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.

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