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Is the Pope Catholic?

September 12, 2023 | 1,624 words | Religion, Politics, Economics

Asking whether the Pope is Catholic used to be one of those funny rhetorical question that do not require an answer.  Like asking does a bird fly, or if a bear defecates in the forest.  But these days that first question is not so funny to some people, and not so rhetorical.

In the decade since Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected/elevated to the papacy as Pope Francis, the complaints levied against him by conservative critics, especially conservatives here in the United States, have grown more pronounced with each passing year.  What started as semi-polite sniping over his so-called fuzzy pastoral emphasis has evolved into almost open warfare over much more serious issues.  He is now routinely accused of undermining the faith, and teaching error.  “Schism” is a word his critics are referencing quite a bit lately, when discussing the current pontiff and what lies ahead.

After ten years of this persistent opposition, Francis is now starting to return fire.  At age 86, and with his health having started to fail, he might be sensing the impending end of his run, as older people frequently do.  Last month he described the loudest conservative voices in American Catholicism as backward-looking moralists (“indietristi”) who are disconnected from the roots of the Catholic tradition and its history.  That tradition and history, as Francis understands it, is about the ongoing discernment needed to help live the Gospel message in current realities.

So who is right?  We are each expected to choose a side in this raging controversy, to either condemn Francis and champion his critics, or vice versa.  But my mind does not work that way.  I see merit on both sides.  The concept of unchanging truths the conservatives rally behind resonates with me.  On the other hand, I also think knowing the mind of Christ is no easy task, and is always a work in progress.  With Pope Francis being rather conspicuous in making a case for the latter approach.

I guess I have not been able to muster the same level of outrage toward Francis that his harshest critics exhibit on a regular basis.  Is encouraging priests to welcome and minister to people who are gay, divorced and remarried, as Francis does, a blatant violation of established doctrine?  Instead of dismissing the effort out of hand, as conservatives are wont to do, maybe we should be having an intelligent discussion about what the word “welcome” means in this context.

And why are we arguing about who is more Pro-Life?  Pope Francis has always upheld church teaching on abortion, and has been unequivocal in his defense of the innocent unborn.  Why do conservatives find fault  when he adds: “equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned.”  The latter concern does not undermine the integrity of the former position.

That Catholics of goodwill are so contentious, with the opposing camp picking apart every utterance and perceived mis-step the current pontiff makes, is a sign of the times.  The relentless partisanship of our politics has spilled over into every other aspect of our lives.  Another factor contributing to the alarm some folks are feeling is how different Francis is, stylistically and in doctrinal emphasis, from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Both those men participated in and were products of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the big worldwide conclave in which the Catholic Church finally set aside its long-running objections to the American Experiment, and signaled that liberal democracy based on pluralism could be a legitimate form of social organization.  A little late to the party, you might say.  But better late than never, right?

These two helped craft the famous “liberating” documents that came out of that Council’s deliberations, yet as pope each went on to steer the U.S. hierarchy in a decidedly conservative theological direction.  As if to counterbalance what they still considered to be a very real problem, namely, the overwhelmingly secular influence of American culture.  

It has been clear from the start of his papacy that Pope Francis does not see this course-correction project as his top priority.  He is more interested in other things, like promoting from-the-ground-up collaboration within the church, which may lead to including lay people and even women in decision-making roles.  This is a hot-button issue for conservatives, who think such collaboration is opening a Pandora’s box that will result in confusion and error, and possibly even schism.

Hence all the talk of Francis “flipping the script” in a big, dramatic way.  But I find that to be largely a matter of interpretation.  He is, in fact, repeating many of the same themes his immediate predecessors stressed.  JPII and Benedict XVI did more than just push a conservative theological line, after all.  They also spoke and wrote extensively about the much broader mosaic of Catholic teaching around protecting life and promoting human flourishing.  Just as Francis does.

It is certainly true Francis does not mince words when speaking extemporaneously, especially when it comes to the economic stuff.  JPII and Benedict XVI were erudite and maintained proper decorum in their public statements, and this made it possible for conservatives to truncate the elaborate economic teaching they put down on paper, and frame it in a very limited way that flatters their preferred agenda.

Francis may be a little salty at times when responding to journalists, but in his plain-spoken way he is merely reiterating long-held church teaching on economic/social justice and care for the less-advantaged.  And he has made it impossible for conservatives to misconstrue his meaning on that score.

Conservatives really liked the staunchness and fidelity the last two popes displayed on certain theological subjects, and continue to cite those men wistfully.  But only because they conveniently overlook everything else those popes had to say that they do not much care for.

This current pope says quite a lot conservatives don’t much care for, and he seems to draw more than a few moral equivalencies they take issue with.  Such as tying together violations of pelvic theology conservatives consider to be doctrinally pre-eminent, with lying and cheating at the office to advance one’s career.  It seems Francis never tires of calling out those who are pre-occupied with sins below the waist but don’t lose any sleep over the exploitation of workers.  

There’s the rub, as far as I am concerned.  Conservatives can tell themselves their argument with Francis is over sexual morality or worship styles or climate change or a myriad of other things.  But what really sticks in their crawl is the way this pope openly challenges a revered concept like enlightened self-interest, and in the process comes across as anti-American or even worse, anti-capitalist.

In this regard Francis is not flipping the script at all.  Quite the contrary.  He is working from a very old and familiar one, at least in its broad outline.  A script used by every Catholic pope since our nation’s founding, each of whom have regarded the American Experiment with suspicion.

Over the last couple of centuries, a steady stream of pontiffs has issued periodic warnings about “Americanism” and “modernist” trends.  True, in the early days Catholic objections were centered on the separation of church and state, originally feared to be a danger to both individual souls and the state at large.

But Catholic tradition and history is about learning how to live out the Gospel message in current realities.  And so we find the nature of Rome’s complaint about the United States may have changed in some of the particulars, but remains in essence what it has always been:  It is our celebration of the individual, at the expense of concern for the common good, that has come under constant scrutiny.

We Americans have always taken issue with this Catholic critique of our way of life.  We do not appreciate being lectured on the common good.  And we certainly don’t appreciate having this same, tired lecture delivered by an aging pontiff from a backward Third World country who lacks a proper understanding of our singular achievement, a robust engine of economic growth predicated on small government and limited taxation.

Today’s conservatives continue to miss the larger message Rome has been trying to send them for centuries, and are pre-occupied instead by the new emphasis Francis is placing on being more pastoral toward those who have fallen short of their baptismal promise, and more inclusive toward those outside the mainstream.  Or how he consistently decries economic injustice and the treatment of migrants, while insisting on a universal right to health care, housing, and decent jobs.

Even though every pope in the modern era has talked and written at length about the very same things.  Including his two immediate predecessors.  

Accusing this pope of undermining the faith and teaching error is a very serious charge.  I have read the relevant papal documents promulgated over the last decade, the ones now being used as the basis for these mutinous claims.  And I just do not find the egregious violations of doctrine his detractors are coming up with.  If you are worried Pope Francis may be creating confusion and spreading doubt by unpacking the Gospel message and applying it to current realities, as some of his critics most assuredly are, the solution to that problem is to be a better teacher, not to skimp on the teaching.  

Shouldn’t we be trying to educate people in the fullness of the faith?  That is how I see Francis, that is how I experience his pontificate.  His critics strike me as wanting to “keep it simple, stupid” out of fear the rank and file may be too cognitively-limited to grasp the whole truth in all its splendor.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

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