pope’s light touch on abortion marked a change in emphasis from his remarks to the assembled bishops of the United States yesterday. “I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the Church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit,” he said on Wednesday.

Was it just a case of different audiences, different speeches, different emphasis? Perhaps. But I, for one, am increasingly weary of the push-and-pull devices that—unwittingly or otherwise—seems to be a staple of Francis' actions and speech. I'm not surprised that Francis pushed for an end to capital punishment (so did John Paul II), but keep in mind that in 2014 there were 35 inmates executed in the U.S., while there were over one million abortions—and none of those innocent babies had a trial, a lawyer, an appeal, or a court date. 

Despite all of the overblown, even ridiculous, talk of the "Francis Effect" and the "Francis Revolution", there is quite often a deep ambiguity about what it involves and to what end it is ordered. By "end" I am referring, in large part, to what Francis intends to do or pursue during the Synod and its aftermath. The conventional wisdom is that Francis is drawing people back to the Church, throwing open the doors to those who are repulsed by (pick one) doctrine, culture wars, sex abuse scandals, emphasis on morality, hypocrisy, lack of love, lack of mercy, and so forth. However, many of those non-Catholics who profess admiration for Francis show little or no interest in the Catholic Faith. For some, it seems appparent, Francis is an agreeable personality or celebrity. Mollie Hemingway, a Lutheran, remarks:

But when you look at this Francis Effect — not measurable in pews but in sentimental pieties, emphasis on “tolerance” and, always, always, more and more dialogue, you’d be forgiven if you immediately thought of the Episcopal Church or a similar church body.

It would explain a bit about why the media is so suddenly friendly to a pope, an office it has battled against for many years. As Ross Douthat warned “sometimes the enthusiasm is just a sign that the world thinks that it’s about to succeed in converting you.”

It would also explain the lack of change in actual church participation. To people outside an active church life, that may seem like no big deal. To the traditional Christian, life is centered around gathering the body of believers around Holy Communion and the preaching of God’s Word. It’s how we’re forgiven for our many sins and how we learn how to forgive others. It’s where we receive strengthening of faith. In this regard, attendance at a particular church is a very important measurement of spiritual health.

To be clear, it's not Francis' fault that Journalist Smith or Pundit Jones cannot control their excitement, nor harness their obvious but confused enthusiasm. However, there are reasons that no one thought Benedict XVI was going to loosen disciplines or modify beliefs relating to marriage, cohabitation, and homosexuality, but many think Francis might do just that, in some small but real way. The Pope's visit to the U.S. was nice, and it had many good moments, full of celebration and joy. The coming few weeks, however, promise something different, even very different.

National Geographic wonders, "Will Pope Francis change the Vatican, or will the Vatican change him?" The better question is this: "Will Pope Francis uphold and defend Church teaching, or will the confusion deepen?" 

About the Author
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Carl E. Olson

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, "Chronicles", and other publications.

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