I was alarmed when Cardinal Tauran, standing on the balcony of St. Peter’s, announced the name Georgium Marium … Bergoglio. I’d heard the name before somewhat in connection with liberals, specifically the detestable careerist Cardinal Sodano, who had supposedly advanced Bergoglio as the anti-Ratzingerian candidate in the 2005 conclave and who appeared on the balcony next to Francis with a smile that I thought bordered too much on triumphal smirking for my liking. My stomach sank. I worried and prayed for some time.
But Francis is not actually as bad as I had expected, which might surprise some given what’s being said about him and my own inclination toward bitterness and mistrust, especially of postconciliar Catholic clergy. The issue of suppressing the TLM for the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate is irrelevant to me (and frankly to anyone who isn’t a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate), a response to very unique circumstances inside the order, really “their” problem and not “mine.” And the big interview everyone is talking about may be difficult and troublesome and suggest a portrait of a man who is maybe a sloppy thinker and careless in choosing words, but it’s not a sign of the impending destruction of the Church.
There is nothing objectively injurious to the faith in the interview; he is largely talking about disciplines and emphases, things that can change, things which people can discuss in good faith, not about doctrines, which cannot change and aren’t open to negotiation. How we deal with divorcees as a prudential matter, for instance, isn’t the same thing as whether or not divorce is a good thing. Of course, I disagree with him about his choice of emphasis, and I wonder what the use of proclaiming “mercy” is to people who don’t believe in sin; but, whatever, I’m not the Pope’s PR guy and if he wants my input on that, he’ll call me, he’s been known to do that. Even supposing that these things point to Francis being a heretic, that fact is irrelevant: what Francis believes doesn’t touch on me, what he commands me to believe does, and if he wants me to believe something, he’ll proclaim it solemnly; I won’t hear about it first from the airhead on the news who normally does stories about the nine most controversial salads or whatever (yes, that’s a thing, look it up). Heck, John XXII was almost certainly a heretic and yet the Holy Spirit won out in the end, declaring through John’s grudging and recalcitrant lips the truth that the souls of the saved proceed immediately after death to the Beatific Vision. Whether John personally believed that or anything else is between him and God. And objectively, the spin put on Francis’ interview is contradicted at least in part by his criticisms of careerist bishops and of course the excommunication he leveled against this fellow, an unusually harsh move so early in a pontificate we might’ve expected to be light on such actions. Whatever else is true, the vision of a modernist saboteur finally ascended to the throne of Peter can’t be. So for faithful Catholics the answer is always simple: pray for the Church, pray for the Pope, and pray for your own soul; and remember that the Church is not called “holy” because of its shepherds but because of the eternal Shepherd who founded it and whose Spirit continues to shelter it from total ruin.
But of course what is objectively true is only part of the question; reality as it is seen and experienced and understood by people is at least one component of reality, a fact, and you can’t cut that away as irrelevant; that’s the kind of intellectual scalpel-wielding that gives us, well, “Why isn’t the Eucharist enough for you?” And the fact is that people of good faith are being scandalized by Francis. Fr. Ray Blake, who identifies as a “soft liberal” but would I suspect fit in well enough with us Orthosphere types, has written a four-part series of posts on this (1, 2, 3, and 4) and I have seen it well enough myself lately. There is a sense, accurate or not, that Francis is heaping scorn on people who have defended Church teachings on things like abortion and gay “marriage,” sometimes at great personal expense of career or social standing or risk of the same, sometimes being unjustly thrown in jail, etc., the kinds of people who are on the ground and doing the hard and grueling and often uncredited work of evangelizing the irreligious, praying at abortion clinics, etc. There is a sense, in other words, that Francis is, from the remoteness and convenience of Rome, throwing a generation of believers under the bus in order to win the accolades of the worldly elites who hate them. One friend asked me if I thought some disliked Francis because they were in the situation of the older brother of the prodigal son, their pride stung by the father’s eagerness to embrace his returning son, but no, because the father rushed to embrace his son as he was returning, and the sense is that Francis is pleasing all the wrong kinds of people, the kinds of people who are not returning and never will, not the prodigal son walking back to the house with hat in hand and tear tracks on his dirt-stained cheeks but the enemies of the Church approaching with torches and swords in hand.
Maybe those feelings are right, maybe they’re wrong, but my point is this: Pope Francis is not the only one in the world entitled to charitable treatment, and maybe the Church (clergy and laity and keyboard warriors alike) could do a little better than to serve derision to those who, driven to confusion, begin despairing at the prospect that their sacrifices were in vain or contemplating sedevacantism (and please pray for Laura Wood). Maybe “Pelagians” is not a good thing to call people who offer you the kindness of a spiritual bouquet of rosaries, maybe “small-minded rules” is not the right phrasing for the teachings of the Church upheld by the heroic labors of the laity and many clergymen for the defense of eternal truth; maybe not every Catholic the world over, even those who have limited time and capacity, can reasonably be expected to spend an hour scouring Google for original transcripts and scrutinizing them for context every time the Pope wanders off-script. Maybe pastorality isn’t just for lesbians and Lutherans and powerful Congressmen.