As much as I’d like to move on from this topic, another followup is in order. Since a certain Catholic celebrity (I know the term seems like an oxymoron, but I can’t seem to find a better one) has now gotten hold of my comments and, as per his usual tactic, attempted to turn them into an easily lampooned caricature while avoiding any substantive rebuttal, I’d like to address a few things.
First, I’m not upset because the pope is “reaching out to people who aren’t me.” Really, Mr. Shea? That’s the conclusion you reached? I’m sure my wife, who came into the Church following a rather concerted effort on my part, would disagree with your assessment of my feelings toward “people who aren’t me.” So would pretty much every secular, anti-Catholic, or atheist coworker I’ve ever had, or the students I’ve taught in CCD or in Catholic school, or the people whose doors I’ve knocked on to talk to them about Catholicism, or the countless people I’ve reached in 20 years of writing about the faith online.
With the exceptions of those times when I was struggling with it myself, I have never shied away from discussing my faith with the people around me. I’ve fought to bring Catholicism to the people I encounter for so long it sometimes feels like I’ve never done much of anything else. I am really tired of hearing the accusation that the reason I don’t like what the pope is saying is because I’m either some sort of Donatist who doesn’t believe that people should be forgiven and come home, or because I’m opposed to outreach to non-Christians and sinners somehow. Give me a break.
Do I believe that Pope Francis has a certain level of disdain for Catholics of a traditional persuasion? Yes. Do I believe he will abandon Pope Benedict’s much needed reforms of the liturgy? Absolutely. And these are both issues that weigh on me. But my concerns with him go beyond that. Intentionally or not, he is leading the world to believe that the Church now thinks:
a) Conversion to Catholicism — even for atheists — is not important for salvation
b) The Church’s decades long and singular crusade to bring about a culture of life has devolved into an obsession detached from from the message of salvation and God’s love and should no longer be a priority
c) That the issues of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, just wages, and other social justice issues are the greatest challenges the Church must meet today, when in actuality the top priorities clearly include (but are not limited to): the ongoing abortion holocaust, the rapid increase in human trafficking, the use of contraceptives among Catholics, the battle for traditional morality, the support by the majority of Catholic voters for political candidates who campaign to increase access to intrinsic evils, the decimated belief in fundamental Catholic doctrines like the Real Presence, the ongoing vocational crisis, etc.
And since they all think WE all believe everything he does is infallible, they don’t get that he isn’t making these changes, and couldn’t even if he wanted to. The net effect is the same though: in the minds of many, these changes are already underway.
There’s more, but I would say that’s a good start to what my objections are.
Second, on the question of my stated intuition about Pope Francis.
I know it’s a weak argument, and maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned the feeling I had when I first saw Pope Francis step out to be announced, but it was incredibly strong, so I offered it simply for the consideration of those reading it.
I can’t say I had any expectations for this pope. I had honestly never heard of Cardinal Bergoglio before that moment. I had been telling friends that it seemed likely to me that Pope Benedict would only abdicate with good reason. It was possible that whoever came next would carry on what he started. Was I skeptical? Certainly. The Church hasn’t exactly been blessed recently with an abundance of impressive bishops from which to choose St. Peter’s next successor, but anything can happen. So the strength with which I felt that ominous feeling I have previously described was startling.
This feeling is the easiest part of my assessment of the pope to dismiss, and that’s fine. I really don’t expect anyone to take it as anything but my own deeply subjective opinion. And far from declaring that I “could just tell from his cold dead eyes that he is “dangerously close” to heresy within seconds of his appearance” — something I never said — I did have a sense of foreboding. (My comments about borderline heresy had only to do with statements he was making, just for the record.)
Have you ever tried to explain intuition to someone? It’s difficult to do. The minute you say, “I just have this feeling,” or “I have a hunch that…” people have a tendency to tune out.
And yet, in my personal experience, intuition is absolutely invaluable. When I’ve ignored it, I have regretted doing so more often than not. When I’ve listened to it, it’s been proven right time and again. I don’t have a strong intuition about every situation or every person, but when I do have one, the accuracy rate has always been very high.
What surprised me is that others have confirmed that they, too, had this feeling. My mention of it was sort of a throwaway aspect of my original post. I fully expected to be alone in my feelings, and almost didn’t include them for the obvious reason that they carry no weight at all except in my own mind. But the feeling had been so strong, I took the risk. In response, I got emails containing sentiments like these:
- “I felt the same feelings when I saw him. His smile is sickly sweet to me and makes my stomach tense.
- “Your initial thoughts of when you first saw him on the loggia is the way I felt too. I am being very cautious. However, I am doing my best to love him as a brother in Christ. “
- “I read the link, “New Pope Chosen” on my computer earlier this year. I immediately jumped up to watch the event unfold on my TV upstairs. En route to the TV, I stopped at the sink in my kitchen, where the Sacred Heart of Jesus was enthroned. I immediately heard the message broadcast to my soul, “This is a bad decision.” When I saw him, I felt just like you.”
- “I too had a similar feeling when Francis stepped out on the balcony for the first time. It is disturbing but I like many continue to look for satan’s influence on my thinking in regards to Francis.”
- “When Pope Francis came out on the loggia, my stomach did somersaults, I wanted to vomit — for hours. I had a sense of foreboding.”
Each of these emails was from a different person. Each was a person I have never interacted with before. You can see in these sentiments that those who felt this way did so unwillingly. No faithful Catholic wants to dislike the pope.
Yes, this is only five emails, and yes, it remains firmly in the realm of anecdote. But I cannot imagine it to be a common thing to have such a feeling about a man who has just been elected pope and about whom nothing is known. This should be a moment of hope for faithful Catholics, not a disturbing one.
Which brings me to the third thing. I did not address these concerns publicly in an attempt to be slanderous, dissident, or schismatic. My criticisms of the pope — other than those rooted in my subjective intuition, which formed the smallest part of my argument — are all based on the ways in which Pope Francis is creating a perception of departure from traditional Church teaching and making statements that can be (and ARE being) easily co-opted by the enemies of the Church.
This tends to make life harder for only one group of people: orthodox Catholics who have been living faithfully and slogging it out to give witness to the faith and support and build the culture of life. I know this not only because I fall in that camp, but because I have been contacted privately by a number of those who are deeply concerned. Many feel that they cannot be as vocal as I have been, either because they work for the Church directly or for one of its many affiliated institutions.
I am fully aware of my own propensity for error. I know that it’s possible that my criticisms may be off base. But the pre-emptive cult of papolatry that sprung up around this pope (no less hastily than my own negative intuition, I might add) has an “either you’re with us or against us” flavor, and when they close ranks, they form a very sharp and pointy perimeter. This should come as no surprise, I suppose, after the personality cults surrounding the previous two popes, manifested in a particularly concerning way in the “santo subito” movement around John Paul II, who as yet never did earn the title “the Great,” but I digress. I submit that loving the pope to the point of near fanatical devotion as a default position and before you really know what he’s about doesn’t strike me as the hallmark of prudent, discerning people.
Now, the extreme pope-o-philes and the concerned folks seem to all come from the same general subset of orthodox, rosary-praying, Mass-going Catholics. The fighting that went on between traditional Catholics and “conservative” Catholics is now happening in those same camps PLUS a whole bunch of new conservative-on-conservative brawling. It’s ugly, and it’s sad.
In the comment boxes here over the last few days, one concern caught my attention. Dale Price wrote:
As to unity…well, that’s the problem. The most visible fruit of the pontificate that I have personally witnessed is exceptionally bitter: watching good and intelligent Catholics who genuinely love the Church savagely turn on each other. That has been painful, and has left me speechless.
This division is real, and it is causing huge rifts. Far from reasoned discussion, or the presumption that Catholics concerned with the effect the pope is having on the Church come by it out of honest love for the Church, they seem instead convinced that we act out of malice. I have avoided sparring with them almost entirely. I don’t see what good will come of it.
This is not something new, it is something old laid bare. Pope Benedict’s objections to the contrary, the “hermeneutic of rupture” is real. As I’ve written elsewhere,
There is a deep and fundamental fracture within the Roman rite of the Church. A fracture over priorities, over liturgy, over semantics, over translation, over religious liberty, over economics, over subsidiarity, over social justice, over immigration, etc. The list goes on and on and on. Catholics who agree on the foundational principles of the Church often agree on almost nothing else.
What is the mission of the Church in the 21st century? What is her stance toward the necessity of conversion to Catholicism for salvation? Which are the means that will be most effective in accomplishing her ends?
The reason there is so much rancor happening right now is because these divisions are old wounds, torn open each time a new emphasis emerges from the Vatican and one faction feels vindicated by it.
Division like this is not healthy, but those of us who are concerned aren’t simply going to drop those concerns, throw our blinders on, and join the party. I would hope our opponents would not expect such a thing. It’s not honest, and not respectable.
I don’t take lightly my decision to engage in this debate at the level that I have. I have prayed that I would only do God’s will by discussing these things, and I prayed especially for the guidance of the Holy Spirit before speaking to the media. I wish to do no disservice to the papacy, the Church, or the faithful. But my concerns are real, they are deep, and the attempt to quiet all dissenting views about this papacy is something I find deeply troubling.
To be treated as though I am malicious because I have raised objections of this nature is something I have come to expect. Sadly, I expect it most from those who have made their names and their livings by being known for, writing about, and speaking about all things Catholic.
To say that I am “assisting the enemies of the faith at the NY Times to drive a wedge between the Church and the pope” is not entirely dissimilar to my assessment that the pope is assisting the enemies of the faith everywhere by giving them opportunities to co-opt his words and use them against us. The difference is this: I’m an occasional Catholic blogger with a minimal sphere of influence. The pope is the titular head of the largest Christian denomination in the world, the leader of one of the oldest and most respected religious bodies on earth, and possesses inherently a claim to infallibility that I will NEVER have.
My brief comments to a couple of news outlets in the hopes of provoking discussion are insignificant in comparison. These Catholics malign me, but they will find every excuse to give the pope cover.
I’ve been through this before, when I realized through my involvement with the Legionaries of Christ that something was deeply wrong with the marching orders coming from Fr. Maciel. I was attacked then too. I was accused of not being generous, authentic, faithful, committed, etc. They tried to turn my friends against me. I was made a pariah, and members of that movement were urged not to even talk to me. Even those closest to me within the movement, who were sympathetic to what I was saying, thought I was exaggerating the case. But it was clear to me: there was something very unsettling at work within the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, and otherwise good people were being used by it.
We all know how that one turned out.
I cannot and would not presume to judge the heart of Pope Francis. I only know that I see the symptoms of something emerging that is not in line with tradition, or with the mission of the papacy. Something that is enervating orthodox Catholicism and energizing those who have hated the Church to see in her an ally.
I don’t want to make a habit of pointing this out. I would like to talk about it a good deal less than I currently am. I have better, more positive things to do. But my nature is what it is, and when I see something that I think needs saying, I say it. I’m not going to sit down and shut up. I expect disagreement, but I would appreciate at least the pretense that I am sincere in what I am doing, and that my goal is the betterment of the Church, not its undoing.