The First Things “On the Square” blog offered a post the other day from author William Doino, Jr., called “Five Myths About Pope Francis.” Doino sees some dastardly thinking in the air about our Pope, and he wishes to debunk it all. (Thanks to Michael Sean Winters for drawing my attention it, but I can’t help but expand upon his brief comments.)
“Myth” #1 that Doino seeks to dismiss is that “Francis is the anti-Benedict.” The first thing to say is that there is absolutely no one who is suggesting that Francis is “the anti-Benedict,” as though the two are as different as night and day or somehow dramatically at odds in terms of doctrine or theology. What Doino offers here is a straw man. Everyone who has paid any attention knows that Francis seems to like Benedict, respect Benedict, and that he embraces and seeks to proclaim the same Catholic doctrine embraced and proclaimed by Benedict.
But it should be obvious to all that this is not an all-or-nothing matter. We do not have to choose between Francis being either the anti-Benedict or a Benedict replica. And the fact is, in some significant and interesting ways, Francis is different than Benedict. This is okay and to be expected. Benedict was different than John Paul II in some significant and interesting ways, too. What bugs the First Things folks is that some of the differences (his application of the Church’s social teachings, for example, and maybe his liturgical style) suggest that ideas they would want us to think are unacceptable are in fact quite legitimate among Catholics.
“Myth” #2 that Doino opposes is that “Francis is Not a Cultural Warrior.” Doino rejects the idea that the Pope “avoids confrontation and strident denunciations, and wants no part of any culture war,” apparently because to do so would be bad for a Pope. Doino is clearly bothered by Sandro Magister’s observation that “after 120 days of pontificate Pope Francis has not yet spoken the words abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage,” for he says it’s hard to imagine a more misleading statement.
Magister’s comment is certainly not insignificant, but there is probably absolutely no one who would take from it that it means Francis is in any way in favor of these practices or lacks the will to oppose them. What is does say a lot about, in my opinion, is Francis’s pastoral priorities.
Francis is indeed, in some ways, a culture warrior. The problem for the First Things crowd is the aspects of the culture with which he has chosen, so far, to do battle. And yet raise his voice he does, prophetically, and he does it by drawing upon on the same Catholic moral tradition from which Benedict and John Paul II drew. He has done this from the very first days of his pontificate, when he pointed out clearly what he sees to be “one of the most dangerous threats of our times” — but failed to mention the threats that Doino and others at First Things would prefer did. “Above all,” he said, “we must keep alive in our world the thirst for the absolute, and must not allow the vision of the human person with a single dimension to prevail, according to which man is reduced to what he produces and to what he consumes: this is one [of the] most dangerous threats of our times.”
Pope Francis played the role of “culture warrior” quite dramatically more recently at Lampedusa, when he donned purple vestments for Mass on a weekday of Ordinary Time, used the prayers from the Mass for the Forgiveness of Sins, and called for our repentance for the way we have treated immigrants. The pope preached boldly:
“Where is your brother?” the voice of his blood cries even to me, God says. This is not a question addressed to others: it is a question addressed to me, to you, to each one of us. These our brothers and sisters seek to leave difficult situations in order to find a little serenity and peace, they seek a better place for themselves and for their families – but they found death. How many times to those who seek this not find understanding, do not find welcome, do not find solidarity! And their voices rise up even to God!…
The culture of well-being, that makes us think of ourselves, that makes us insensitive to the cries of others, that makes us live in soap bubbles, that are beautiful but are nothing, are illusions of futility, of the transient, that brings indifference to others, that brings even the globalization of indifference.
Francis also stood as culture warrior in his May address to new diplomats to the Vatican in which he criticized the world’s economic system. He said,
The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal. The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption…. I encourage the financial experts and the political leaders of your countries to consider the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs.
And by the way, the world press had no doubts on that occasion about whether Francis might be considered a culture warrior. As I pointed out at the time, depending on where you got your news, you could read that Pope Francis slammed, attacked, denounced, ripped, hit out at, blasted, railed against, warned against, criticized, or condemned the “cult of money” that pervades much of the world economy.
“Myth” #3 that Doino wishes to dispell is “Francis is a ‘Social Justice’ Pope.” Because, you know, heaven forbid we think that!!
As evidence that Francis is not a “social justice pope,” Doino points out that he is “not exclusively concerned about poverty” and because he “believes that individual conversion must precede societal improvement.” Of course, if to be a “social justice pope” means that he can be concerned only and exclusively about poverty and that he thinks individual conversion has no place in societal improvement, there never has been and never will be such a creature. But if a “social justice pope” is a pope who makes social justice a pastoral priority, then he is clearly that. So, in very real ways, was John XXIII. And Paul VI. And John Paul II. And Benedict XVI.
Francis has added some new twists to his pastoral ministry in pursuit of social justice, and it’s these that make the neo-conservatives at First Things uncomfortable (as Archbishop Chaput has pointed out bluntly this week).
Doino’s “Myth” #4 is that “Francis Will Be More Charitable Toward Dissenters.” This is an odd one to include here, because to my mind, the only thing anyone can say one way or another right now about how Francis will relate to prominent theologians who dissent in significant ways from Church teaching is that it remains to be seen. What we can say is that there is more than one way for Church authorities to address doctrinal dissent. We can also say that it is not altogether clear that what has been treated as dissent over the past several decades has, in every case, been that. Francis has a different personality and, as I said, different pastoral priorities. Might he take a different approach? Yes, he might. We don’t know.
Finally, Doino’s “Myth” #5 is “Francis Loves the World.” Horrors! How did this despicable accusation get out, and how can we stop it?!? Have no fear, Doino is quick to step in decisively: “This is the greatest misconception of all.”
After all, we can’t have anyone thinking that Francis has the same love for the world that, like, God does.
Granted, Doino allows that Francis loves people (whew!) and also loves creation. But apparently we can’t say that he loves the world.
In conclusion, get it right: Francis is the same as Benedict, is a neo-conservative culture warrior, is no social justice pope, is going to nail dissenters, and hates the world. Or something like that.