Parish encounters

Two very enjoyable talks with parish groups in recent days, one at St. Francis Xavier parish in Sartell, MN, and another at St. John the Baptist parish in Collegeville, MN. My thanks to everyone from both communities who arranged and attended the events. It’s very nourishing for me personally to encounter so many people in our parishes who are already quite aware of the social issues that face us and that our Church’s teachings call us to engage with them in practical and effective ways. And so on we go together….


Francis: “making all of the wrong people happy”

In a column he posted on his archdiocesan website, Archbishop Charles Chaput noted that he received a lot of email from people in reaction to the remarkable interview with Pope Francis recently published by America magazine. A lot of that mail, apparently, came from people who felt “confused” and “betrayed” by what the Pope had to say.

One of them, for example, came from a pro-life activist who “wanted to know why the Pope seemed to dismiss her sacrifices.” Another came from a priest who said the Pope “has implicitly accused brother priests who are serious about moral issues of being small minded,” and that “[if you’re a priest,] being morally serious is now likely to get you publicly cast as a problem.” Those inclined to scold the Pope for not being careful enough with his words, lest he give the wrong impression of such good people and the important work they do, might also consider whether a similar care might have been lacking in the way other popes and church leaders have spoken in the recent past about the work of certain scholars who strive to take seriously the ecclesial vocation of the theologian, certain religious sisters who have responded courageously to the church’s call to reform of consecrated life, and certain activists who have toiled to apply Catholic social teaching to everyday living. How many of them have been “cast as a problem” by the work they do or the things they think?

Still, one other email the Archbishop chose to mention was especially troubling. A priest wrote to him to say that “the problem is that [the Holy Father] makes all of the wrong people happy, people who will never believe in the Gospel and who will continue to persecute the Church.”

I don’t know if Archbishop Chaput replied to the email by scolding this priest for his nasty and judgmental comments, but he should have.

Indeed, a vast amount of people have been made quite happy by the Francis interview. Among them are the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, whose first response was (he says) a “Yippie!” and a desire to “to sing out a loud ‘Alleluia!’” The Cardinal Archbishop of Washington (a more restrained personality) has said that what Francis had to say in the interview is “a gift” and “precisely what the church needs today.” [UPDATE: The Cardinal Archbishop of Galveston-Houston offered his own enthusiastic assessment of the interview, calling it “Pope Francis’ beautiful rhapsody of faith.”]

Would the priest who wrote to Chaput include these two among “all the wrong people” who are delighted by the Pope? Perhaps not.

Of course, we know there are a great many others among his Catholic brothers and sisters who have also been thrilled by the contents of the interview. Surely among them are the more “liberal” among the Catholics in the United States today, people who have been saying for years exactly what Pope Francis said in his interview, without receiving the hierarchical Alleluias now being sung by Cardinals Dolan and Wuerl. Indeed, such folks have been treated almost (and sometimes precisely) as heretics because of it. (I’m not suggesting I’m among them; I’m a bit farther to “the right” of many of these brothers and sisters of mine, so I have not had the occasion or needed the courage to take the sort of risks that some of them have in voicing their convictions.) Not that they often are heretics, but a narrow, stingy, and ahistorical version of Catholic orthodoxy has insisted that they are. Lisa Fullam comments:

For much of recent history, (say, 30 or 40 years,) if you asked random people on the street what the Catholic Church teaches, you’d likely get a pretty short list: no contraception, no women in authority, no abortion, no remarriage after divorce (without annulment,) no marriage for priests, no gay sex, and (more recently,) certainly no same-sex civil marriage. These teachings had become a tidy para-creed often used to label those of us who quibbled with any of these items “heretics.”

Pope Francis has made no changes to any of these para-credal doctrines, as the preachers of that creed are quick to point out. What he seems to have done, however, is to remove their status as inerrant indicators of the “true Catholic.”

Are these people, the ones who might have questioned the wisdom of their being a “para-creed,” the “wrong people” that the aforementioned priest has in mind?

Of course, there’s another group of folks delighting in the Pope’s words that our priest friend may be referring to. It’s all those other folks, the ones who don’t come to church, who have left the Church, or who simply don’t believe the Church has anything worthwhile to say, whom the priest probably means, the ones he calls “people who will never believe in the Gospel and who will continue to persecute the Church.” (People who “will never” believe in the Gospel? John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the great protagonists of the New Evangelization, would likely be disappointed with the attitude.) Call them what you will, it’s no secret that Pope Francis has for six months now been impressing even many of these folks with his humanity, his simplicity, his kindness, his deep respect for even those who do not agree with him.

Especially troubling is that these sad comments from the email that Chaput mentions come not just from a disgruntled layperson, but from a priest, someone who is probably leading a parish somewhere in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This is a fellow who apparently sees everyone but the most faithful Catholics around him as the enemy, the opposition, the bad guys. He thinks there really are people who should not ever like a damn thing the Church has to say, and if they do, then we’re probably not saying it loudly or harshly enough. He thinks (contrary to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic magisterium) that there are no fundamental values, and certainly not a great many of them, that faithful Catholics have in common with reasonable people of good will everywhere and that when we talk about these, therefore, a great many people outside the Church should be pleased.

Some Catholics have been spending a great deal of their time in recent days explaining why what some people think the Pope said is not really what the Pope said. But what if Fr. Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit who conducted the big interview, is quite right (as I think he is) to insist, “I don’t have to interpret the Pope. The words are there. It’s absolutely clear”?

What if people know what Francis is saying and what he’s not saying, and they still like him, love him, embrace him? What if they have not failed to note his no-women-priests comments included the big interview and the comments he made more recently in which he criticized abortion and our “throw-away culture” that makes it so widespread? What if they know he’s not throwing Catholic ecclesiology overboard, that he’s not repudiating Catholic teaching on abortion or marriage or anything else, but they simply love him and respect him, even with the serious disagreements? What if the disturbing lesson here is that the world would have been a lot more open to what we’ve been saying all along, if we’d only said it with a little more respect and love for those around us and lived what we say we believe with a little more authenticity? As one who often has seen himself on the “right” of many intra- and extra-ecclesial disputes, I have found the idea to be a cause for a real examination of conscience.

It is much easier to think it hasn’t been us, hasn’t been me, isn’t it? It’s Francis who is the problem, Francis who obviously is saying things wrong, if he is making all these people, all these liberals, all these heretics and atheists, all of the wrong people happy.

The church is not a club and the liturgy is not a concert

Continuing my work on the Boselli translation (which I explained a bit here), I came across this passage this morning. A good one, perhaps, as so many of us prepare to head off to Sunday morning Mass (or perhaps wonder whether or not we want to go):

A French liturgist [Louis-Marie Chauvet] has described well the temptation faced by many of the faithful, especially those given to a certain aesthetic, musical, or artistic sense, who are troubled by the quality of the liturgical celebration: “My parish is not beautiful. The church is ugly, the cantor sings poorly, the priest’s homilies are banal, the children are noisy, and so on. Am I not perhaps more united to God when I watch the Mass on television at home? Sitting in front of the television, I pray better!” The response of the church is clear: “It is to your parish assembly that God calls you, even if it is less beautiful than the Mass on television.” Why? Because that concrete assembly, where you encounter people whom you have not chosen, teaches you what the church is. The church is not a club made up of friends who enjoy spending time together, and the liturgy is not a musical concert (although singing and music of high quality is important). In the assembly of  the church, we do not gather in the name of human affections and friendships; rather, we gather “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It is no coincidence that the Eucharistic celebration begins with this Trinitarian formula: each time, it reminds  those who gather that the Church is not a gathering of people of our own choosing, but the gathering of men and women whom God, and no one else, has called to himself.

“A Church that finds new roads”

It’s a little ironic to me now that on early Thursday morning I prepared a brief blog post that opened with a reference to a new Catholic World Report essay by James Schall, SJ. Though Father Schall is a talented writer (and is, in fact, the author of one of my favorite books of all time), a point he made in the opening paragraph of his new essay struck me as nearly bizarre. He wrote:

In contrast with his usual custom of keeping what he says brief and to the point, Pope Francis wrote a fairly long message (about one full page in L’Osservatore Romano) for Mission Sunday, which will be observed on October 20, 2013. This letter is rather wide ranging. It strikes me as giving more insight into what Pope Bergoglio is about than almost anything I have previously come across, except perhaps Lumen Fidei.

I thought: After all the startling off-the-cuff remarks this pope has offered us, all the insightful and unscripted morning homilies, the impromptu trip to Lampedusa, the insistence on adding a visit to one of Rio’s favelas to the World Youth Day itinerary, the Holy Thursday washing of feet at the youth detention facility, the choices regarding residence and cars and clothing — after all that, Fr. Schall is going to choose Lumen Fidei, which is a fine document, but which is also the one thing that everyone knows reflects more of Pope Benedict’s personal thinking and pastoral initiative than Francis’s, as the thing that tells us most about “what this pope is about”?

I prepared a little post on that, and on the fascinating words and gestures I’ve just listed above, noting what an interesting and valuable window they are into what this pope really is “about” and what he sees our Catholic Christian faith as being about. I prepared the post and then scheduled it to be published here this morning.

Well, neither I nor Fr. Schall need wonder any longer about which comment, writing, or gesture of Francis tells us the most about him thus far. All the other possible candidates for that distinction were blown out of the water at 11 am Eastern time Thursday, when America magazine posted, with very little prior notice, a stunning 12,000-word interview with the Pope. What an extraordinary experience it is to read! The Pope and all involved in this project deserve our thanks.

There is a tendency with the publication of any significant ecclesial or papal statement for people to cherry pick and point to their favorite parts, the parts that reflect most clearly their own pet convictions or causes (or at the very least the ones for which they can spin out an explanation that stretches the passages onto a procrustean bed of their own thinking).

I was struck, for example, by one American bishop’s suggestion, after reading the Francis interview, that the real take-away is: “The Church is not a body of doctrines, a smorgasbord from which we may pick and choose what to preach, but the Word of God which must be proclaimed in its fullness” (The Church is the Word of God? Vatican II had major documents on both the Church and the Word of God, but neither one equated the two) and that “If we don’t agree with what the Holy Father teaches, we don’t need a new Pope, we need a new attitude.” (Sure, that’s what Francis said.)

I can understand that sort of cherry-picking. It’s natural. But I always wonder if the same people paid any attention at all to the points that don’t quite fit their own conception of Catholic faith and life. Not that they have to point these out with enthusiasm, but did they at least stop and think about them and wonder what exactly about these passages makes them uncomfortable and should these passages, just maybe, be the source of some personal intellectual (or moral) change, development, or conversion?

Anyway, for that reason, I prefer to resist the temptation to point out my “favorite” quotes and offer commentary that ends up making the Pope think surprisingly like, well, me. Still, I keep coming back to one particular comment of Francis’s from that interview which seems to me to sum up everything he was saying there, and, really, to sum up so much that he has done and said these past six months that have caught the attention (and caused the consternation) of so many. The Pope said:

Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.

Indeed, that short passage seems to me to be the very thing for which Fr. Schall was somewhat ineffectively grasping in that opening paragraph of his essay — a summary of Francis himself and his papal ministry. Being “a Church that finds new roads” to the people in our world, especially those who distrust or ignore the Church (sometimes for good reason), seems to be exactly what Pope Francis is all about.

Jon Stewart and Catholicism’s “core tenets”

“This Francis is a different kind of pope,” Jon Stewart said in a recent episode of his satirical comedy show, which presents itself as a sort of news and commentary program. And to illustrate the point, he started by pointing out Francis’s distinctive preferences in residence and transportation. Fair enough so far.

But Stewart was just getting started about this different kind of pope. He also, and more emphatically, noted Francis’s recent widely-reported comments to reporters that “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?”, his comments in a recent letter to an Italian newspaper which insist that atheists can be saved if they follow their conscience, and his new Secretary of State’s suggestion that it might be possible for the church to re-evaluate priestly celibacy. Stewart summarized: “I love this guy! So, to sum it up, let me get this straight. Gays are cool, priests can get married, and you don’t even have to believe in God to get to heaven. What exactly of Catholicism is left? I mean, you take away Jesus and celibacy, the Catholic Church is just an ornate restaurant that only sells wafers. It’s like Catholicism’s core tenet is suddenly, ‘Eh, f**k it, you do you.’ That’s all.”

Stewart’s comments reminded me of a post I offered here several months ago titled “Pope Francis, Washing Feet, and Catholic Orthodoxy,” which I’ve hoped to elaborate on further but haven’t yet. Noting public reactions within the Church to Francis washing the feet of incarcerated young people, including women, on Holy Thursday, I wrote about my concern that “what many in recent years have suggested to be authentically orthodox Catholicism is not really that. There has been an inaccurate picture of the scope of Catholic doctrine on offer. In short, orthodox Catholic doctrine includes a lot more than some would have us believe.” We have at times, I said, received a presentation of Catholic teaching that is “distorted and just plain wrong, and it comes to us not from Catholic doctrine, but from a narrow and clericalized version of doctrine that in fact betrays authentic Catholic doctrine and the Gospel it presents.”

Jon Stewart’s comments make this point quite well and, thanks to our mistakes, reinforce the problem for a national audience of millions.

The main point to be made here is that every one of the three examples Stewart offers of what he sees as Pope Francis’s basically throwing the heart of Catholic dogma out the window is, in fact, completely consistent with the most orthodox teaching of the Church. We can’t and never could judge the conscience of someone who is gay and actively seeking to follow God and live a good life; that’s Catholic doctrine. We do believe that a nonbeliever can be saved (because, Stewart does not realize, of the redemption won for each of us by Christ) if he is following his conscience to the best of his ability; John Paul II was able to wonder in print about whether hell might be empty. And priestly celibacy is not and never has been anything approaching one of “Catholicism’s core tenets”; it’s not even doctrine at all.

And yet Stewart (and surely many others) hears these things and is able to ask, “What exactly of Catholicism is left?” That’s because of how we have presented Catholicism to the world. Some but by no means all of the blame for that goes to recent popes (whom I also regard as remarkably gifted and holy men and who also, it must be said, admirably and tirelessly presented what truly are the core tenets of the faith), some goes to bishops, and some goes to the self-appointed leaders and followers of the hyper-orthodoxy movement. (In honesty, I should acknowledge that I probably at least approached a sort of peripheral membership in that latter group in my young adult years, though I believe I stayed away from the more corrosive aspects of it.)

When Cardinal Dolan, about whom I admire much, was on Stephen Colbert earlier this month, Colbert brought up Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” comments, too. And Dolan responded with a shrug and smile, saying, in effect, “Sure, of course Francis is right. We can’t judge anyone’s conscience. Only God can and God is merciful. Francis is telling us a core Gospel truth.” And as I watched that — the recorded video, not the live show; both Stewart and Colbert are on too late for me! — I think I said out loud to the screen, “But we weren’t saying that very much or very clearly, at least not about homosexuality, were we? Not until Francis said it.”

To look in another direction, It is coming to look as though we may soon see a rehabilitation, an exoneration of sorts, of liberation theology and its primary architects. Pope Francis has requested, in a public way, a copy of Leonardo Boff’s most recent book for his review. The Pope will apparently be meeting with Gustavo Guttierez sometime very soon, a fact also conspicuously made public. If the work of these men does received a sort of public blessing on the part of church authorities, it will only be after decades of public accusations, deep suspicion, harsh criticism, and vilification. Church doctrine has not changed and neither has their work; what has changed is the attitude toward theology and orthodoxy, at least on the part of the man sitting in Peter’s Chair.

Being orthodox in our preaching and teaching of the faith is important, and Francis makes no bones about that. But it has to be orthodox Catholic doctrine, not some self-styled version of what I or you would like Catholicism to be. Coming up with our own version of the faith is no better, and just as harmful to souls, when we make it too demanding and narrow as it is when we water it down to nothing.