I’d like to be a simple Catholic. I’d like to appreciate what both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have to say without needing to take sides.
I love reading through Pope Benedict’s books on Jesus’ life. They are beautiful, as are so many of his thoughts.
I love reading Pope Francis in conversation with people. He has a homespun wisdom that I resonate with, especially since my own ancestral culture is Argentinean. If my relatives ask me what Pope Francis is like, I tell them, “You know, like an abuelo, shooting the breeze, sipping maté.” Enough said.
Lately, though, a former priest in our diocese – someone I respected greatly and gained much from spiritually – admitted he believed Pope Francis isn’t really the pope. He is in active rebellion against him and is conservative, as you might guess.
Others, perhaps feeling betrayed by bishops closing doors to Mass because of Covid, have become more vocal. A woman in my parish stunned me when she expressed the same sentiments: our bishop is corrupt and Francis isn’t the pope.
I could brush it off if this were just a side issue. Only a handful of Catholics actually think Pope Francis is not the pope. But a whole army of conservative Catholics think his pontificate is one big mess. Matt Fradd, a Catholic apologist, said his pontificate is “mediocre.” Others have been less subtle.
These are smart, theologically sound Catholics who love the church, and they don’t like him. I understand their concern. Pope Francis says things and does things that seem, on the face of them, heretical or unorthodox.
But still, whether I’m naive or not, I want to enter into the fray here and plant my yellow and white Vatican flag in the ground. I may regret it later, but I will say it now, boldly and loudly… and anonymously:
I am a conservative Catholic, and I also freakin’ love Pope Francis!
No, it’s not because he holds the “office of Peter”, and I’m obligated to show him respect. It’s because of the things he says that sound thoroughly orthodox and also because of the things he says that sound dangerously close to unorthodox. I think he is the man the Holy Spirit chose for us not because God is trying to get back at us for being lax Catholics or to put faithful Catholics through trials or tribulations we are way too melodramatic about.
I believe he is the man for the hour. Let me explain how I can hold these two seemingly paradoxical truths in my head.
Pope Francis is ALWAYS Taken out of Context
The right-wing media does it. The left-wing media does it. Even Catholic media does it.
This is partly out of ignorance. For example, the latest comment from the Pope about how civil unions should be allowed were not reported alongside his many statements that gay marriage is not ok. The nuance of a position that says gay couples should be allowed legal protections in civil law while gay marriage should not be considered licit gets lost in soundbites and on reporters who understandably don’t have time to look up church canons or read Aquinas.
This can also happen because the situations that are reported are developing. A little time and good reporting would bring to light the truth of the matter, as with the Pachamama incident during the Amazon synod.
People thought the worshipers in the Vatican Gardens were bowing to a pagan image of a Mother Earth-type goddess. Later, it was understood that the woman who brought the little wooden figure to Pope Francis specifically said that the image was a depiction of “Our Lady of the Amazon” – i.e., Mary with child. Even if that was not the case, every other explanation can be squared with an orthodox understanding of the Catholic faith.
There are also more sinister reasons the pope’s words are misconstrued, though.
Hermeneutic of Suspicion
(Totally plagiarizing that heading from this fantastic article.)
There are people out there who hate Pope Francis (as many did Pope Benedict before him) for no reason other than he says things they don’t like. Pope Francis is not shy in railing against rampant, unfettered capitalism. He prophetically speaks against the degradation of the environment. He advocates for, dare I say, a “new world order” where the globe comes together and has a larger kum-ba-ya moment. This gives many conservatives the heebie-jeebies.
So he gets pegged as a leftist. He gets put in a certain camp and everything he says ends up being suspect.
In some ways, he asked for this. He meets with priests the right hates like Fr. James Martin and puts people in power that are much more liberal. This makes me uncomfortable, too.
Yet when you read what he actually says and does, he gives just as much reason for the left to hate him. Paul Kengor wrote an article with fourteen quotes from Pope Francis that would make any progressive pull their hair out. Alas, the pope may indeed still be Catholic.
Instead of suspicion, I wonder if he doesn’t deserve our admiration. Benedict was (and is) a profoundly deep theologian. But is he savvy? He may be as innocent as a dove, but could he be as shrewd as a snake? Benedict himself knew he wasn’t up to the task and retired. To lead the church, perhaps what we need is a pope who knows how to talk to both the right and the left with boldness and compassion.
Pope Francis has Every Right to Talk about the Environment
It seems that many in my camp want Pope Francis to talk about social issues only so long as they have to do with abortion and sexual ethics. Instead, he has decided to emphasize love and care for the poor and marginalized – you know, like Jesus did.
He also addresses the environment, but if you read his encyclical Laudato Si’, a major reason he tackles environmental issues is because the world’s poor are the least capable of dealing with the degradation of nature.
Maybe it’s uncomfortable for conservative Catholics to be on the same side as progressives when it comes to so many issues of social justice and environmentalism. But as Abraham Lincoln said, we should not pray that God would be on our side, we should pray that we be on his – even if that makes us collaborators with SJW’s on a few things.
Some conservatives are disturbed that there is so much emphasis on social justice in Pope Francis’ writings. But why? In Matt. 25:31-46, Jesus states plainly that we will get into Heaven based on how socially just we were. Who were we feeding and giving water to on earth? Who were the strangers we welcomed into our homes? Did we help the sick, the naked, the imprisoned?
This is not to say that being theologically sound is unimportant. It is to say, though, that actively caring for the poor, the marginalized, and the planet we will be passing on to our children are just as essential to our salvation. I don’t know how anyone can read Jesus’ words and think otherwise.
Conservative Catholics Don’t Know Everything
What might we actually learn from Pope Francis if we take the time to listen?
The point of the wooden statue during the Amazon synod was partly to teach us that European rituals and symbols are not the only rituals and symbols that can be used to express the truth of the Catholic faith. But how many people do you think actually picked up on that lesson?
When Pope Francis allowed the footnote in Amoris Laetitia saying that in certain situations, a divorced and remarried couple might not be barred from communion, how many right-wing Catholics stopped to imagine when that mercy might justifiably be shown? How many of us didn’t read Amoris Laetitia at all because of one or two footnotes?
When Catholics were worried the Amazon Synod would set a horrible precedent by allowing married men in the Amazon region to become priests, how many of them wrestled with why it was being considered at all? How many of them took seriously the spiritual needs of those tribes that could only receive communion twice a year for lack of priests?
How many of us in our hypocrisy wanted to refuse this option to tribal people but then turned around and put up Padre Pio quotes about how important the Mass is when Covid hit and we all had to stay home? Couldn’t go two months to stop the spread, but if those primitive tribes people in the Amazon have to go six months between Masses, that’s apparently fine.
Pope Francis is someone neither the left nor the right should be entirely comfortable with. That’s a good thing. The left tends toward a theology and view of the faith that is unmoored from the great Tradition of the church. The right tends toward conspiracy theories and a staunch throwback attitude that assumes everything before Vatican II was fantastic and everything after was a mess.
Pope Francis stands squarely in the middle. He defends the traditional family and opposes gender ideology, but he knows in the real world homosexuals are discriminated against and need civil protections. He cares about the vertical aspects of our faith – the need for evangelizing the culture and reaching people for Christ. But he also cares about the horizontal aspects of our faith – the need to help the poor and protect our planet whether those efforts convert people or not.
In other words, the pope is not right-wing or left-wing. He is not conservative or liberal. He’s just Catholic.
Maybe none of this helps, though. Maybe you are still mystified and petrified by the actions and attitude of our current pontiff. You don’t know what to make of what he is doing in the Vatican. Maybe you think I’m naive. Maybe I am.
It’s all right. Just imagine him as an Argentine abuelo, sitting in the morning sun, drinking his maté by the Río de la Plata. It will all make sense. 😉
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