After giving the matter some reflection over the weekend, I cannot, in good conscience, say that I am anything less than disappointed in Pope Francis’ much-publicized interview, “A Big Open Heart to God.” In approximately 12,000 words, the Pope did nothing to strengthen the witness of the Catholic Church in the (post)modern world even if, at certain points, he tepidly reaffirmed Church teaching on matters most faithful Catholics already know about. The Pope is not a stupid man. Although he admits to being, at times, an incautious speaker while taking pains to exude humility, he cannot be unaware that his words carry weight and that his status as the head of over 1 billion Catholics means that those words will be at least partially read by secular and Christian media before being filtered and sent out to the world at large. One might think that this would instill a greater sense of the need for care in the Pope’s mind, perhaps compelling him to favor the sort of terseness and forthrightness found in the writings and statements of pontiffs from earlier generations. But no. Instead, Pope Francis marches on to the beat of his own heart, vacillating from one thought to the next without any eye toward the whole. In the end he leaves on the printed page 12,000 words which can easily be sliced, diced, and repackaged into what appears disturbingly like new modes and orders for the “modern” Catholic Church. Did any points of doctrine change? Did the Church do a 180 on some matter of morality? Has the Catholic tradition been canonically suppressed? The answer to all three questions is, of course, “No.” However, by leaving the doors of potential misinterpretation (or reinterpretation) wide open, coupled with pointing to a public mission for the Church which reallocates its resources toward programs which better align with the sentimental moralism of liberal-democratic ideology, the Pope has risked terminating, in the hearts and minds, of the faithful other teachings of the Church by mere neglect.
Some call this conclusion an overreaction, but is it? If the past 40 years of Catholic history has demonstrated anything, it is how neglect can be just as potent a force against the health of the Church as open ideological warfare. In fact, the latter, as a naked manifestation of demonic terror, may be a less destructive force insofar as it compels the faithful to come to the defense of Holy Mother Church. Neglect, on the other hand, leads to a steady erosion of confidence in certain aspects of traditional Church teaching and praxis until they are assumed to no longer matter. If priests, for instance, neglect their duty to sit in the confessional for more than 15 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, is it any wonder that many Catholics now assume that the sacrament of Confession is no longer needful? If a specially appointed liturgical commission neglects to reform the Mass with an eye to the eternal while simultaneously neglecting the proper measure of rubrical guidance to ensure that the Church’s highest form of worship is served with due reverence, solemnity, and beauty, is it any surprise that the Church finds herself mired in liturgical banality? Reversing neglect is no easy task, and sometimes the results are dismal. By the time Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae which, inter alia, reaffirmed the Church’s teachings on contraception, neglect – especially in the United States – of proper catechesis on the bases of that teaching in particular and the authority of the Church on such matters in general led to a widespread (albeit quiet) revolt; only a minority of American Catholics (to say nothing of Catholics throughout the world) respect the Church’s prohibition on contraception. There are other examples. When the Church neglects the dignity and purpose of the priesthood, vocations dry up. When the Church neglects what is being taught in its schools and universities, heresy is spread under the cover of “open inquiry.” And when the Church neglects the salvation of souls, people go to hell.
Now, perhaps Pope Francis is, in a way, concerned with neglect. There is no doubt he believes the world at large, and apparently the Church as well, has neglected the poor, the oppressed, widows, children, those in prisons, etc. Surely he is correct, and surely it is incumbent for the Church’s leader, the Vicar of Christ, to speak, in the light of the Gospel, against these serious moral errors. However, to affirm what might be called, in quite modern terms, the “social mission” of the Church, that is, its commitment to “social justice,” does not mean the Church must now neglect preaching against such ubiquitous sins as abortion, contraception, and the normalization, nay, promotion of sexual license, including homosexuality, in society. There is no either/or. As the Church has long taught, willful murder; the sin of Sodom; oppression of the poor; and defrauding laborers of their ages are all sins crying to Heaven for vengeance. They are all grave; they are all evil; and they must all be combated with equal vigor, particularly in a world which has normalized all four. While Pope Francis is correct to point out that certain “hot button” moral issues have received the primary attention of the Church as of late, the proper manner of correcting this problem is to remind the Church, without ambiguity or rambling, that it must take the entire deposit of Catholic moral teaching seriously; it is not, as a certain expression goes, a cafeteria line. The neo-Catholics of the world are not allowed to lament the legalization of “same-sex marriage” while pouring their time and money into neoliberal socio-economic agendas. Similarly, liberal Catholics cannot privilege the “social-justice mission” of the Church over all other considerations. “Compassion” must not be perverted into permissiveness in the face of serious moral errors.
Why will Pope Francis not stand up and speak clearly? Why spill out 12,000 words of mixed clarity when 2,000 clear ones would be more than enough to start the long, but necessary, process of realigning the hearts and minds of Catholics? I do not want to believe that this Pope is, in a clever (conniving?) way, another “reformer” who believes he, over and above all of his predecessors and the Saints who courageously stood for the Faith throughout the ages, “knows better.” I do not, in my heart of wants, want to take part in the fear-mongering alarmism of certain segments of the Church which see in this current Pope the second coming of the destructively renovationism of the Second Vatican Council. However, for the life of me, I cannot see in this man the strength or vision to properly lead the Church in a manner which, while not being blind to present realities, is not blind to the 2,000-year history of Christ’s one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Am I neglected some aspect of this pontificate which should lead me to conclude otherwise? If so, would you mean ripping the scales from my eyes? I would like to see.
Addendum: I apologize for all of the typos in this and the last several posts. My days of trying to write blog posts on a tablet screen may be numbered.
Addendum 2: Perhaps the liberal-media honeymoon with the Pope will be over before the middle of the week. An article from The Telegraph indicates that Francis has excommunicated a pro-gay Australian priest [h/t William Tighe].