People like me and some bloggers I have read, who suffered through the “silly season” of the post-conciliar Church, must resist with all of our power the temptation to view these Papal words as a dangerous window letting the clown masses back in. We were scarred by that experience in the 70′s. I know I was and it colors deeply my fears over those “Commonweal words”. But this is not 1975 anymore and Francis is not a “wacky,” liberal, 1970′s bishop. The time has come therefore to recognize that the people behind the silly season were not entirely wrong. The pre-conciliar Church was juridical and dogmatic and stuffy and rigid. It collapsed almost immediately after the Council for good reasons: the post-war Church’s apparent outward strength was masking some very serious defects. And despite their lunacy the post-conciliar liberals were on to something deeply true in many ways. Perhaps it is now time for many of us who were formed in those battles to admit that. That is why I fault so many in the Right-wing blogosphere for publicly venting their spleens. I am saying “Listen more guys, and be still—we may have something to learn here.”
I have, as many know, found his words in the interview “who am I to judge?” troubling. I have viewed this as a dangerous nod to the language of “tolerance,” which, in our culture, is part of the Esperanto of undifferentiated and uncritical approval. I have further worried that he has actually said this phrase now twice. And so I have viewed it as calculated and deliberate on his part and faulted him for it. But I am an idiot. Of course it is deliberate! And since the option of viewing Francis as a liberal is not a valid one, and since the further option of viewing him as engaging in a rupture with the past is also nonsense, I have been forced to sit back and say to myself: Chapp, instead of being critical here maybe there is something more to his words than just careless sloppiness or naivete (as Rusty Reno at First Things hassaid in print). I needed to take the hardest of his words for me to accept as the hermeneutical key to understanding the whole. And, as my colleague Rodney Howsare says in class all the time, the deal is this: the first and last words of Jesus to all sinners was forgiveness. Christ called sin, sin, and knew the horrors of sin better than anyone and would suffer its consequences through to the end. And yet, for all that, his first and last words were “forgiveness.” Why? Because he knew that no sin, or collection of sins, no matter how awful, defines any of us to our core. We are all redeemable and none of us are totally evil. We are bigger than our sins. Indeed, the whole point of Balthasar’s “Dare We Hope” is that we are all more than our sins and are not defined by them.
That is where we need to look at the Pope’s curious statement that he knows one thing dogmatically: God is in everyone. Therefore, his words “who am I to judge?” are words designed to give hope to those on the margins who do define themselves by their sins, and who do feel that they are unredeemable. There are such people. Indeed, their numbers are legion. I teach many of them as do many of you. Over the years I have had many a student in my office, sobbing in tears at what they take to be their completely unlovable identity. And many of these encounters have been with young Gay men. As I said to Howsare today in his office, think of the young Gay male who is trying to follow God and the Church, but who sometimes fails and succumbs to temptation. As we all have experienced after we commit a habitual sin we have been trying to overcome we feel like dung and we feel outside of grace and it often makes us despair and full of despondent resignation. But my sins are garden variety sins of the suburbanite, shared by most suburbanites, and so even though I feel like dung after sinning I do not feel unredeemable. But think of the poor young Gay guy who has heard the conservative tropes about being “objectively disordered” (even though that is technically true he may not get its nuance) and starts to think “I really am sick. I am a disgusting pervert.” What the Pope’s words are challenging us to do then is to help that young man feel, in some way, “normal” and not outside the economy of grace. And what those words say to that young man is “God loves you and you are with Him as soon as you want to be and therefore I too love you.” The Church is the sacrament of those first and last words of Jesus: forgiveness. But that means, existentially, trying to make sure that people feel its force in the depth of their fractured hearts. I am reminded of a line from a Mumford and Sons song: “It isn’t the long walk home that will change my heart, but the welcome I feel at every start.”
Read the whole thing. Powerful stuff. I also commend to you John Zmirak’s thoughtful piece in TAC. First, his words to his friends on the Catholic Right, where he has been all his life. Zmirak says if it’s true that Pope Francis just doesn’t like “right-wing” Catholics, he, Zmirak, understands that … to a point:
From what I have read, in Argentina, a swath of the folks who fought for the Latin Mass also supported the right-wing dictators down there—which means they winked at torture and murder, but their consciences proved too tender to countenance altar girls. I have met this kind of smug zealot up here in the U.S.—the guy you meet at the coffee hour who starts off with pro-life talk, then finds a way to assert that most abortionists are Jewish … and pretty soon he’s pressing on you poorly printed pamphlets that “prove” the Holocaust never happened. I used to argue with people like this, but it led nowhere. (Although I learned how to have some fun with them by “proving” that World War II was also a myth, and that all its “casualties” had really been abducted to serve as slaves in the Zionist tin mines on the Moon.)
I finally had to accept the cold fact that some people are not sincerely mistaken, or even deluded, but rather of evil intent, with wicked hearts and culpable motives. … All this proves absolutely nothing, except that even the most reverently celebrated sacraments aren’t magic. But it does help me cut the pope some slack when he warns against using the traditional liturgy as a tool of ideology. That happens. I’ve seen it, and if you’re on the Internet, so have you. The people who use the Church’s traditions this way are not effective Catholics; some are barely Christian.
Zmirak expands on this idea convincingly. But then he says to the Pope: listen, Holy Father, if you think right-wing Catholics and their supposed “obsessions” with abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception, are the Church’s worst enemies in America, you had better think again. The warning against Jansenism is about four centuries too ripe. Excerpt:
There is quite a long list of churches that show no “obsession” with the less-popular parts of the Christian moral message. Instead, for the past 40 years they’ve been preaching mercy, inclusion, tolerance, and a leftist/statist vision of social justice. From the Anglican communion to the United Methodist Church, from the mainline Lutherans to the mainline Presbyterians, every single one of these churches is fading into irrelevance. The Episcopal church (like some shrinking, liberal Catholic religious orders) is right on track to becoming a real estate holding company. Why should we think this universally failed strategy would win not just smiles but souls?
Worst of all, inside the Church, many Catholics are still subject to the power of bitter, dead-ender dissidents, who reject fundamental teachings on faith and morals, and use the institutional power of the Church to impose their views on others.
Read the whole thing. It’s terrific.
Yeah, I know. I’ve been snarky, sardonic and flip. But that’s the only way I can keep from smashing my head into the desk. We’re in for an extraordinarily-bumpy ride. I’m feeling demoralized, frankly. The alleged obsession with abortion, contraception and gay marriage is the most well-hidden one I’ve ever encountered, as the first only rarely, and the second and third never, have rung from any pulpit I’ve attended. I’ve heard God called “She” more times than I’ve heard homilies about contraception. Given the personal difficulties and conflicts my wife and I have had to “enjoy” for our decisions to be open to life, it was of some reassurance that at least the Pope had our back. The Bishop of Rome seems to have a different outlook about that, and we’re all the more alone as a result.
I don’t mind carrying my cross. I just don’t appreciate Catholics adding sandbags to the burden.