Part of ‘the Problem’:
Five Practical Questions

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. — 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

PopeRollingStoneNot long ago a sudden transition occurred in these pages which, thus far, has gone unremarked. On August 3, Spaniard wrote a brief post asking the question, “Is the Pope Catholic?” — and answering more or less in the affirmative. Two months passed before another post or comment appeared; the next entry Meddlesome’s much-discussed “What Happened to the Prodigal Son?” From that point forward, the benefit of the doubt Spaniard offered to Pope Francis has diminished, even in my own writings.

At the time of Meddlesome’s post, I was struggling with how seriously to take reports from the Extraordinary Synod on the family — especially those claiming our Holy Father was taking the Church in a direction that faithful Catholics couldn’t follow. Ultimately I conceded that Pope Francis has a particular agenda he’s pursuing and that it’s going to be divisive and problematic. My fundamental question at the time remains today, “So what do we do?”

What do you do when most of the conversations you have about our Holy Father include some variation on, “The problem with Pope Francis is…”?

Then last week I read this First Things piece by George Weigel, about a segment on the Pope from 60 Minutes, in which the interviewer let stand a statement by an ostensibly Catholic journalist that, “There had been no discussion on issues like birth control, about premarital sex, about divorced and remarried Catholics. None whatsoever. There’s been no discussion for the last probably 35 years on that.” Weigel’s take on this topic is worth the read, but what struck me even more is this summary of his view of our Holy Father:

Pope Francis is trying to put serious questions on the Church’s agenda: How does the Church more effectively proclaim the “yes” that underwrites the “no” Catholicism must say on occasion? How does the Church teach the truth about marriage and the family in a culture which imagines that everything in the human condition can be changed by human willfulness? How does the Church offer those wounded by the sexual revolution the medicine of the divine mercy, so that those healed by mercy can come to know the truth about love? How can the Church call the men and women of the developed world beyond a “throwaway culture” that disrespects and devalues vulnerable human life, whether that life is unborn, poor, unemployed, handicapped, elderly or otherwise “other”? How does Catholicism reclaim its essentially evangelical character, so that it’s once again a “Church in permanent mission,” as the pope often puts it?

I have come to recognize more and more in recent months that even the best Catholic sources have their biases and bents, and I am not well-enough read or researched to know if Weigel’s assessment of the Pope’s agenda is accurate. For my point today it suffices to say that at least one Catholic writer and thinker can articulate a positive summary of what our Holy Father is attempting to achieve. Weigel appears to have given Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt, and in doing so, he echoes — in my mind, at least — Spaniard’s words from last August: “But he’s our Holy Father, and he’s solidly Catholic.  I believe he has a lot to teach us (that is, me!) about humility and charity.”

Division within the Church, it would seem to me, is not of God — so when faithful Catholics foster such division, I tend to wonder what we might be missing. Meddlesome’s latest post is a case in point: the division he articulates is a struggle I can relate to — a struggle occurring very personally for me these days. Furthermore, his assessment of these two approaches to the Holy Spirit makes good sense to me and my essentially conservative nature. But in the long history of the Church, have there not always been charismatics and traditionalists? Intellectuals and visionaries? Towering figures and little flowers? Is there really no reconciling the two?

Not long ago a friend asked me to consider the scripture passage above in light of Pope Francis’s critics, including myself. A few words and phrases stand out to me as I consider my own struggles with our Holy Father’s approach to issues about which I care deeply. Patience and kindness; not rudeness or self-interest. Hope and endurance. Rejoicing in the truth, rather than in wrongdoing. One could urge the Holy Father to consider these things, too — but we cannot know his heart, only our own. We don’t have to be a part of “the problem with Pope Francis.”

To that end, here are Five Practical Questions to ask ourselves:

  • Are we at least respecting the office? We’ve asked the question, is the pope damaging the dignity of the office with some of his remarks? Do we not risk the same when we ourselves employ sarcasm or name-calling at our Holy Father’s expense? Constructive criticism and open discussion is fine — but when faithful Catholics no longer respect the office, why should we expect such respect from anyone else? We should be cautious in our use of humor, to avoid disrespect, mockery, or piling on.
  • Can we quote him? As we’ve seen, quite often the worst of what is reported about the Pope is misreported … and even when his words are confusing or poorly chosen, often we can look to the body of his work to assess whether assuming the worst is warranted. Pope Francis continues to speak in favor of traditional marriage, against contraception and abortion, and so on — which leads to a third question…
  • Are we borrowing trouble?  St. John Vianney is often credited with the quote, “God commands you to pray, but He forbids you to worry,” and Jesus Himself assures us He is with us and that Hell shall not prevail against the Church He founded. It is wise to look soberly at the path we’re on in order to prevent avoidable troubles from coming to pass — but at what point are we overly concerned about things we can’t know or foresee?
  • Are we giving our Holy Father the benefit of the doubt? Thanks to technology, the secular media’s fascination, and his own strengths and weaknesses as a public figure, we have more access to this pope’s thoughts than any other. Perhaps he should be more circumspect, but given the assurances of Christ that God is with us, why do we look first to his flaws and assume the worst of his motives?
  • Are we uncomfortable with the implications of what he is saying for ourselves? I know that at times, my concern for the Church is a cover, masking an uneasiness that I may be called to further conversion. In discussing St. Therese of Lisieux, Fr. Robert Barron characterizes her particular gift as recognizing, in any situation, “what is the demand of love.” Phrasing this quote as a question and applying to my own views and concerns about the Holy Father at this time has been edifying for me.

On a a final, personal note: I have been praying, but not fasting, for the Church and the Holy Father. Lord, strengthen my resolve to sacrifice for your Bride! St. Catherine of Siena and St. Therese of Lisieux, pray for us!

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