Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Problem With the Church is not the Pope. It's Us

19 You give your mouth free rein for evil; 

you yoke your tongue to deceit. 

20 You sit and speak against your brother, 

slandering your mother’s son. 

21 When you do these things should I be silent? 

Do you think that I am like you? 

I accuse you, I lay out the matter before your eyes. (Psalm 50:19-21)

So I started to see some Catholic blogs publish articles that take a different slant about the Pope. Now, instead of accusing the Pope of being heterodox, this tactic takes the truth that not everything the Pope says is an authoritative teaching and uses it to attack people defending the Pope as if they argued everything authoritative. They say that it’s OK to be upset by certain comments the Pope makes, and apologists shouldn’t be defending the Pope in those circumstances.

However, that is not the problem. The problem is that some authors use controversial phrases from press conferences to imply (or state outright) that the Pope is heterodox. Some do it subtly. Others come right out and say they think the Pope is not Catholic. But either way, they argue that the Church is worse off because Pope Francis is Pope. That’s different from saying “I like St. John Paul II better.” We’re not talking about a person who prefers the style of one Pope over another. We’re talking about a person who thinks Pope Francis is a menace and needs to be opposed.

That’s an important distinction. One can wish the Pope did not say or do a certain thing because of the confusion it caused without being a bad Catholic. For example, I recall two incidents during the pontificate of St. John Paul II which I find regrettable: the 1986 Assisi conference and the kissing of the Qur’an. I recall being unhappy with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and his lifting the excommunications on the bishops of the SSPX and his ill-advised example of the “Gay male prostitute with AIDS” in the book interview Light of the World. These things caused scandal. But these things did not mean that these two Popes were heterodox. When foes of these Popes tried to accuse them of heresy, [1] that’s when those foes were in the wrong. These were simply examples of Popes being human and making mistakes in judgment that did not involve the teaching authority of the Church.

Likewise with Pope Francis. We’ve had cases where he said things that sounded confusing in soundbites, but turned out to be legitimate when read in context. We’ve also had a few instances where he confused Catholics who couldn’t figure out what point he was trying to make. Those things are unhelpful for the life of the faithful. Nobody denies that. What we do deny is the claim that these instances “prove” the Pope is heterodox.

I think the problem is that we have forgotten that the media was also scrutinizing the words and writings of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, constantly asking if an unfamiliar phrase meant a change in teaching. We have forgotten that these two pontiffs have also spoken about social justice, immigration and the environment (back then, they called it ecology), and spoke against the excesses of capitalism just as much as they spoke against communism.

Back then, it was easier to overlook the Papal statements on issues outside of the right to life and sexual morality. From an American perspective, we saw the statements  on these issues mostly as an indictment against our political opponents. Since the Popes spoke on the right to life and about sexual morality, we could point to the Papal statements in order to condemn our opponents—especially if those opponents were also Catholic (like Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro back in the 1980s). The problem was, we overlooked the fact that the Popes warned against other injustices as well. (For example, from what I recall, the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis was dismissed as being out of touch or even anti-American).

In other words, we approved of the Popes when they said what we wanted to hear and we ignored or dismissed the Popes when we didn’t like what they had to say. Also, at this time, the media took the attitude of trying to portray the Popes as being “neanderthal” in their stand against “choice.” They seldom covered the other topics that the Popes taught on except to ask whether the Church was beginning to “liberalize.” Then midway through the pontificate of Benedict XVI, tactics began to change. The media began to report on Papal addresses and encyclicals by picking out the elements that seemed to mesh well with the desired political slant. His writings began to be promoted as anti-capitalistic and in favor of more government intervention. This tactic was solidly in place when Pope Francis was elected Pope. Even though his actual words did not support it, the media invented an image of a “liberal Pope” who was “overturning Tradition.” And many Catholics bought into the lie.

Another factor was the access to information. We forget that what we take for granted now was not as wide reaching during the reign of Benedict XVI and absent for much of the reign of St. John Paul II. Without the instant access to smartphones and the like with access almost anywhere, we did not have instant access to all the misinformation that now gets transmitted across the globe by a reporter who wants to be first with breaking news about the Pope “changing teaching.” A reporter had to get a copy and actually read the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (or get someone to read it for him) to report on it. Media reports on the documents were quickly followed by in depth Catholic analysis. Information didn’t move as swiftly, so there was more time to respond.

Now, instead of looking to theologians to help explain to people what could be misunderstood, now people think that they can read unofficial translations of quotes—often devoid of context—and understand the “plain sense” of the words. When someone tells them that the context does not justify this, the response is to charge the person of “explaining away” the words. In other words, people don’t want to be told they made a mistake about interpreting the words of the Pope or that they are doing wrong in how they apply them.

So I’d ask the reader to consider this. With all these factors in play, do you really think we can justly claim that the Pope is to blame? Or is it more likely that our own antics in speaking against him are creating far more chaos than anything he said? I’ll be honest. I think the answer is the second one.



[1] People today seem to forget that St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were bashed as being “modernists” when they took a stand that these critics disliked. It only changed for Benedict XVI after he issued the motu proprio about the extraordinary form of the Mass.

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