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 steadyif wildly unevenstream 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 isor is not.
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:
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.
words that make regular appearances in the book are "change", "revolution",
"contradictory" (as in Francis' "seemingly contradictory
subtleties..."), "new", "remarkable", andwell, 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":
them, his remarkable sentiments were both remarkable and thoroughly
unsurprising: remarkable, because to many observerssome delighted, some
discomfitedPope Francis had already changed seemingly everything,
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 groupaka, the "radical 'mafia' reformist group opposed to Benedict XVIhad 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."
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:
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:
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.)
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:
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).
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
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
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.”
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:
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.
just a case of different audiences, different speeches, different
emphasis? Perhaps. But I, for one, am increasingly weary of the
push-and-pull devices thatunwittingly or otherwiseseems 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 abortionsand none of those innocent babies had a trial, a lawyer, an appeal, or a court date.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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?"