Faithful Catholics are deeply confused about what the pope is up to. As our spiritual father, he deserves our deep respect and the benefit of the doubt. When he says things that make us uncomfortable, we ought to be open to the likelihood that he’s saying something true that we’ve overlooked, maybe even presenting a truth we have tried to hide from. (Think of how disquieting some of Christ’s words are in the Gospels.) If even after reflection and prayer we feel sure that he’s wrong—as popes in their personal statements and human decisions have often been wrong in the past—we ought to remember Noah, and not act like scornful sons. We ought to greet papal mistakes with solemn sadness, earnest prayer, and respectful attempts at correction. It is in that spirit that I wish to comment on Pope Francis’s recent interview .
The pope’s most controversial statements seem to arise from a single motive: He doesn’t like “right-wing” Catholics, and wants to make it clear to all the world that he’s not one of them.
Up to a point, I see what he means. 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. In fact, they’re the kind of “evil company” St. Paul tells us to flee. Likewise, I learned to scorn folks who reject religious liberty, who joke about burning heretics or who condemn the American founding because so many Founders were Freemasons. (They don’t, I notice, denounce the nation of Spain, which was founded by Arian Visigoths.) Some right-wing Catholics embrace a hardline agenda because they feel weak and irrelevant, and prefer magnificent fantasies of wielding power over their neighbors to the slow grunt work of evangelizing.
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. And there are some loud, but mercifully small, segments of the Church where such people seem to predominate. But they are hardly a threat to anyone but their minor children and long-suffering spouses. There are surely more nuns who practice Wicca in America than there are Inquisition re-enactors—and the former still wield much more power.
I also understand the pope’s main point: you don’t lead people to Christ by starting with the code of Canon Law, or even the canons of natural law. The apostles on Pentecost did not rush into the marketplace to explain the indissolubility of sacramental marriage. They proclaimed the resurrection, and that is the key event which ought to motivate each of us.
That said, the news of the resurrection was not what converted the Roman world. First of all, the eyewitnesses were long-dead by Constantine’s day. And the notion of bodies rising from death was profoundly off-putting to Greeks and Romans who saw the spirit as higher and better than the flesh. What impressed the Romans was how the Christians lived, and their willingness to push back against the corruptions of a dying, death-dealing culture. Christians did not kill their unwanted infants—in fact, they went to the city gates and rescued the infants whom pagans had abandoned. Christians did not divorce, as Romans did; they were more likely to be chaste before marriage and faithful afterward—which led Roman aristocrats to seek out Christian wives. (Think of St. Augustine’s pagan father.) Christians might own slaves, but they did not think it acceptable to use them as sexual concubines or kill them for disobedience. In an increasingly totalitarian Roman state, Christians were even willing to say no to the emperor. These radical acts of resistance to the social and political culture, carried out at personal cost that sometimes included martyrdom, won over jaded residents of the crumbling empire. If anyone today is acting similarly, it is precisely those Catholics who fight the culture of death, who resist the expanding power of a secular government, who refuse the ethic of enlightened hedonism which crusades against cigarette smoking while permitting abortion. They are the pro-lifers, the home-schoolers, the large apostolic families, the members of traditional religious orders who embrace ascetic lives.
The pope is quite right to say we ought to present the beauty of the faith in all its integrity—as he does in his beautiful book Open Mind, Faithful Heart , which appears for the first time in English next month. And it is true that the mercy of God is at the heart of this faith. And it was really important to warn Catholics of the need to emphasize mercy … back in the 17th century.
At that time, the most powerful threats to the Faith came from brilliant, apostolic Calvinists and Jansenists, who thundered about the fewness of the saved and almost exulted in the damnation of unbaptized infants. But how many people now are crippled by an excessive fear of God? Is this really the threat we face?
Or do we face increasingly intolerant secular governments that are redefining marriage and punishing Christians who dissent; potent elites who teach our children that “gender” is a social construct subject to surgery; multi-billion-dollar organizations that are trying to spread abortion to every land on earth; totalitarian Islamists who cut the heads off priests and burn down churches; vast countries still ruled by Communist governments which persecute the Church? Do I really need to go on?
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. (As feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether once admitted , she stayed inside the Church because it had “the Xerox machines,” and you need Xerox machines to make a revolution.) Such people still control rich religious orders, prestigious universities with billion-dollar endowments, theology departments and seminaries. Is Pope Francis under the impression that liberal Catholics are tolerant? He should talk to faithful priests who endured the vicious regimes of Cardinal Mahony in Los Angeles, or Bernadin in Chicago. He will get an earful, and it will be every bit as ugly as the worst horror stories to emerge from the wackiest rad-trad coffee hour.
We are not living in fascist Argentina. The Culture of Death does not answer to men like General Galtieri, but to the likes of George Soros and Barack Obama. The bitterest traditionalists are not serving as tools of a grasping government which seeks to impose an anti-Christian ideology. Angry conservatives are not the cat’s paws of a potent political movement that seeks to marginalize the Church. The mass murder occurring throughout the West is not happening with the connivance of the Catholic right, but of the Catholic left, which pretends a moral equivalence between fundamental issues like abortion and prudential disputes over poverty programs and immigration totals, as a pretext for supporting candidates who oppose the natural law and the sanctity of life.
Holy Father: Absurd as some of us are, we on the Catholic right are not your enemy.