Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has une vache over my qualified criticism of Pope Francis’s interview. Excerpt (words in italics are PEG’s quoting my piece, which can be read in full here):
The world wants to be told, “It’s okay, do what you like.”
No, actually, the world wants to be saved by a King of Glory.
For liberals and Moralistic Therapeutic Deists within Catholicism, it’s springtime. For traditionalists and conservatives in the Catholic Church, it’s going to be a long winter.
This is it. This, right here. This is the problem. This is the perversion. This is the defiling of what is holy.
The Pope is measured by whether what he says helps politically the “Republican Party of the Catholic Church” or the “Democratic Party of the Catholic Church.” This is the disease. This is the cancer. We have our cliques, we have our parties, and the question is who is going to win. Who cares!
Is it going to be a long winter? Why? Because you don’t love enough? Good!
Is it going to be a long winter because you’re going to look bad? Tough! You shouldn’t have looked good in the first place. A Christian who looks good is headed in the wrong direction.
What does it mean to have a long winter? The Pope isn’t going to give you brownie points? He won’t hang out with you at recess anymore? The Pope’s job isn’t to take care of the feelie-feelies of self-described Modifier-Catholics.
But to treat an interview where the Pope urges us to treat sinners with love first with alarm is, for a Christian, demonic. It is a perversion of the good in the name of the good. It is yielding to temptation.
For the record, the demonic post that set PEG off contain this passage, which characterizes my objection to what Francis says, which is a prudential objection:
There is so, so much to love and to affirm here — and great wisdom too. His comparison of the Church in this time as like a field hospital is quite apt. It’s true for all times, but especially for today, it seems to me, with so many people lost and confused and hurting.
I know what the Pope means here, and he’s right: there is so very much more to Christianity than its teachings on sexuality and abortion. But this is where I think he goes badly wrong: his remarks will be received as the Pope saying that this stuff doesn’t matter all that much.
Maybe I’m wrong in my judgment, but I think nothing here justifies PEG’s screechy freakout, nor the freakout of many in my comments threads. I have four words for y’all: “Spirit Of Vatican II.”
The Pope said the Church had become “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage, and contraception. This makes no sense to me at all. I think the world has become obsessed with these things, and the fact that the Church stands against them at all enrages the world. In my 13 years as a Catholic, I can tell you that if it weren’t for Pope John Paul II speaking on these things, and the Catholic magazines and books I read speaking about them, I barely would have heard the Church’s teaching. I think the world rejoices to hear the Pope agree with them that the Church is “obsessed” with these topics, and should be quiet about them.
I’ll tell you why I feel this way. For one, I’m traveling — stuck in the Houston airport right now, with weather delays — and I’ve been reading a lot of Dante. Finished Inferno, and started Purgatorio. The overarching theme of the Divine Comedy is the workings of Love — but the Love of God cannot be separated from Holiness. The entire point of Dante’s journey through Hell is to become reacquainted with the horror of sin. Now he and Virgil are ascending the seven-storey mountain of Purgatory, with Dante having his own sins burned away. In Paradiso, Dante will see that the Love of God is inseparable from His justice.
Reading Inferno has been for me an occasion of examination of conscience. Dante isn’t the Magisterium of the Church — he was a poet, not a theologian — but I see there is reason that sins of lust are punished in the outer rings of Hell, meaning that God considers them less than sins of malice and violence and fraud. But they are still enough to get one damned. The sins of lust are not my sins, not anymore, but only because they were burned away in hard repentance, over years. But sins they were, and sins they are.
This is personal with me. When I was in college, and right out of college, it was precisely the sins of lust that kept me away from God. I wanted to be a Christian in the worst way, but I did not want to sacrifice my sexual liberty. I was surrounded by churchgoers who insisted that God Is Love, and that these things did not really matter. You want to know what temptation is, PEG? It’s that. It’s being told that Christ doesn’t demand our total surrender, but only as much as we want to give Him. I knew that He was compassionate and merciful, but I also knew that unless I was prepared to sacrifice everything, my conversion would go nowhere. I knew this because I tried it for a while. Eventually I quit going to church, because I knew I was lying to myself. It was really all about me wanting the psychological comfort of religion without having to sacrifice the hardest things.
I won’t get too personal here, but I had reason to fear at one point that I had made a woman pregnant. It had been a casual, drunken encounter. She said not to worry, that if she was pregnant, she would have an abortion. When I balked at that, she reminded me hotly that it was her body, and she would do what she wanted to. It turned out that she wasn’t pregnant, but I had two excruciating weeks to contemplate that I could end up being party to the murder of my own unborn son or daughter, because I had been so careless and unserious about sex. That experience was a powerful aid to my conversion.
During that entire period of my life — from around the age of 18 to my finally turning resolutely against my old life, and beginning the process of dying to myself — the only figure in public life who kept me honest was Pope John Paul II. I went to see the old man at the Superdome in New Orleans in 1987. I was 20, and fighting hard against the Holy Spirit. I didn’t want to be told that what I was doing, and what I wanted to be doing more of, was wrong. I was misusing women and coarsening my soul. I wanted to be told that God Is Love, but not that His love and His grace were free, but also priceless. John Paul was a man of such deep and obvious goodness. He stood for the love of Christ. I could see that. But he also would not let me lie to myself about what I was doing, and the obstacles I put between myself and the love of God — a love that saves and transforms.
During all my years as a Catholic, I had to die to myself on this front. As a single man, living chastely was hard as hell, especially because I received no help from pastors. I can see in retrospect how much spiritual growth I did when I thought I was only walking barefoot across the desert, all alone. Only the old man in Rome, John Paul, flew the flag, so to speak. As a married man, living by the Church’s hard teaching on contraception was very, very difficult — and believe me, we got very little help from priests, many of whom thought people like us were weirdos. Didn’t we know God Is Love, and He doesn’t really care about that stuff?
I’m not saying all this to point out how Righteous I was; I know all too well what my sins are. What I’m saying is that there is no lack of support in the American Church for people wanting to do good work among the poor. More of us should do it — I accuse myself on this front foremost — but the point is, this work is uncontroversial. The New York Times will not yell at a priest, a bishop, or a pope for calling for more compassion for the poor. There is lots of support for pro-lifers within the Church, but in my experience, there is a great lack of support in the American Church for those Catholics who wish to be obedient to the Church’s teachings in their intimate lives. Francis’s comments not only badly mischaracterize the actual situation in the US church, in my view, but they make it easy for priests, catechists, bishops, and others who are troubled by the Church’s stance on sex and abortion to drop the matter entirely.
You may be certain that the priests, nuns, and religious who make it their business to fight “homophobia” will not have gotten the message that it’s time to move on to something else.
As I’ve said, I love much about this new Pope, though I despise the way the media and many American Catholics act like the last two popes were sour-faced scolds. This praise the world is giving Francis for his change of tone brings to mind what Nancy Reagan supposedly remarked upon hearing GOP nominee George H.W. Bush’s “kinder and gentler” speech: “Kinder and gentler than whom?” I mean, it’s just nonsense to say that Benedict and JP2 were preoccupied with sins of the flesh. As far as the world is concerned — at least the world of North America and Europe — any papal concern for abortion and sexuality qualifies as “obsession.”
I am glad that John Paul II was the pope when I was trying to run away from God. His unwillingness to stay quiet left me with a restless conscience, and ultimately led me to commit myself to repentance, and to accept Jesus. If I had been told by the Pope when I was 20 years old what Francis says today, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I don’t believe Francis means it this way, but I think his words will be received as an invitation to cheap grace.
UPDATE: PEG is wrong to say the world “wants to be saved by a King Of Glory.” No, the world wants to be told that it doesn’t need saving, that it’s already saved. The world wants to be told it’s going to heaven, but won’t have to die.