Every pope is controversial, but not all are controversial
in the same quarters. You may recall how controversial (indeed, how
annoying and even appalling) Pope John Paul II was to all those who
aspired to worldly sophistication (and to schismatic Traditionalists).
How they loved to denigrate the unsophisticated pope from Poland! You
may also recall how controversial Pope Benedict was to those who
distrust ecclesiastical discipline. Beware the German Shepherd!
Every few weeks (or perhaps every few days), Pope Francis says
something that annoys or even appalls those who like their Catholicism
neat and tidy. Pope Francis seems to enjoy not only shaking things up
(which he has admitted) but speaking colloquially, and therefore with
less theological and pastoral precision than might otherwise be the
case. My readers know that I don’t think this is nearly as dangerous as
many do, nor do I think Francis is attempting to push the Church in an
Maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, so I’ll restate my opinion in a
single paragraph and move on. I don’t think Francis thinks in the
categories of left and right, liberal and conservative, that so many
Western Catholics use as a kind of ecclesiastical shorthand to
categorize conflicts over doctrine, liturgy and moral principles.
Rather, I think Francis takes Catholic faith and morals for granted, but
is really fed up with clericalism and formalism (call it systemic
rigidity or riskless ministry) which prevents the Church (in her
members) from being profoundly evangelical and constantly engaged in
sacrificial service to those who are materially, morally and spiritually
poor. This does lead to misunderstandings, but those misunderstandings
are at least
half due to our own inadequate categories of reflection.
Again, maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong. Either way, the result
among conservative Catholics is surpassingly strange: Many people who
regard themselves as in possession of the fullest, deepest and securest
form of the Catholic faith are perpetually in a spiritual panic. When it
comes to the Faith and the Church, they think the sky is falling.
But the first principle of the Faith and the Church is that the
Catholic sky cannot fall. Thus we perceive a massive disconnect. It
calls into question our spiritual self-knowledge.
A Case in Point
Today we posted a news story covering Pope Francis’ blessing of the British youth
who were gathered for a Flame 2 Conference in London. The message was
delivered by the Apostolic Nuncio, who quoted from the Pope’s January
address to youth in the Philippines:
In the challenge of love, God shows up with surprises.... So
let yourselves be surprised by God: Don't be afraid of surprises,
afraid that they will shake you up. They make us insecure but they
change the direction we are going in. True love makes you "burn life",
even at the risk of coming up empty-handed. Think of Saint Francis: he
left everything, he died with empty hands, but, with a full heart....
Let yourselves be surprised by God’s love, then go out and burn life….
Here the Pope’s passionate rejection of mere formalism is evident.
The emphasis is on spiritual surprise, on the risk of insecurity, on
openness to a change in direction, on a Christian passion that “burns”
through life. This is quintessential Francis—and it is enough to give a
“conservative” Catholic a bad case of the shakes.
Once again, my opinion
is that this is mostly our problem,
not the Pope’s. Therefore, when I hear endless criticism of every word
out of the Holy Father’s mouth, and every act or non-act of his
pontifical administration, by those who claim
to be supremely
knowledgeable and strong in their Faith, I am reminded of the axiom that
orthodoxy and spiritual maturity are not the same thing.
Another Way to Process the Pope
It does not really matter if my opinion
of the Pope is right
or wrong. Plainly, it is a personal Christian responsibility to reflect
on what our Supreme Pastor says and to make a constant effort to use
what he says in a positive way, to examine and enrich our own spiritual
lives. There is, of course, no harm and much good in praying for the
Holy Father, explaining his words to others in the context of the
overall mind of the Church, and making our concerns known to him in
But constant public criticism of the Pope, in which we put the worst
possible interpretation on his words and actions, is more than merely
scandalous and corrosive. It very often reflects a dogged determination
to lead an unexamined life. Do we conservatives think this failing is
restricted to culture-bound liberals? Frankly, it is a sign of spiritual
immaturity for any of us to yelp each time a pope makes us
uncomfortable, stubbornly refusing at least to try to penetrate the
spiritual point he is making, so that we might apply it to our own
This tendency is so marked that sometimes Pope Francis is excoriated
simply for paraphrasing Christ. “Who am I to judge?” asks Francis. And,
oh!, the outcry. But those who complain should not be able to read
Matthew 7:1-5 without being stung by Our Lord’s use of the word
I already hear some readers saying “but, but, but”. Because of
confusion, there will always be “buts”, and some of them will be
legitimate. Nonetheless, a mature Christian will always seek to extract
good from the Pope’s comments on the assumption that good is what he
intends. The opposite assumption—applied to anyone without significant
evidence—already represents a spiritual failure on the part of the
listener. The bottom line is that, if we love God, we have not only the
responsibility but the power to receive all things in a way that enables
them to work together unto good (Rm 8:28).
We have a standing joke in my household. When I express an opinion
about Pope Francis, my wife asks: “How long are you going to keep your
head in the sand?” She is quoting my critics, who continually ask me
this question. But I am convinced the shoe belongs on the other foot.
The first rule of Christ—and therefore of Catholicism—is that
constant self-examination is needed to recognize and cast off the idols
we make of our own conceptions of God. I read too many people who seem
unacquainted with this wellspring of grace. Whatever may be said of the
“real” Pope Francis, responding to his words first as an impetus to
self-examination in Christ is a far, far better way.
In any case, the sky is not falling, and only the spiritually
immature talk, write and act as if it is. There is certainly legitimate
work to do. But Our Lord has already rebuked us for being “anxious and
troubled about many things” (Lk 10:42).
"Once again, my opinion is that this is mostly our problem, not the Pope’s. Therefore, when I hear endless criticism of every word out of the Holy Father’s mouth, and every act or non-act of his pontifical administration, by those who claim to be supremely knowledgeable and strong in their Faith, I am reminded of the axiom that orthodoxy and spiritual maturity are not the same thing."
Trying to adhere to Catholic standards should not imply a lack of tolerance of others or even a sense of superiority. It reminds me of the ridicule one receives when being pressured to drink when you don't want to, or eat junk food. People are often blamed for the guilt others feel in their own hearts.
SSPX 'spokesman' : Theology of Vatican Council II is in agreement with the strict interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus
Sorry Father, as much as I'd love to believe this about Francis, it isn't true.
If (and it's a big if) the proverbial sky does not end up falling, it will not be for a lack of trying on Francis' part, it will be because Burke, Muller, Pell, etc prevented it.
Yes, because no person is responsible for the things that they say...and leaving themselves open to a variety of interpretations is absolutely not the fault of the person trying to communicate the message.
This is certainly not to say that there isn't sometimes some projecting of problems by some people, certainly it does happen...but the primary person in control is the person doing the communicating.
I've found it much easier to ignore Pope Francis, rather than pay him any attention. I do tend to read Pope Francis in Spanish (his first language) rather than his English comments...which while making somethings easier, sometimes even the Spanish is a problem.
It is certainly true that any person who communicates anything can't control how things are received, it is certainly not true that people can't control what is said.
Really Pope Francis isn't all that horrible when sticking to the script...when he goes off the cuff is where all the problems start to begin....Keep him far, far away from reporters while on a plane, interviews with journalists, and most importantly, publish less daily fervelinos and all will be good.
MR, how can you possibly know it isn't true? If you're accusing him of being heterodox or heterical, then let me remind you that rash judgment is sinful -- even gravely so.
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