The modernist and the radical traditionalist are two factions that pretend to be good Catholics while openly distorting or rejecting what the Church says. They interpret what Scripture and Church teaching say in order to promote the views they already want to be true and to attack orthodoxy where it rebukes them. Faithful Catholics oppose these factions, because they realize that Our Lord built a Church led by the Apostles and their successors and that hearing this Church means hearing Our Lord (Luke 10:16, John 14:5).
But there is a new faction rising which seduces the orthodox Catholics by way of making professions of loyalty to the Church and Pope—with a twist. This is the faction that professes their obedience and loyalty to the Pope, but treats him like a burden must endure every time he opens his mouth or writes something. I call them the “I’m With Stupid” Catholics. These Catholics spend more time trying to criticize what the Pope said, than they do showing how the Pope’s words are Catholic.
They might not accuse him of heresy as the radical traditionalists do, but they do believe they need to lecture him on what the Church teaching is. That’s not helpful and it’s not loyal either. I say this because such complaints leave the reader with doubts about the Pope’s orthodoxy, knowledge, intelligence, or sanity. One does not build up the Church by tearing down the Pope, no matter how polite one is about it.
It is not helpful to publish articles talking about what harm might happen if people should misinterpret him. Can you imagine the Church Fathers writing epistles about how people might misinterpret Our Lord telling people that if our eye leads us to sin, we should pluck it out? How about St. Francis de Sales, writing Controversies, spending his time complaining about how some teachings of bishops and Popes were badly phrased and led Protestants into error? They didn’t. They spent their time explaining how these things were properly understood.
Let’s face it. Many have misinterpreted Scripture and many have misinterpreted Church writings to justify terrible things. That does not mean Scripture or Church writings must be full of error. It means we can’t rely on ourselves to properly understand if we rely only on what we think the text means. We have to understand the words in the context the speaker or author intended. That means we treat fact as fact, hyperbole as hyperbole, anecdote as anecdote, and so on. We don’t scour the footnotes to find a secret meaning that is different from the actual text.
It also means we don’t make it about us. We don’t show off our own knowledge against the Pope’s words. Our task in social media and in our blogs and articles is to help people understand the faith better, not to criticize those who shepherd us because we think the Pope or bishops should have said things better. The Pope’s not an idiot. He’s not heterodox. He doesn’t speak poorly. The misunderstanding happens because people assume Pope’s words mean what they think the words should mean. That way of thinking forgets the Pope speaks in a different language and comes from a different culture than what we know as Americans. So if we assume the translated words we receive—especially when we receive them from short quotes from secular media—have the same emphasis everywhere in the world as we give them, more often than not, we’ll get it wrong.
Will people uneducated in the faith make this mistake? Yes. But our task, as Catholics seeking to defend the faith, is showing people why this way of thinking is wrong and how they should understand it instead. That means we must clear up misinterpretations of Pope Francis’ words in the same way that we clear up every other misinterpretation of what the Church teaches from the First through the Twenty First centuries.
If we would do that, we have to stop treating what the Pope says as a burden to be suffered and start leading people to understand how his words can help us deepen our understanding of the faith.