Being Honest About Francis
So much ink has been spilled on the Pope’s interview, and most of it has just been reactive tripe. On my hour and a half commute home today I did a lot of serious thinking on this interview one more time and I have some random thoughts I want to share. I know we have beat this to death and it is not as fun as talking about Bourbon and cigars, but here are my thoughts. My apologies in advance for their length.
First, I think the analysis by Philip Lawler on this is the best, where he likens Pope Francis to the Good Shepherd in search of not one lost sheep, but the 99! But along with the parable of the lost sheep I would like to add one more: the parable of the prodigal son. I was thinking of some of the whining screeds from the Right-wing on this interview and just the general tone I am getting from the bloggers on the Right. Are many of us not acting like the older brother in the parable? I mean some of the stuff I have read fits it perfectly: “I have been toiling all these years in the vineyard and now the damn Father wants to extend mercy to these wayward types? Why I will have none of it! I refuse to join the banquet of mercy and prefer to nurse my feelings of entitlement.” This Pope is articulating a beautiful message of mercy towards sinners, asking us to join him, and all a lot of us can say is “Damn! He is throwing us under the bus! I won’t play! He is giving hope to the Commonweal types and I won’t play!” I think many of us should just be ashamed of ourselves on that score.
Second, about this idea that the Pope is “using the language of Commonweal” and the typical tropes of the Left. I am guilty as charged here of worrying about this too much. In many ways, in claiming that the narrative of mercy and forgiveness and dialogue and collaborative leadership and simplicity of life and compassion to the marginalized , and the empowerment of the laity is a “liberal” Commonweal possession is to cede to them the high ground and makes it seem as if they have been right all along: JPII type Catholics want none of that stuff! So instead of seeing Francis as a closet liberal (which is patent nonsense) it is better to see him, as my friend Chris Altieri has said, as taking that message back from them and giving it to the whole Church where it properly belongs. Such ideas as above should never be viewed as part of a partisan battle for political control in the Church and should never be viewed as code for watering down the faith. To play that game is short sighted and dangerous. So instead of criticizing him for using this language we should be screaming loudly “YES!” and “about time!”
People like me and some bloggers I have read, who suffered through the “silly season” of the post-conciliar Church, must resist with all of our power the temptation to view these Papal words as a dangerous window letting the clown masses back in. We were scarred by that experience in the 70’s. I know I was and it colors deeply my fears over those “Commonweal words”. But this is not 1975 anymore and Francis is not a “wacky,” liberal, 1970’s bishop. The time has come therefore to recognize that the people behind the silly season were not entirely wrong. The pre-conciliar Church was juridical and dogmatic and stuffy and rigid. It collapsed almost immediately after the Council for good reasons: the post-war Church’s apparent outward strength was masking some very serious defects. And despite their lunacy the post-conciliar liberals were on to something deeply true in many ways. Perhaps it is now time for many of us who were formed in those battles to admit that. That is why I fault so many in the Right-wing blogosphere for publicly venting their spleens. I am saying “Listen more guys, and be still—we may have something to learn here.”
Third, I have, as many know, found his words in the interview “who am I to judge?” troubling. I have viewed this as a dangerous nod to the language of “tolerance,” which, in our culture, is part of the Esperanto of undifferentiated and uncritical approval. I have further worried that he has actually said this phrase now twice. And so I have viewed it as calculated and deliberate on his part and faulted him for it. But I am an idiot. Of course it is deliberate! And since the option of viewing Francis as a liberal is not a valid one, and since the further option of viewing him as engaging in a rupture with the past is also nonsense, I have been forced to sit back and say to myself: Chapp, instead of being critical here maybe there is something more to his words than just careless sloppiness or naivete (as Rusty Reno at First Things has said in print). I needed to take the hardest of his words for me to accept as the hermeneutical key to understanding the whole. And, as my colleague Rodney Howsare says in class all the time, the deal is this: the first and last words of Jesus to all sinners was forgiveness. Christ called sin, sin, and knew the horrors of sin better than anyone and would suffer its consequences through to the end. And yet, for all that, his first and last words were “forgiveness.” Why? Because he knew that no sin, or collection of sins, no matter how awful, defines any of us to our core. We are all redeemable and none of us are totally evil. We are bigger than our sins. Indeed, the whole point of Balthasar’s “Dare We Hope” is that we are all more than our sins and are not defined by them.
That is where we need to look at the Pope’s curious statement that he knows one thing dogmatically: God is in everyone. Therefore, his words “who am I to judge?” are words designed to give hope to those on the margins who do define themselves by their sins, and who do feel that they are unredeemable. There are such people. Indeed, their numbers are legion. I teach many of them as do many of you. Over the years I have had many a student in my office, sobbing in tears at what they take to be their completely unlovable identity. And many of these encounters have been with young Gay men. As I said to Howsare today in his office, think of the young Gay male who is trying to follow God and the Church, but who sometimes fails and succumbs to temptation. As we all have experienced after we commit a habitual sin we have been trying to overcome we feel like dung and we feel outside of grace and it often makes us despair and full of despondent resignation. But my sins are garden variety sins of the suburbanite, shared by most suburbanites, and so even though I feel like dung after sinning I do not feel unredeemable. But think of the poor young Gay guy who has heard the conservative tropes about being “objectively disordered” (even though that is technically true he may not get its nuance) and starts to think “I really am sick. I am a disgusting pervert.” What the Pope’s words are challenging us to do then is to help that young man feel, in some way, “normal” and not outside the economy of grace. And what those words say to that young man is “God loves you and you are with Him as soon as you want to be and therefore I too love you.” The Church is the sacrament of those first and last words of Jesus: forgiveness. But that means, existentially, trying to make sure that people feel its force in the depth of their fractured hearts. I am reminded of a line from a Mumford and Sons song: “It isn’t the long walk home that will change my heart, but the welcome I feel at every start.”
And there is a lesson here too for all of us in the “culture wars.” I will be honest here: I really do not like liberal, secular Lefties. But our Lord forbids this to me. In some sense, yes, they are my “enemies” in this cultural battle. But the motivations we bring to that battle are critical. If I just want to “win” so I can “save babies” and so on, I am guilty of creating a spiritual fog in my soul, hiding in its obfuscating mist the deeper truth—nay, the deeper lie—that lurks there: I find these people annoying and I want to grind them into dust. Now I am not trying to put a halo on these types and say we should not engage them critically, but as Howsare said to me today, Francis is saying to us to just chill and be willing, like Christ, to speak the truth, but also to be willing to let the “other” do their worst to us without feeling like I have been wronged—to open ourselves to the martyrdom of truth and to enter into the joy of that—”My burden is easy, my yoke is light”.
Along these lines, I have to say that I have been harboring the guilty hope that this liberal honeymoon with Francis will soon be over and things will get back to normal as soon as they see he is “not one of them.” That will make me feel “vindicated” again and “right.” But why should any of us hope that they stop liking the Pope? Why should we not hope instead that this first acceptance of theirs of his message will bear fruit as their own hearts open to truths that they too will see they should be more willing to accept? So what if they like him for what we think are “the wrong reasons”? How are the Right-wing bloggers so certain that they don’t dislike him for all the wrong reasons? Why should we not hope that a new conversation can be started where, even if we still disagree, our common love for Christ and his Church will forge a new amity? Why should I hope they return to alienated distrust? This Pope is calling all of us out of our selfish and pinched pettiness. And God knows we all need to heed that call. I know I do. I am starting to think this Pope might actually be, indeed, a truly wise and holy man.
Finally, some of us have openly worried that Francis seems more than willing to allow this narrative of “rupture” with Pope emeritus Benedict to proceed without correction. He seems willing to allow the press to vilify Benedict. We are understandably protective of Benedict and defensive over attacks against him. But consider this: what if Francis has discussed this issue with Benedict and asked him for advice and Benedict told him to say nothing? Benedict is one of the most heroically humble Popes I have ever witnessed—a true saint of humility. And so he knows he resigned to make way for a new voice, a new message, a new approach. He cares about the Church, not himself or his “reputation”—vanity of vanities. He resigned under the tug of the Spirit and wants that Spirit to bear fruit. And he further knows that if Francis rushes in to defend Benedict, that the whole narrative will shift from a focus on the new start Francis represents and toward the “issue of Benedict.” I think Benedict would find such a focus horrifying. He may have even told Francis: “it is okay. Let them make me the bad guy. God knows who I am. And if making me the bad guy keeps the focus on your message of mercy then so be it.” Benedict, in other words, is perfectly willing to endure such persecution and to offer it up as part of his current vocation of prayer and penance for the Church and the world. I think such a scenario makes far more sense than the silly idea that Francis just does not give a damn about Benedict or JPII and is deliberately letting them get trashed in order to further his own agenda.