Catholics need to be careful. Many so-called Catholic news and media sites are waging an all-out war against Pope Francis, in through him, with Catholic teaching as a whole. Some within the hierarchy are in on it. They often engage tactics which are not associated with journalists, but with propagandists. Although what Pope Francis teaches is in accord with the over-arching Catholic theological tradition, and can be shown to be closely connected with the teachings of his immediate predecessors, he often focuses on those elements from his predecessors which various media entities tried to keep obscure and now cannot, requiring them to create any and every excuse they can to deride Pope Francis and to derail his work in the continuing reform of the church.
When choosing what they read, Catholics should take a long, hard look in the way Pope Francis is being portrayed. If the only commentaries a source provides is critical anti-Francis without any attempt to show how Francis continues with basic Catholic teaching, then that source should be held highly suspect if not outright ignored. It is propaganda, often being paid by rich benefactors who are upset at the way Pope Francis authentically portrays the moral exhortations found within the Gospels. Catholicism is not some Gnostic, unworldly religion, but rather it takes into consideration the needs of the world, and follows God with a preferential option for the poor. Faith without works is dead; when some commentator derides social justice and says the Pope should focus on matters of faith, they are indicating that they want a dead faith which expects and requires nothing from them but some good ideas.
But the faith is nothing without mercy. Justice without mercy is not justice. The faith is not some sort of Pelagian legalism. Faith requires fidelity, to be sure, but it is the fidelity of the heart. It is not meant to be a series of rules which one must follow to the letter; rather, it is meant to be a spiritual practice, where we are transformed by grace to be and act naturally as people reflecting God’s love in the world. Legalism knows nothing about such love, nor little about such grace. Legalism employs pseudo-knowledge, using it to establish rules and demands their absolute adherence without any dispensation (or, economia). Pope Francis, as an authentic interpreter of the faith, knows this; when he speaks of mercy, when he shows love and compassion to others, his critics try to portray him as unfaithful because he does not follow their legalistic ideology. The problem is such legalism is itself against the spirit of the faith.
Pope Francis, knowing precisely what he was fighting against, wrote about both problems in Evangelii Gaudium:
This worldliness can be fuelled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others.
If one carefully examines the expectations of those supposed Catholic media sources fighting against the Pope, either one, or both, of these tendencies can be seen standing behind the criticism being given. Authoritarian legalists suggest the Pope has abandoned the faith (and is a heretic) because he does not follow their legalistic bent, but in reality, such legalism has always been rejected by the church. Paul, speaking as a minister among other ministers of the church, explained how such legalism kills the soul:
Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life (2Cor. 3:4-6 RSV).
When presented with authentic Catholic teaching, when Pope Francis speaks with the spirit of the truth, various hostile media entities engage in one of two responses. The first is simply to make up a fallacious claim as to what is expected of the faith, and to repeat that expectation whenever counter-evidence is given. The second is to suggest all those who defend the Pope, and the Pope himself, are involved in some sort of conspiracy to destroy the church. If anyone is in a conspiracy, it is those who take money from sources who desires to reshape Catholic teaching to fit a libertarian or ultra-right wing ideology. Some of them, of course, go beyond others as they embrace some of the darkest elements of society: they engage and promote outright race baiting and anti-Semitism, both of which the Pope and the church has fought against in recent times (because they are problems with us today).
What sources are suspect? While there are many, way too many, to count, some of the more popular ones include Raymond Arroyo with the “World Over” on EWTN, EWTN affiliates such as the Catholic Register, Lifesite News (and its affiliates like “Faithful Shepherds”), and popular writers like Taylor Marshall. What they have in common is a one-sided criticism of Pope Francis without any attempt to read or understand what he says and interpret his teachings in relation to the whole of the Catholic tradition. They are trying to create the appearance of a rift between Pope Francis with the past; this is a tactic which others have done with other Popes, it is not new, but what is new is the scale of the audience they attract. It is a serious problem, one which Michael Sean Winters rightfully said must be met head on by the hierarchy of the church, to stop the voices of contention from creating outright schism.
Catholics need authentic sources of information. They should read what the Pope has to say in context. The Vatican, certainly, is a good place to get news. Likewise, Catholic commentators who are educated in the faith, who show a depth of understanding of the whole of Catholic tradition (instead of being hyper-focused on one part of it, trying to demand all Catholics follow that particular tradition), are also worth reading because they will help the ordinary Catholic understand the context of the Pope’s teachings, to show how they connect to the whole of Catholic thought (countering the false narrative of Pope Francis abandoning the church’s teaching). There can be disagreements with details, as the Catholic faith allows for diversity of thought and theological opinions, but such disagreements must always be couched with the recognition that those who disagree with each other can still be authentically Catholic and follow Catholic teaching as well (the problem with many critics of Pope Francis is that they create a false view of Catholic teaching, reducing it to one theological tradition, turning it into an ideology, and judge all others against that tradition, similar to the way many who love the King James Bible condemn all others for being different from the King James translation). Nonetheless, there are times with the development of doctrine that some ideas from the past are closed off and are to no longer be held as acceptable, and this development is within the authority of the Pope to establish; when he does so, he is not being inauthentic to the tradition, but doing what the magisterium always does, which is act as a needful corrective as it begins to see the danger of various ideas which have imbedded themselves in the Catholic tradition (is that not, after all, what the teachings of the immaculate conception and the assumption of Mary did when they were proclaimed?). The key to all of this is to recognize the authority of the Pope, to show respect to him even when there are theological disagreements, and when he challenges us, to take the challenge head on by listening to him. Then we can discern what is being established, see how it can be traced back throughout the theological tradition, and see what can and should be heeded once all that has been done. If some are shown to be doing this, this is good. But if some media source always seems to have the first instinct to criticize the Pope without any attempt to assimilate or understand what he teaches, that source should be disregarded and treated as such sources were treated in any other era of the church.
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