Monday, February 20, 2017

It Didn't Start With Francis

While I don’t particularly like the song, it’s practically mandatory 
to show this video in a post like this


One common trend in social media is a number of Catholics claiming that things were wonderful under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and the opposition against Popes only arose in reaction to the things Pope Francis did. From their comments on social media, I can identify three groups:

  1. There are a lot of Catholics who were not aware of the controversy in those pre-Internet/Smartphone times
  2. There are a lot of recent converts out there who missed the attacks against previous Popes, and are encountering something they never were aware of.
  3. Some Catholics have conveniently “forgotten" their hostility to previous Popes

I will leave it to God to judge whether anyone is in category three, but I think the first two probably explains a lot of it.

Before the internet, the only way to get information was either to rely on the media, or order encyclicals from either Daughters of St. Paul or the publishing company of the American bishops (I can’t even recall what it was called back then). On one hand, Catholics had to wait until the document was published in the country. On the other hand, so did reporters, and they would usually call a local pastor to get commentary for their news articles. So things were slower back then. There were still attacks, of course.

We Forget How and Why the Rebellion Happened…

No, it didn’t start with Francis, and it didn’t start with Vatican II.

We forget that the priests and religious who caused problems after Vatican II were ordained before Vatican II. We forget some of them were highly respected. Fr. Schillebeeckx, for example, was a highly respected moral theologian, whose early manuals are still cited by orthodox Catholics because of their quality. We forget some of them were highly respected by the bishops who would later find them problematic. We forget that some who were later honored by St. John Paul II were viewed with suspicion by the Holy Office, (St. Padre Pio, Benedict XVI), and some of them were silenced.

We forget that a generation rose up and rejected authority, political and religious. Nations that were not Catholic, or even Christian, had unrest. We forget the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the mistrust of government, and the hostility to unjust laws (like segregation) influenced a generation. Unfortunately, they didn’t stop at opposing injustice. A large portion of a generation began to think the state and the Church were to blame for these things by their very existence. When the state enforced the law, when the Church insisted some behaviors were morally evil, this was “fascism.” Never mind they were using this epithet against a generation that opposed fascism.

We also forget the dramatic change that came in 1968 (not 1965). Everybody was expecting the Catholic Church to “change her teaching” on contraception. Because they misunderstood how the Church worked, they assumed that because the majority report (going beyond their authority of investigating whether the Pill was contraception) urged a change in teaching, that it was a guaranteed thing. So when Blessed Paul VI reinforced the traditional Catholic teaching, many were angry. They irrationally felt betrayed over the Church “betraying” them in something she never promised and would never do.

Because we forget this, I think we are unable to understand the scope of what the Church faced, and what a monumental task it was to repair. Theologians were called to get back in line with the Church, and when they didn’t, several were suspended from teaching theology.

We Forget the Rebellion from the Right Happened at the Same Time

We also forget that certain Catholics, trying to remain faithful, became embittered with the inadequate response from the bishops. Committing a post hoc fallacy, they assumed that because the unrest followed Vatican II, the unrest was caused by Vatican II. So they began to agitate for reversing the Council. The SSPX rose at this time. When the bishops, and later the Pope, began to crack down on their abuses, they refused the obedience which was a keystone to the pre-conciliar teaching that they professed to support. Archbishop Lefebvre was suspended by Blessed Paul VI for illicitly ordaining priests against a direct order not to, and was excommunicated by St. John Paul II for consecrating bishops against a direct order not to.

What people forget is the SSPX and those who sympathized with them hated Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II for their actions taken. These people constantly gave their actions a negative twist, accusing them of heresy and modernism[†]. Even some who were not part of the SSPX blamed the Holy Father for not cracking down on the dissenters they disagreed with, while saying that the defeat of that faction should take priority[¶], but he was ignoring them to punish the SSPX and others.

Between Scylla and Charybdis with St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI

This resulted in the Pope being hated by both sides, each accusing the Popes of favoring the other side. Cries of “Why don’t you punish them for X?” appeared in religious newspapers, magazines and others. It was assumed that the continued existence of a faction without a public censure was “proof” that the Pope identified with this side. When St. John Paul II wrote about social justice, he was accused of identifying with socialism. When he wrote on abortion, he was accused of being right wing.

Generally speaking, vocal factions in the Church argued that whatever he did against them was proof of being political or heresy[§], while what he did that they agreed with was “too little too late.” They certainly confused Catholics trying to be faithful. With so much smoke, people wondered if there was fire. Catholics trending towards liberalism began to believe the accusations that the Pope was cold hearted and insensitive. Those trending towards conservatism began to believe the accusations that he was weak on dissent and was sympathetic, uncaring, or ignorant of what was going on in the Church.

The Rise of the Internet and the Smartphone

We also forget that knowledge (or misinformation) of and criticism about Papal actions grew with technology. The Printing Press was invented in 1440. The Telegraph was invented in the 1830s. The Fax Machine was invented in 1846. The telephone was invented in 1876. The radio was invented in 1894 (Vatican Radio began in 1931). With each step, it was easier and faster to distribute news, and the Church was able to distribute her documents more widely and quickly. But everything still depended on hard copy (except for the relatively few items on microfilm and microfiche). If a copy was not available in bookstore or library, you had to either drive long distances or do without[Ω].

The media depended on experts to interpret what the Church said, and that depended on some ludicrous situations. When it was announced that the Pope was releasing a new encyclical, the media wondered if this meant the Church was finally changing her teaching on contraception, abortion, and women’s ordination[√]. Then they would call local pastors and bishops and be disabused of their notions.

The next phase of communications emerged when Internet was commercialized in 1995. Over the next 20 years, more information would get onto the internet, but so would misinformation. In addition, more people would be given an audience[ø]. This also meant the critics of the Pope would be able to increase their reach. Then in the late 2000s, the Smartphone combined the internet with instant access without having to be at a computer, allowing the individual to be instantly informed about things happening around the world.

Unfortunately, a chain is as strong as its weakest link, and, when it comes to news on the Church, that weakest link was the media that believed that someday the Church would have to change her teaching. These reporters, with their religious illiteracy, did not understand the nuances of moral theology or how the Church taught. For example, when Benedict XVI gave a book length interview with Peter Seewald in 2010, he gave a hypothetical example of a gay prostitute with AIDS to illustrate how a person might begin to think about an issue in terms of morals. But the media thought the Church had finally changed!

It wasn’t the first time. In 2006, his lecture in Regensburg was wrongly portrayed as a denunciation of Islam, and his Caritas in Veritate (2009) was portrayed as a movement towards liberalism in terms of economic policy. Reporters and their editors thought that the world would eventually change the Church, and viewed each unfamiliar concept as a change towards their politics.

This led to a new situation. The Church would speak, the media would misrepresent, and Catholic critics would blame the Pope for the confusion. Never mind that the media never once stopped to confirm their information. Never mind that they’ve been consistently wrong, and the actual documents or transcripts show Popes did not say what they were alleged to say when taken in context.

Getting From There To Here

So, what we have here is a set of attitudes from different factions that contribute to confusion:

  1. A rebellion against the authority of the Church when it goes against a faction
  2. A belief that the Church has to change or revert to avoid error
  3. A belief or fear that this change is imminent
  4. A tendency to make hostile interpretations of actions as having sympathy or support for the other side (believed to be in error)
  5. A religiously illiterate media that does not understand the depth and nuance of Church teaching
  6. Blaming the Pope for those misinterpretations.
  7. Increasingly rapid communications from people responsible for the above problems
Put these factors together and we have instantaneous response to the actions of the Pope which are affected with the biases of the person responding. It’s the same actions, but it happens faster now than it did in previous pontificates and reaches a far larger audience.

And Now, Here We Are

This is why I must shake my head in sadness and disbelief when I encounter Catholics who say, “Things were never this way before Pope Francis.” They certainly did happen back then. But before the Smartphone (which only took off in the later years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI), before the Internet (which arrived only during the pontificate of St. John Paul II), things were much slower and some errors could be refuted before they spread too far. 

But now, with the internet and the smartphone, a wild rumor can spread around the world before the Vatican Press Office can respond[π]. If a reporter wrongly thinks the quote,“Who am I to judge?” means the Pope is going to change Church teaching on homosexuality, there’s not much the Church can do to stop the misinformation from happening. She can only offer a correction and encourage people to listen to what was made in context.

This is the situation Pope Francis inherited.

  1. A rebellion from day one when radical traditionalists called his election “a disaster.” 
  2. Some hoping and some fearing change to Church teaching.
  3. A belief that this change would happen.
  4. A hostile interpretation as heretical overshadowing everything he said or did
  5. A religiously illiterate media quoting out of context, and predicting he would change Church teaching on homosexuality, abortion, contraception, etc. and hostile factions believing it.
  6. Blaming the Pope for those out of context quotes. 
  7. An instantaneous communication misrepresenting what Pope Francis said and did. 
It is these factors that lead to confusion in the Church. It has been true since the rebellion of the 1960s, and continues today, aided by improved communications of error. We didn’t hear as much about this confusion from his predecessors because the internet and the smartphone came relatively late to the game. 
There will always be some incidents where a Pope doesn’t act as we think a Pope should act. Since, a Pope is a sinner in need of salvation like the rest of us, it is possible a Pope will do something regrettable. But this catastrophic view of the Church we have today shows a lack of knowledge of problems we’ve always had. Blessed John Henry Newman, for example, had to defend Pope Pius IX from those who received faulty understanding about what he said as reported by an ignorant media.

We need to avoid the argument from ignorance fallacy. Just because someone is not aware of the controversies involving the predecessors of Pope Francis does not mean these controversies did not exist. They most certainly did—but they had a much more limited reach than today. We should keep this in mind, and not assume that because this is the first time we’re noticing it, that this is the first time it happened. Once we clear out this misinterpretation, we can see the real issues clearly and perhaps come to a better attitude in dealing with them.


[†] Prior to Benedict XVI’s motu proprio on the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, they made the same attacks against him.
[¶] When these critics were questioned about the censures given, it was never enough. They believed the Holy Father should have excommunicated them, even though that was not the established penalty.
[§] For example, the picture of St. John Paul II kissing the Qur’an, and the Meeting in Assisi were portrayed as “proof” that he was a heretic.
[Ω] As a personal anecdote, in 1992, doing my senior thesis for my B.A degree, defending the Church against the charge of “sympathy to the Nazis,” I had no access to Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge or Pius XII’s Summi Pontificatus which denounced the Nazis, and was unable to use them (I still got an A, even though my thesis advisor was overtly hostile to the position I took). Nowadays, anyone can do a Google search and get the full text
[√] These were the big three the media obsessed over during this era. They really seemed to believe that a change was possible, which should have served as a warning to how incompetently they would deal with Pope Francis. 
[ø] For example, without the internet, I am sure that I would not be able to reach the audience I have with my blog The expense of publishing would have made it literally impossible.  
[π] If the Vatican News Service would lock the reporters on the plane until the full transcript of a press conference was released to the public, I’d be all for it. 

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