So, the Pope’s popularity among Americans has fallen from 76% positive in 2014 to 59% now. His unfavorable rating has climbed from 9% to 16% (See: Pope Francis' approval among Americans plummets ahead of U.S. visit, poll finds | Fox News). The article discusses the fact that among conservatives, his approval fell after Laudato Si, while among liberals it fell when they figured out that when the Pope said “Who am I to judge,” he didn’t mean it in the way they hoped he meant it. So what we have here is a case of both the liberals and the conservatives insisting that the Pope be what they want him to be.
It’s not surprising, given how polarized our society has become, but it is sad to watch because it is clear that the people of America and elsewhere have lost sight of what the Church is for. Without understanding what the Church exists for, it is easy to reduce her teachings to the level of political platforms which can be changed if enough people campaign for it. The Pope is then reduced to the level of politician who is good if he supports your positions and bad if he holds positions you disagreement.
What we have to remember is that the Church is not a manmade institution that arbitrarily decides what is good and what is not. The Church is sent to carry out Our Lord’s mission:
18 Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
As Catholics, we believe that the Church was established by Our Lord with the Pope and bishops as successors to the Apostles. So, we can see that the mission of the Church is to make disciples, to baptize and teaching them to follow what He has taught us.
The problem is, many people seem to forget about this. Being a Christian means we are supposed to let God transform us and renew our minds—turning ourselves to Him and not being conformed to the world (Romans 12:1-2). But we have a bad habit of letting our preferences conform God’s teaching to the desires of the world—conveniently allowing us to stay as we are. Such a mindset cannot go out and transform the world as Our Lord commanded. In fact, it goes entirely contrary to what St. Peter taught us:
13 *Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly, and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance 15 but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, 16 for it is written, “Be holy because I [am] holy.” (1 Peter 1:13-16)
If we are called to be holy as God is holy, if we are called to be transformed and not conformed, if we are to make disciples of all nations, we need to live our life as Our Lord called us—which includes keeping His commandments (John 14:15). That means we need to turn back (metanoia) to God and away from everything that is in opposition to God called us to live.
But not only are people conforming themselves to the world, they are becoming hostile to people who remind them that Our Lord has called us to change (there’s that metanoia again). Thus we see some people, professing to be Christians, holding views on Christian moral teaching which is contrary to what the faith demands, while thinking they are Christian in doing so. It stands the Great Commission on its head. The Christian who says we must do good and avoid evil, pointing out the evil that exists in our society, the response is hostility. Some try to portray such a Christian as thinking like those members of aberrant Christian sects who think that hating sinners is the same thing as opposing sin (this happens when the Church stands up for morality—particularly the sexual morality. Others try to deny that the Christian challenge to them is Christian. For example, those people who presume to label the Pope’s teaching on social justice as “marxist."
Whether they cite Mathew 7:1 and 1 John 4:8 out of context, or whether they cite Church documents out of context, the point is the cite things in such a way as to redefine Christianity as being what they want it to be. But the Church, as we pointed out above, is not about making the Word of God conform to our likes. The Church is about transforming people into being disciples of Christ.That transformation is not about not saying anything that might offend. It’s about telling people that hell is real and that Jesus Christ died so that salvation was possible, and that salvation is offered to each one of us if we will respond to His grace and His invitation.
That means we have to stop thinking of things as if our own desires are the center of the universe. God is the center of everything. If we want what is good, we have to seek The Good—God. In this understanding, the things of the world can be good (God created the world, after all). But they can only be good if we look at them through Him. Our Lord told us, “But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matthew 6:33).
Again, we believe that the purpose of the Church is to fulfill our Lord’s Great Commission and bring people to Christ, encouraging them to turn away from their sins, as Peter said in Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” If we will not turn away from our sins, we will not be forgiven. As St. Paul wrote,
13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
14 But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? 15 And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring [the] good news!”
We believe that this is the mission of the Church. And since we believe this, it stands to reason that the Church needs to be listened to when she teaches on observing all Our Lord has commanded us. If we do not listen, then we demonstrate that we have completely failed to understand why Our Lord established the Church, and in following the world, we are comforting ourselves on the way to hell (See Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Celestial Railroad, a parody of The Pilgrim’s Progress, as an example).
Let us keep this in mind the next time the teaching of the Church makes us uncomfortable about going along with what the world demands. It might turn out that the discomfort is a sign that we need to change, turning away from sin and towards God.