What Pope Francis Unveils
The always-interesting Catholic writer Arturo Vasquez explores the meaning of Pope Francis’s “apocalypse.” No, he’s not talking about the End of the World. He’s talking about “apocalypse” in the sense of “unveiling.” He begins his analysis with an observation once made by Cardinal Ratzinger (later, Benedict XVI): that the Second Vatican Council was the French Revolution of the Catholic Church. Vasquez runs with it, and eventually arrives at this point:
The shock that conservatives have at Pope Francis, akin to the shock of the “forces of order” at 1848, is the nightmarish inverted mirror of the idea of the Papacy that Bonapartist John Paul II created: “L’Eglise c’est moi” (I am the the Church.) As in the game of chess, the conservative was always comforted that no matter how many pieces fell, as long as the king was still on the board, the game was not lost, indeed, they were winning. However, once the “other side” is in endgame against the king, a sense of foreboding finally emerges. There are those in the Church (the radical traditionalists, perhaps) who saw all of this ten moves ago. You cannot keep the Papacy clean when the rest of the Church has fallen into revolutionary chaos.
You cannot have a “Benedict XVI” Papacy in a “Pope Francis” rest of the church. That contradiction was bound to manifest itself eventually. That is the real “unveiling” of the Franciscan papacy: the actual church in its vast majority was closer to Pope Francis than it ever was to Pope Benedict XVI or even John Paul II. Pope Francis is the church you get in the confessional when the confessor doesn’t want to “hurt anyone’s feelings”. Pope Francis is the church where the one priest has six Masses on Sundays with the Ladies’ Altar Society constantly plotting against him due to a passing comment about a flower arrangement made three years ago. Pope Francis is the church of overflowing crowds of faithful at Christmas and Easter who disappear the next Sunday not to be seen again for months. And so on…
In other words, Francis is what you get when the actual church is Moralistic Therapeutic Deist. Vasquez’s insight makes a lot of sense to me in my own experiences. I mostly read my way into Catholicism in the early 1990s, and was therefore truly shocked to discover that the church of John Paul II, so to speak, was hard to find outside of books and my favorite religious magazines. Real parish life was way more like what we see today in Pope Francis. Understand I’m not making a theological statement here — I recognize that it’s the same church — but rather a statement about the phenomenon of Catholic churchgoing in contemporary culture.
I wonder, though, if there has ever been a time when the Pope was much like the rest of the Catholic Church, one way or the other. Vasquez goes on:
To be Catholic in our day is to have selective amnesia: What part of Tradition are you willing to forget? You can be consistent and jettison the whole thing. You can be slightly less consistent and believe that Thomas A Kempis and St. Therese also came to their views of the world singing bad Top 40 from 1972 knock-off songs in church every Sunday. You can be a little less consistent and think that maybe a little Latin is a good idea, and go even further and believe that the Sacred Liturgy was divinely handed to the Pope in 1962 only to be destroyed two years later. Or you can just descend into full consistent madness and believe the real Pope was locked in a basement at some point and replaced with an impostor. Spoiler alert: none of these is a good look.
I used to read Vasquez years ago, but lost touch with his stuff. I can’t remember whether he stopped blogging, or I drifted away. But I’m glad to have discovered him again. Here he is writing last month about the churchgoing habits of the poor.
He says there’s a difference, especially in the First World, between “concern for the poor” and the “religion of the poor.” In Mexican-American barrios, says Vasquez, when poor people either get religion or return to religion, they usually don’t go, or go back to, Catholic churches; they go to storefront Protestant churches, or megachurches, or just pick up the Bible and start reading. More:
A lot of this is colored by my own personal experience, and some will protest of their own experience or that of loved ones. But demographics don’t lie. Numbers don’t lie. Half of Guatemala didn’t become evangelical Protestant because of deep dives by the masses into Reformation theology and the five solas. It became almost majority Protestant because Catholicism ceased being a “rock bottom” religion and became either a faith of the rich, a faith of social conscience (that doesn’t seem to solve anything), or a rote faith that one practices mindlessly.
Most of the Catholic conversion I have encountered on social media and the Internet over the past 20 years has been either very cerebral or zealously aesthetic. I count my own conversions as being of this nature. Seldom do I see people turning to Catholic Jesus in prison or because their wife left them or because they needed to kick their dope habit. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the Catholic intellectual and aesthetic convert, but they seem way more put together than many of the people I have known who became religious after a rough patch in their life. That’s why I am very pessimistic about the future of Catholicism in all of its forms in the First World. Even Pope Francis and his defenders seem to obsess about the poor and the outcasts when the poor and the outcasts are really obsessing about the megachurch pastor who might be one part prosperity gospel, one part self-help.
Is it possible that the Church of the Poor can obsess too much about being poor (in an act of “virtue signaling”) and not actually be something the poor want to be part of? Once you hit rock bottom, you don’t want to dwell about the societal and theological reasons you are there. You just want to climb out.
That goes a long way in describing how God pulled me out of my spiritual ruin as a Catholic, through Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy in the West is far more of a rarefied draw than Catholicism — I mean, something that attracts people who are cerebral and/or aesthetic. It’s not always that way — I know working-class folks who are Orthodox converts — but in the West, most of the converts I know are more or less middle class people who are unusually interested in theology. There’s nothing wrong with that. If it hadn’t been for the Orthodox church when I crashed and burned in Catholicism, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I’m not saying that to put down Protestantism, please understand; it’s only that intellectually and aesthetically, Protestantism left me cold.
I have discovered that Orthodoxy offers intellectual profundity and aesthetic beauty without parallel, but insists that there is only one way to know God: through personal prayer and repentance. You can master all the theological content in the world, but if you don’t pray, fast, and actively repent, it’s in vain. I have found that Orthodox Christianity is like learning how to play a musical instrument: you can read books to help you more deeply understand musical technique, musical history, and so forth, but there is no substitute for practice. This, as it turns out, is exactly what I needed to start the healing from the deleterious spiritual effects of my intellectual pride.
There are still some Catholics who want to take issue on an intellectual level with why I left Catholicism. I don’t deny that they have a legitimate case, but I can’t seem to convince them that for me in 2005, after three years of being jackhammered by scandal, I was at rock bottom as a Catholic, and didn’t want to dwell on the theological reasons why I ought to have stayed. I just wanted to climb out. Orthodox spirituality gave me a lifeline.
That whole experience gave me a different outlook on faith. It shattered the intellectual arrogance that had been far too much a part of my Catholic faith — a fault that belongs entirely to me, not to the Catholic Church. I’m serious: it was my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault. It was a fault of a man who had come to believe in God primarily as an intellectual and aesthetic adventure. I had never really suffered a dark night of the soul until confronted the abuse scandal. All those beautiful theories didn’t help me when I had fallen into a deep well and broken both of my legs, spiritually speaking. I learned through a lot of pain the limits of intellection in matters of the soul.
It’s why I don’t want to argue with people about why they ought to be Orthodox, or anything else. It’s not that I disbelieve that these theological reasons are important. They are important. It’s not that I devalue apologetics as a practice; thank God for effective apologists. It’s partly that I know how weak I am, and how I’ve blown any credibility I have for making intellectual arguments about faith. But mostly it’s just that I don’t care anymore. If you want to know how I hit rock bottom and God put me back together through praying and worshiping as an Orthodox Christian, I’m happy to tell you. If you want to know why I can’t imagine being anything else, I’m happy to tell you. Seriously, I am — and I do, though I don’t write about it in this space, because that’s not what this blog is for.
I told some Catholics in Slovakia this week that I hope I’m not a false ecumenist, but that I see my role as trying to build up Christians who are struggling to live faithfully within the Great Tradition (or, within C.S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”) in a post-Christian world. Life is long and life is hard. I know Christians in every one of the traditions who are suffering, some of them greatly, under the weight of their particular crosses. I am too.
Reading Dante’s Purgatorio helped me understand how I should go about getting on with life after rock bottom. The pilgrims struggling up the mountain are weary and burdened, but they’re all so grateful to have been given God’s mercy, and so willing to help each other move forward. Nobody on the path up the mountain of Purgatory (which in the poem symbolizes the Christian journey in the mortal life) wants to stop and debate theology. They just want to talk about the love and mercy of God, and to help each other in their repentance.
Anyway, thank you, Arturo Vasquez, for making me think tonight. Here’s a link to Arturo’s page. His most recent post is about the meaning of the Eucharistic “Real Presence” in the Catholic faith, and the crisis of belief in it. I could write a whole post on it, but you just go read the original. I think what he says in his final paragraph is true. What an interesting and thoughtful writer on religion he is. I wrote about him here back in 2015, and about his belief that Christianity has to refuse modern rationalization, and become more “pagan,” if it wants to survive. First World Catholicism, he says, has become “politicized deism with props.” The man knows how to turn a phrase.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I am always interested in anything you bring up around Catholic conversion, because I explored the topic from an educational angle in my master’s thesis, which I am currently trying to publish. And I am currently working on a Ph.D, planning to continue some of that research at a deeper level. Needless, to say I have spent a lot of time studying this topic from an academic perspective.
It is interesting that Vasquez states that most conversions he has encountered “are very cerebral or zealously aesthetic”, your apparent agreement with that assessment.
It seems that way, because of their out-sized voice, but it is in fact very wrong. The USCCB did some research some years back on the topic, and based on their study (which is by a long shot the best data available), the overwhelming majority of converts do so because they are married or engaged to a Catholic and most of them primarily come at it for mostly marital harmony reasons.
This ‘banality’ has actually an upside and a downside which I will get to. But the most important point I want to get at is that, understanding this context paints a very different picture from contrasting the two ends of the spectrum, which Vasquez does:intellectuals vs the ‘turn my life around’ crowd. Both sides of that extreme constitute a small, but very vocal type of conversion. And the reality in most converts is there might be a mix of little, a lot, or none of both. It’s really a false dichotomy. It doesn’t help clarity the actual situation any more that dividing Americans into “Trump fanatics” and “Bernie Sanders socialists” would paint a very good picture of US politics.
The fact is most people who convert are mostly catalyzed by their spousal relationship. They enter the church without particularly grandiose expectations or opinions, and for the most part don’t talk much about their conversion. I have met quite a few devout Catholic converts, who I otherwise never would have known it without prodding (including my own wife). These people internalized it, and moved forward with varying degrees of gusto.
So let’s talk about the good and the bad of that. Bad first: Most of those people who convert, (again, via the USCCB study IIRC), don’t really ever darken the door of a Catholic Church again after a few weeks. The ordinary circumstance of their conversion, leads not to a quiet, ordinary life of faith, but a checkbox to be moved on from. And why? Maybe they never cared, sure. But faith is a gift from God, and there’s no reason God wouldn’t have planted in them a seed of faith. The real question is were those seeds watered? The Catholic Church had them as a captive audience for a year or more during RCIA in addition to their attendance at Mass. By day I am actually a sales trainer, and this is what you call a hot lead! More than that even, these are people who actively inquired and agreed to go through the entire buying process.
But here’s the good. That’s actually easier to fix than the if it were the other way. Here is someone who throws money on the table and says feed me. They’re not saying, “Prove to me that you are the greatest chef in the world”. Just “feed me”. If good converts only came out of the stocks of “turned my life arounders” and “intellectual rigorists”, who had to be dramatically won over, wow what a small chance we would have.
I understand your shock at discovering what life in the pews was like after your intellectual conversion, but most people don’t come in with that expectation.They have a modest openness to hearing the power of a kind of “Little Way”. An orthodox Catholic faith etched simply onto their lives. Instead they are treated to worthless modernist, MTD rubbish, and they find themselves the door. Meanwhile the trads, explain that if only they had been blasted with Latin and splendor, they might have stayed. And the Evangelicals win over their crowds with a weekly rock show. But this problem is not really about that. It’s about tremendous wasted opportunity, because the fact is, for most people, a holy Christian life, should and could be a very modest, authentic, and unassuming existence.