Not unsurprisingly, Pat Buchanan has teed off on Pope Francis, and he has done so dishonestly. His latest column will stand for many others of the same sort that mix distortion, assertion, misleading rhetorical questions, dishonest extrapolations, and selective quotation to attack the pope. These writers want to hit him and they don’t seem concerned to hit fairly. People who complained of how the media misrepresented Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have no problem using the same methods on Francis. And sadly, many conservative Catholics revel in watching the Holy Father get hit.
I’ll give two examples from the column. First, Buchanan writes:
In his remarks at the synod’s close, Pope Francis mocked “so-called traditionalists” for their “hostile rigidity.”
That is one way of putting it. Another is that traditionalists believe moral truth does not change, nor can Catholic doctrines be altered.
What did Francis say? He spoke, early in his address, of “moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations,” the Synod fathers had faced, and then gave some examples:
♦ One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, [the Spirit]; within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today — “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
♦ The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
♦ The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
♦ The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
♦ The temptation to neglect the depositum fidei [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things . . . .
What Buchanan presents as an attack on faithful Catholics by a liberal pope was part of a description of the temptations different types of Catholic faces. Most of us will find ourselves in one category, if not two or three. The one Buchanan selects refers not just to “traditionalists” but to “the zealous, the scrupulous, the solicitous” and “the intellectuals.” It is not in any way the kind of targeted side-taking rejection of those who “believe moral truth does not change” that Buchanan’s use of it conveys.
Second, Buchanan writes:
In his beatification of Paul VI on Sunday, Pope Francis celebrated change. “God is not afraid of new things,” he said, “we are making every effort to adapt ways and methods . . . to the changing conditions of society.”
But among the social changes since Vatican II and Paul VI have been the West’s embrace of no-fault divorce, limitless promiscuity, abortion on demand and same-sex marriage.
Should the church “adapt” to these changes in society?
Should the church accommodate itself to a culture as decadent as ours? Or should the church stand against it and speak moral truth to cultural and political power, as the early martyrs did to Rome?
Again, what did Francis say? He said in his homily at the Synod’s closing Mass:
Certainly Jesus puts the stress on the second part of the phrase: “and [render] to God the things that are God’s”. This calls for acknowledging and professing – in the face of any sort of power – that God alone is the Lord of mankind, that there is no other. This is the perennial newness to be discovered each day, and it requires mastering the fear which we often feel at God’s surprises.
God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. He renews us: he constantly makes us “new”. A Christian who lives the Gospel is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world. How much God loves this “newness”!
“Rendering to God the things that are God’s” means being docile to his will, devoting our lives to him and working for his kingdom of mercy, love and peace.
. . . On this day of the Beatification of Pope Paul VI, I think of the words with which he established the Synod of Bishops: “by carefully surveying the signs of the times, we are making every effort to adapt ways and methods… to the growing needs of our time and the changing conditions of society” (Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Apostolica Sollicitudo).
Buchanan’s misuse of this passage is even more dishonest than his misuse of the first one. (You will notice he conflates two statements as if they were one, usefully for his purposes, though the second one is a quote from Paul VI — a man Buchanan presumably approves.) With those rhetorical questions, Buchanan suggests Francis is either naive or foolish or perhaps actively in favor of these changes.
But what is Francis saying here? He is describing an openness to God that is a staple of preaching and devotional writing, and has been pretty much since the beginning of the Church. He’s not even thinking of the sort of changes Buchanan goes on to list.
This column, like the others it represents, is a hit job, its writer, like the other writers, unconcerned to tell the truth about what Francis said. They couldn’t hit him, or hit him so hard and so often, were they honest about what he has said. It is not a good thing for the Church or the world when the supposed defenders of Catholic orthodoxy so eagerly and with so little concern for truth smack down the pope.
Update: See Defend Him Against All Hazards for Newman’s understanding of how Catholics should speak of the pope.