A reader writes:
Mark, any chance for a little compassion for people who are feeling nervous? Could you maybe come alongside us and walk with us a bit and maybe share your faith and optimism? Any chance that instead of yelling and shaming people who are feeling uneasy, you could maybe instead show us the reasons for your hope? Maybe be a big brother here. I know I could use one. I’ll be spending time with my evangelical family this week. The family that still thinks I’m a flake for abandoning the sound teachings of AW Tozier, Max Lucado, Josh McDowell, and Rick Warren for the curious barque of Saint Peter. I’ve spent six years trying to explain to them that the Catholic Church is the unbroken line back to Jesus, the repository of faith for once and all time. For months I’ve been trying to parse Pope Francis for them. For months I’ve been trying to explain why what the Pope is saying doesn’t represent a rupture in the faith. But I know they’re starting to think that maybe I’m parsing a little too much. Maybe I sound a bit too much like a guy who bought a pig in a poke and wants to save face. Any chance I could get a, “I understand the source of your nervousness. I can see that you are suffering a bit for the faith right now. But here, let me give you the reasons for hope…” Instead of, “You guys need to get with program here! You need to suck it up and put some points on that scoreboard!” Because honestly, it isn’t working for me. I hate, hate, hate that I’ve been nodding along while reading Rod Dreher lately as he trumpets his relief about jumping from the Church of Rome to the Church of the East. But I have been. And I’ve lost sleep and felt sick to my stomach over it.
Tom’s a much better man than me, since I don’t think “Not instantly accepting the claim that Francis is a Catastrophe” is “putting points on a scoreboard” but “common decency and common sense” and pretty much say that (and I also don’t think that Rod Dreher, God bless him, has said anything coherent about the Church since he bailed so I’m puzzled why Catholics find him persuasive, much less devastating). And I would have thought “Fantastic! Francis is articulating the heart of the Tradition” would be a very big reason for hope. But what this reader needed was a more sympathetic approach than mine. So I’m grateful that Tom writes:
Maybe you *are* parsing a little too much. Maybe your stomachache is a sign you should just say to your evangelical family, “Yeah, Argentinian Jesuit popes, amiright? Pass the butter, please.”
Me, I look at Pope Francis this way:
Within the Church, he is making his office a pastoral one, not a kingly one. A pastor smells like his sheep, he is out among them. People don’t follow pastors around, writing down their every word in gold ink. You don’t parse your pastor’s words, you listen to them and see how they apply in your own life. Maybe a king, up in his castle, only rarely lets fall a word heard by his subjects; a pastor talks to people every day — and yes, if you don’t like the sound of his voice, that can get old quick.
Stepping back, I’d say the big-picture message all of this has for Catholics is this: It’s okay if a pope emphasizes the pastoral. Bigger picture: It’s even okay if the pope over-emphasizes the pastoral, or if he spends all of his waking hours solving crossword puzzles in the gardens of Castel Gandolfo. It’s good for the Church, and good for the world, to have a good pope. But the Church is not the pope’s property, nor are Catholics his chattel. There is no “X” for which “The pope has done X, therefore the Church will collapse,” is true.
I’d guess you’re most concerned with the reports of the Pope’s words to the world beyond the Church (which, I’d say, includes most reporters on airplanes). Here, I see Pope Francis as acting on his prudential judgment (which, the Church teaches, may be wrong) that the way he should relate to the world is, first, to establish a relationship — in particular, a relationship of loving service. If what we have to give to the world is Jesus Christ — if you read his homilies and audiences, you know Pope Francis believes this — then the way he sees us being able to give the world Jesus, such that they accept Him, is the way of mercy.
I happen to think he’s pretty much right about all that. But let’s say he’s not. Suppose he is naive, or reckless, or a disaster, or even a heretic. So then maybe I picked the wrong papacy to stop sniffing glue (probably don’t want to use that line with your evangelical family unless they’re big fans of the Zuckers), but none of that would touch what the Church herself teaches about the papacy itself, much less what she teaches about the Church as a whole.
You know, there are plenty of Catholics alive today who have thought one or more of the previous popes they’ve lived through were naive, or reckless, or a disaster, or even a heretic. The response is not despair (much less paying any attention to what a professional anti-Catholic like Rod Dreher says). The response is to recognize that, while the Church was founded *on* the Rock of Peter, it was founded *by* Jesus Christ, Whose Bride and Body it is, and will forever be.
There’s a model (which comes from work done by Evangelicals, but Sherry Weddell & Co, have found it to be very useful in Catholic settings) of the “five thresholds” in the spiritual journey, from no faith to a full embrace of Jesus Christ. The evangelist figures out which threshold the other person is standing before, and then helps them to cross (all with God’s grace).
The five thresholds are: Initial Trust; Spiritual Curiosity; Spiritual Openness; Spiritual Seeking; and Intentional Discipleship.
You will fail (according to the model) if you try to get someone to cross a later threshold when they’re still standing at an earlier one. (Sherry’s major message, by the way, is that so so much of what the Catholic Church does assumes Catholics are across the “Intentional Discipleship” threshold, when empirically huge numbers of baptized and even Mass-going Catholics are back at trust or curiosity.)
What I think the Pope has done, in terms of this model. is to bring many people — who used to, and probably for the most part still kind of do, hate the Church — to the threshold of trust. They trust that he, at least, doesn’t want to stand over their graves gloating at the thought that they are burning in hell.
If so, then yes, they’re still at a point where disillusionment would follow an attempt to explain what “I am a son of the Church” means in terms of the hot-button issues.
But if they ask questions, they are curious. The Church can handle the curious. If they aren’t yet open though, we won’t accomplish much by forcing them to digest Catholic moral doctrines.