A reader has a long letter that I empathize with

She writes:

As a regular Patheos Catholic channel peruser, it is a pleasure to read your work. I appreciate your wit, your perceptive thinking, and most of all, your soft heart, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
I haven’t been able to stop feeling troubled about Francis press since he arrived and before that Benedict as well. This morning, doing breakfast dishes, I managed to piece together the crux of what is eating at me. I wanted to share my thinking with someone, and well, you came to mind as someone who might understand them.
Just to allow that, “oh, ok, so that’s what the problem is,” to get out on the table first up, I note that while I have been a happy one for some time now, I was not born a Catholic. I did not find Jesus in the Catholic Church. In fact, we knew each other quite well long before I arrived. I grew up being handed lots of cheery little novels and stories about Catholics who finally found Jesus and then had to smile when I joined you and started getting handed the same stories, similarly worded, with a different conclusion. I love the Catholic church. I am home in her most wonderful arms – but if it makes a difference to the value of my argument, I walked into them, I wasn’t born there.
So about the Popes . . . you know what is eating me? Of course I grew up with warnings about the Pope worshipers etc. I have heard lots of things since to clarify the still somewhat greyish sounding doctrine that all the smart people can’t agree on about exactly what infallibility means and how and when it applies, but neither of these camps are what has me troubled. To take a page from Elizabeth Scalia’s book, when it comes to Benedict, Francis, (dare I say JP II) what troubles me is the notion of strange gods. Do I like personally respect, admire and like these three popes? As a matter of fact, I do. Do I see them as spiritual fathers of extremely significant stature due to their personal holiness and love of God? I do, actually. But the constant flow of Catholic media on the subject – even on my beloved Patheos? Well, it’s making me crazy.
Warning* Former Protestant who still does not hate Protestants is about to issue an opinion about Catholics: Sorry, but Catholics are really weird about their Popes. People that are nervous about Francis aren’t just nervous or uncomfortable, they’re beside themselves. They are personally wounded and affronted, shocked, dazed and confused. People that feel inspired or convicted aren’t just smiling, they’re gushing perpetually, weeping in ecstasy, trying to figure out if the way the Pope tilts his head is something they should be doing. I don’t get this.
As far as I know, all of the above mentioned Popes went to confession. While there, I expect that they confessed sin. By recent, repeated admission, Pope Francis claims to be a sinner. Confession is part of the Mass which all of these Popes celebrated on a daily basis – confession in which they must have also continually confessed to being sinners – making them either honest sinners or lying ones. I think everyone would agree with this on paper, but a lot of people seem not to have really thought through the ramifications of this fundamental reality.
As I have never met any of the Popes, I can only speak for myself, everyone I have ever known, and the general tenor of all Catholic teaching and Scriptural evidence when I say that sin is ugly. Not just some sin, but all sin. It is ugly and not of God and we are down here on earth trying to grow in holiness but while we are here, we never fully get there – even if we get elected Pope. This means that very good and holy men of God, chosen and anointed by the Holy Spirit, nevertheless are not perfect. They sin. Chances are that they sin “in thought, word, and deed.”
Perhaps the Catholic thing hasn’t gotten me enough yet. Maybe I have some sort of Protestant disability that keeps me from fully crossing over, but I’m ok with the Pope being a sinner. I accept and celebrate the authority of the Church. I listen and pray over the Pope’s instructions and words because I want to hear what the Holy Spirit might say through him. But at the end of the day, I assume that sometimes he won’t be right. I assume there are times when he is selfish, hasty, or any other manner of things. I even assume that he might have a blind spot, as I assume did his predecessor and the one before that. I assume that God in his wisdom matches up the gifts and the blind spots so that overall, the Church gets what it needs, but I assume that Jesus is the only one who was actually God and was therefore actually the only one who could consistently show us 100% of the time who God was and what He was thinking. Popes are great. We have been so blessed. But how could a man suddenly do this just because we give him a nice little white hat? Or red shoes? (I am just realizing that maybe that is why people were so upset about the shoes. Maybe real born and bred Catholics know something I don’t about the magic Jesus powder being in the red shoes? This last thought may explain everything and render my concerns mute. I will think about that.)
Ok, that’s all. But honestly, it is killing me. I love reading Patheos but I am reading less and less just because I am sick of people talking non-stop about Pope Francis and every word that falls from his mouth and whether or not the way he is breathing is in the best interests of the church. AHHHHH. Don’t people have their own lives to live? The ones where they are called to love the people around them and love God with all their heart. The commandment to love God, says we are supposed to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind. How can we have any minds left if we have to use such a large percentage of them analyzing the Pope all day. Maybe the church should impose a limit? Unless you are directly paid by his organization, no more than 3% of the brain devoted to Pope following, whether this is worship/disgust/agreement/disagreement? Even if we bumped it to 10% (harsh considering the living humans all around us, our own conscience and all, but still consider the concession and keep it at 10%) it would still leave an awful lot else for Catholic writers/evangelizers etc. to think and talk about.
And what a relief it would be to this half breed in Ontario.
God bless you if you made it to the end of my thoughts and God bless you in your writing. My favourite piece of all time was the one about your vacation with the large group of young people. Thanks for your life of faith and for your encouragement and care for your readers.
Sincerely,

American Protestant born, Catholic Canadian (that explains it, right?)

I can empathize with a lot of this. Catholic yakkery tends to spend a lot of time talking about the pope because he is the biggest voice in the Church and his job is, after all, to teach. So when he teaches things that upset people, all the rhetorical strategies emerge in order to deny, minimize, ridicule and downplay what he says and all the corresponding energy gets devoted to saying, “Listen to the Pope!” Like you, I see the pope as a father, not merely theologically, but in a personal way: I just flat love the guy, as I’ve loved his predecessors. So I have a double stake in that I think a good man should be honored for being a good man, and I think that the Shepherd should be listened to since he teaches in the name of Jesus Christ.

That said, however, I think that you are probably healthy to want to avoid the wrangling about ecclesial politics, for the very good reason that the pope is not our Savior: Jesus is. The irony is that this is what the pope himself is saying. He is like the guy pointing to the food and we are like the dogs sniffing his finger. We waste an enormous amount of time being distracted from Jesus Christ and we seem to find almost any excuse to do so. Still and all, “Was Francis crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Benedict?” That’s not to say we shouldn’t use the enormous resources given us by our popes. It’s just that, as with the Mass, the point is to look *along* these resources at God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We should not waste too much time looking *at*–and no time at all fighting, or fighting about–these resources. We don’t worship the Mass and we don’t worship the Pope. We worship God.

  • texastwist

    Love, love, love this!! Thanks so much for sharing this letter. Had I seen it before I ventured into the Z conversation I may have stayed away from that one!

    We are an odd bunch, that’s for certain. If it weren’t for our “Choice Catholics”, as I like to call them, we’d be out of luck and probably out of Catholics! Thank you and the author of the letter for reminding us of what really matters. I love the 3% rule!!

  • Barbara Fryman

    As a cradle Catholic I want to shout a big ol’ “AMEN!” I don’t know if it’s because I grew up with celebrity scandals becoming mainstream news, but I’ve always felt the rockstar-groupie activity surrounding popes and priests off-putting. I love JPII, B16 and now, Francis the way I love my dad, who is not perfect. But also, I’d not stand for anyone outside my family talking ill of my dad.

  • Dan C

    This guy’s alright. He’s less attractive to me than Benedict, but because of a lived experience with the poor, he will add considerably to the Church’s thoughts on the poor and the economy. As a citizen of an American client state from the Cold War, we can expect that he may re-arrange the routine genuflection to Western exercises of military power.

    I would say he needs to be understood as a teacher.

    He has been teaching the world as he sees fit. The consequence has been on display.

  • Dan C

    But really, this pope-talk is about the culture wars. This pope-talk right now is about economics and the god of the Invisible Hand. The pope is a distraction to this ongoing battle.

    Quite frankly, the battle is over several conservative theses:

    1. The poor should not get free things because such encourages them to seek more free things. Charity is one such matter.
    2. Wealth needs to be protected and respected against the masses who want to take from these wealthy people.
    3. The consequentialist analysis of capitalism is an acceptable moral calculus.
    4. Taxes are a confiscatory attempt at re-distribution of private property which is an intrinsic evil.
    5. Welfare and entitlement programs are supporters of “envy” and taxes supported for these stabilizing matters are violations of the commandment to not steal.
    6. The concept of “poor” is watered down in many conversations to be nearly meaningless, unless one is talking about American poor, then some clear ideas engendered by conservative propaganda exists about the wealth of the poor in America.

    • Dan C

      Conservatives are also smarting over the fact that the popes denounced the war efforts of America, and so so many doubled down on conservative ideology and Islam-hate, over the exhortations of the pope for peace, that there has been an ongoing campaign to reduce the import of his non-pelvic magisterial teaching.

      These two political aspects: economics and war, have been been particularly disruptive to the conservative project, so much so that secular conservative think tanks have specifically hired Catholics to undo Catholic teaching on war and economics. As such, they have specifically debated the popes on these matters.

      The alliance of Catholic conservatives politically with Evangelicalism has also tainted the conservative relationship with the pope. Political evangelicalism, which has a lot of Americanism and libertarianism involved in it, holds the economic theses as strongly as other faith tenets. That and miltary matters are inviolate aspects of American activities. When the pope speaks against this, the Euro-weeniness of the popes is emphasized, which speaks to a certain Catholic demographic.

      • Dan C

        The pope is just a tool for the culture wars in so many discussions.

        The conservative project for years openly promoted the Catholic wars and the culture wars. When Benedict was elected, the conservatives hoped for the mass excommunication of many liberal political opponents. The culture wars, until about 2006-2008 were applauded and promoted as something really truly true Catholics waged as a sign of their faith.

        That the Catholic wars project may have been sinful and a mistake now that the tide of the culture wars in the greater culture has changed against Catholicism (in pelvic matters-that we avoided a war in Syria is not important or even a real Catholic matter and as such is not a victory in the culture wars), is now a discussion for some. This pope has sent clear messages he is disinterested in the culture wars and the Catholic wars.

        This pope is a teacher. He is not Jesus, but is not dismissable, and he seems to get his message out. That is new.

      • Cypressclimber

        “Conservatives are also smarting over the fact that the popes denounced the war efforts of America…”

        A little too facile. First, there were many conservatives who were against the 2002 Iraq war and are against a lot of what’s going on in the name of the war on terror (or whatever we’re calling it now). Even under Bush, although there’s no question, it was more muted then. If you check, you’ll find out a steady current of conservatives who were opposed to Bush from the nomination battle, and they found fault with him on lots of grounds, beyond just war.

        Second, if I recall correctly, Pope John Paul II did not “denounce” the war in Afghanistan, because that was a response to an attack. Nor did he “endorse” it.

        If you meant to include the 1991 war, I simply don’t recall what Pope John Paul II said at that time; but — with admittedly hazy memory — I want to say he wasn’t categorical, precisely because of my next point:

        Papal statements on war, in recent years, have acknowledged what the Church has long taught: that the just war teaching includes *some* measure (“some”! I said some, OK?) of deference to lawful authority and it’s judgment of the matter. Again, only some; it’s not carte blanche. But because of that, it is simply wrong to suggest that papal enunciations of just war teaching are interchangeable with papal statements about abortion, or redefining marriage, or contraception, etc., which is frequently what “liberal Catholics” like to claim. It’s simply false, however convenient.

        FWIW, I was against the 2002 Iraq war, although I listened closely to President Bush’s arguments and looked closely at what others said. I actually think a good case can be made that he had a case, but not on the basis on which he ultimately proceeded. I.e., it wasn’t an open-and-shut matter, even though many suggest that it was. So even when Pope John Paul denounced that war, his statements did not exclude any possibility of lawful authority–i.e., the U.S., other governments, and the U.N., who were quite lawfully policing and enforcing the ceasefire left over from the 1991 war–making a case for *some* military action.

        Folks who cite the pope’s moral teaching might want to be as careful about doing so, as the popes–and the Church–have been on these subjects.

        Now, I do think you’re fair in saying many political conservatives reacted to the pope and the war just as you say; but there’s a lot more to that, as I’ve tried to illustrate.

  • freddy

    Your reader is spot-on and thinking more as a Catholic than many Catholics. I believe this kind of “rock-star papacy” mentality is a modern development, made easier by the rapid communication and the voracious appetite of the news media. I imagine that in previous centuries most people knew who their popes were, and generally trusted their bishops and priests to clue them in on anything important they needed to know. Worrying about what kind of man the pope was, or what his thinking was on minutiae might be was the exercise of those clerics and diplomats who lived in Rome, or the various world leaders who needed to interact with him.
    .
    Times change, and we’re rather stuck with the situation we have now. However, it is possible to cultivate a “Catholic peasant” mentality; in which we spare ourselves needless worry by both praying for the pope and church leaders (especially our pastors) and by discerning carefully which articles/interviews/documents we really need to read and study. Finding that for the most part there’s an awful lot the average lay Catholic can simply ignore frees the “Catholic peasant” just to be the best Catholic he can be, in his own little corner of the world.

  • Heather

    Congratulations, your reader has a sane and thoroughly traditional view of the Pope. Hanging off his every word as if it signals either the bright dawn of the coming Kingdom or the end of the world as we know it is entirely new. Most Catholics I know in the real world don’t actually treat the Pope as some kind of rock star (either beloved or hated). That’s mostly limited to those whose job or hobby it is to actually pay attention to such things, whom you most often run into online.

    Also keep in mind that if someone is commenting often on a particular issue, their words on an internet thread only represent a small fraction of what that person actually does with the rest of their life. For those whose hatred or devotion to the Pope (or any other “culture war” issue for which the Pope’s statement of the day becomes a useful excuse to opine) really does form an unhealthy preoccupation, remember that the internet is a wonderful distillery for concentrating the nutdom of the world into something far more seemingly prevalent than it actually is.

    If the papacy and the Church survived Avignon and the Borgias without the benefit of the magisterial wisdom of the blogosphere, this too (for “this” insert teapot-tempest-of-the-week) shall pass.

  • Jared B.

    Thank you, very much, for posting this. Has helped me restore some sanity that I only recently realized I’d lost a bit of.

    I’m also a convert, think I learned the faith pretty well. Always accepted in theory that “While I ought to approach magisterial and non-magisterial teachings with enough humility to listen & learn first, at the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world if I arrive at the informed and honest opinion that the pope did something imprudent, worded something poorly, or even was flat-out wrong about something, because infallibility is a very narrow thing. The ‘rock’ that the Church stands upon is about Christ’s strength, not the way the current pope sneezes.”

    But in my scant 12 years as a Catholic convert, I haven’t actually had much occasion to form that opinion. That is purely due to the fact that my own personal ways of understanding and articulating the Catholic faith happened to be close to that of the previous two popes. Twelve years is plenty of time to forget that fact, and get into the habit of thinking that the two things ought always and easily to coincide…and then to be shocked and even disturbed when suddenly they don’t.

    Things that are, looked at rationally, merely matters of style can get easily mistaken for matters of substance. It’s obvious that many people just ‘get’ Francis when they didn’t ‘get’ Benedict XVI as easily. So thanks be to God for that. And if we happen to now find ourselves in the opposite camp, and don’t get Francis as easily as we did his predecessor, it’s an opportunity to separate the core of the Gospel apart from the myriad ways it can be expressed: also thanks be to God for that.

  • Jared B.

    “The magic Jesus powder is in the red shoes”…now I want that on a mug or t-shirt. ;-)

  • Cypressclimber

    I appreciate what this correspondent said; and it’s relevant, I think, to understanding how a good, faithful Catholic can be good and faithful, and yet not agree entirely with every word the pope says.

    Catholics who disagreed with Pope Benedict freeing the celebration of the older form of the Mass, for example, were not bad Catholics simply because they disagreed. How they disagreed might have made them bad Catholics. I disagreed with Pope John Paul changing the rules on altar servers. I still do. But he had the authority to make the decision, and his decision stands. I accept that. Had the holy father called me to ask my response, I think I would not have been a bad Catholic had I told him, directly, what I just said here.

    Even in the articulation of doctrine, good, faithful Catholics can say things like, “I would have emphasized this, more” or, “what he’s saying contains both doctrine and interpretation and application of the same, and I have more liberty in my response to the latter than to the former.”

    In the case of Pope Francis and social teaching, I think I’m very safe in saying that the Holy Father does not intend what he’s saying, and teaching, now, to take the place of what his predecessors said and taught, but to become part of what went before. So is it unfaithful to say one prefers one pope’s articulation over another’s? As long as the fundamental principles of social doctrine aren’t at issue? I don’t see that as unfaithful.

    • Andy

      I think the issue is tone and expectations. If you were to say that Pope John Paul’s changing the rules on altar servers would be the end of the church, it is a problem. It is that tone that is disturbing to me and to mangy. Merely not agreeing with the change, but accepting is as part of the pope’s “power” is more than fine.
      It is I think though a concern that we recognize that all Catholics have that right, not just those with whom we agree. I find it difficult to comprehend how one group or another claims to have the only true interpretation of what the is true in Catholic teaching. If indeed a civil discussion ensues from a difference in emphasis then that is how we part of how we form our consciences and thus have prudential judgment. However, part of that prudential judgement is conforming ones conscience to what is taught, in it s totality, not just those parts we like.

      • Cypressclimber

        Fair enough.

        But a comment here, when you say: “I find it difficult to comprehend how one group or another claims to have the only true interpretation of what the is true in Catholic teaching.”

        Not that it can’t be hard to figure out, but sometimes it’s darned easy. Lots of folks continue to promote women’s ordination, despite clear teaching, now irreformable, that says no. And the Church’s liturgy has been mauled and wrecked, in clear and repeated ways, sometimes gleeful. I’m not talking about close-calls. I could cite other examples.

        • Andy

          I am not sure where you are going with that question. I see that many Catholics believe that their interpretation of church teaching is the only one. As far women’s ordination goes I fail to see how a group argues against what the church teaches and claims that only with women’s ordination is vital for the church. You comment about liturgy being mauled – I remember the Pre-VII masses where the priest blew through the Latin barely pronouncing the words and abused the liturgy as much as I have seen the NO taken to extremes in terms of liturgical abuses. My point is that we all see problems/issues/ideas through our own lens and that part of forming our conscience and prudential judgement is working through to accept what the church teaches.

          • Cypressclimber

            Well, maybe I clarify where I was going with my prior comment (which wasn’t meant as a question): namely, that many times, when “groups” “claim” to have the correct understanding of Catholic teaching, they’re demonstrably right. I cited women’s ordination and the liturgy as examples of issues where you have “groups” who are completely in line with Church teaching, and others who just as clearly are not.

            My comment had nothing to do with the merits of old or new forms of liturgy.

  • Matt Talbot

    Great post, Mark. Your correspondent should consider getting a blog of her own – she expresses herself quite well.

  • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

    Amen to everything she says.

  • Joe

    “affronted, shocked, dazed and confused.”

    Considering how many Catholics are, we need a pope who does this. After all, Christ would do no less due to how humanity is,


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