“Francis has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads.”

Did Saint John Paul II, in numerous addresses and major documents, not give the Church enough to ponder and unpack about the meaning of marriage, sexuality, family, the feminine genius, and so many related matters?

The September 28th edition of The New York Times contains an op-ed by Matthew Schmitz, literary editor of First Things, which poses the question “Has Pope Francis Failed?”—and then makes a succinct and pointed argument for a fairly resounding “Yes.” Schmitz’s focus is on the famous but increasingly hazy “Francis effect”:

Observers predicted that the new pope’s warmth, humility and charisma would prompt a “Francis effect” — bringing disaffected Catholics back to a church that would no longer seem so forbidding and cold. Three years into his papacy, the predictions continue. Last winter, Austen Ivereigh, the author of an excellent biography of Pope Francis, wrote that the pope’s softer stance on communion for the divorced and remarried “could trigger a return to parishes on a large scale.” In its early days, Francis’ Jesuit order labored to bring Protestants back into the fold of the church. Could Francis do the same for Catholics tired of headlines about child abuse and culture wars?

Schmitz says that perceptions “of the papacy, or at least of the pope, have improved.” Francis is, here in the U.S., more popular than his his predecessor: “Sixty-three percent of American Catholics approve of him, while only 43 percent approved of Benedict at the height of his popularity, according to a 2015 New York Times and CBS News poll. Francis has also placed a great emphasis on reaching out to disaffected Catholics.”

But, Schmitz asks, “are Catholics actually coming back?” His negative answer to that question is based on the results of a recent survey from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate suggesting “there has been no Francis effect — at least, no positive one. In 2008, 23 percent of American Catholics attended Mass each week. Eight years later, weekly Mass attendance has held steady or marginally declined, at 22 percent.”

In addition, religious observance among younger Catholics has taken a notable turn for the worse:

In 2008, 50 percent of millennials reported receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, and 46 percent said they made some sacrifice beyond abstaining from meat on Fridays. This year, only 41 percent reported receiving ashes and only 36 percent said they made an extra sacrifice, according to CARA. In spite of Francis’ personal popularity, young people seem to be drifting away from the faith.

We can also note that the attendance numbers for papal events in Rome have not been on the rise, with a precipitous drop from 2014 to 2015 in the number of people at general audiences, Angelus, and other events. Numbers, of course, only tell part of the story, and they are not, ultimately, the primary indicator of faithfulness, fidelity, and witness. But the second part of Schmitz’s essay is not about numbers, but about the specific tone, approach, and vision of Francis for the Church:

Francis is a Jesuit, and like many members of Catholic religious orders, he tends to view the institutional church, with its parishes and dioceses and settled ways, as an obstacle to reform. He describes parish priests as “little monsters” who “throw stones” at poor sinners. He has given curial officials a diagnosis of “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” He scolds pro-life activists for their “obsession” with abortion. He has said that Catholics who place an emphasis on attending Mass, frequenting confession, and saying traditional prayers are “Pelagians” — people who believe, heretically, that they can be saved by their own works.

Schmitz can only touch on some of these matters in passing, but those of us who have been following this papacy closely from the start know how the past three years have witnessed a steady stream of confusion, hyperbole, “ambiguities, inconsistencies, mixed messages, imprecisions, thinly veiled insults”—not to mention the odd use and misuse of language in the service of more confusion.

“Such denunciations,” Schmitz insists, “demoralize faithful Catholics without giving the disaffected any reason to return.” I agree. And reading some of the comments left at Schmitz’s op-ed only reinforces the overall impression that Francis is mostly liked and lauded by those who see his pontificate as the start of a revolution overthrowing the usual litany of criticisms tossed at the Church: it is too patriarchal, rigid, narrow-minded, moralistic, judgmental, bigoted, homophobic, Islamophobic, etc., etc. Yes, there are Catholics who are upset and even angry at Francis, but the overwhelming response, in my experience, is simply, “What is he doing? And why?”

These are legitimate and good questions. As veteran Vatican journalist John Allen, Jr., mused in a recent Crux feature:

Towards the end of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s document on the family, the pontiff writes that when priests have to make judgments in concrete cases such as pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, they are to do so “according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.”

One wonders if he knew at the time just what a conflicting welter of responses that injunction would elicit.

As Allen correctly notes, since the Apostolic Exhortation was released this past spring, “various bishops and groups of bishops around the world have issued guidelines for its implementation, and surveying the landscape, it’s abundantly clear they’re not all saying the same thing.”

Put simply: if Francis knew that confusion would result, then we have to wonder at his motives, especially in light of his scathing address at the end of the 2015 Synod. After all, the papacy is supposed to be a clear sign and source of unity, even if the matters addressed are sometimes complex and difficult. And if he didn’t suspect that his 55,000 word document would elicit consternation and wildly differing interpretations, then we have to wonder about his foresightedness and prudence.

No Catholic should ever be surprised that there is discord and fighting within the Church, but they should be bothered when a pope is so often at the middle of constant conflict, and when that conflict is so often originating in his own perplexing words and actions. Put another way, this is not like dissenting Catholics raging against John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, which was quite clear in its denunciation of flawed understandings of moral doctrine; rather, it is the unease and bewilderment of Catholics who know or suspect that accomodation, compromise, and sentimentality disguised as “pastoral” kindness are not good for the Church or the world. As I wrote earlier this month:

… I am increasingly convinced that this papacy, for all of its strengths, weaknesses, and oddities, could well be known, down the road, as the Papacy of Sentimentality. It surely is not a papacy adhering to theological rigor or consistency. It wasn’t long ago that Francis made news for telling some Polish Jesuits that “in life not all is black on white or white on black. No! The shades of grey prevail in life.” But he is quite selective (and, I think, sentimental) in that regard. When it comes to marriage, sexuality, and family, there are apparently numerous shades of grey and very little that is clearly black and white. Thus, references to “sin” are avoided. But when it comes to the environment and global warming, which Francis has strong emotions about, there appears to be plenty of black and white, and almost no grey at all. “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality,” warned Benedict XVI, “Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way.” Mercy is not something that can be redefined in an arbitrary way, however good or appealing the sentiment involved.

Meanwhile, back to Schmitz, who concludes:

Francis has built his popularity at the expense of the church he leads. Those who wish to see a stronger church may have to wait for a different kind of pope. Instead of trying to soften the church’s teaching, such a man would need to speak of the way hard disciplines can lead to freedom. Confronting a hostile age with the strange claims of Catholic faith may not be popular, but over time it may prove more effective. Even Christ was met with the jeers of the crowd.

Those are strong words. Is Francis trying to soften Church teaching? Personally, I see no way around that conclusion. After all, if Francis never meant to change or soften Church teaching, why the constant reliance on Cardinal Kasper and other Germans, the two Synods, the regular confusion, the jostling and posturing, the endless “gestures”, the angry address at the conclusion of the 2015 Synod, the often tortured and purposeful ambiguity of chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, and so forth?

Did Saint John Paul II, in numerous addresses and major documents, not give the Church enough to ponder and unpack about the meaning of marriage, sexuality, family, the feminine genius, and so many related matters? Has human nature changed so much in the past decade? Has Church teaching become outdated or “out of touch” in a matter of a few years? It is unfortunate—indeed, deeply painful—to see the such confusion, turmoil, and frustration so often generated by the Barque of Peter, which should instead be providing solace, comfort, shelter, and clarity amid the dark waves of an increasingly antogonistic and volatile world. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 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 Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.