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.

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