“Here's a suggestion for everyone,” wrote a Jack Quirk, responding to a Facebook discussion: “Act toward each other as if a non-Catholic was observing the conversation, and his eternal salvation depended on the view of Catholicism he took away from the conversation.”
It’s excellent advice, but not followed by those who have the disturbingly common problem the writer Scott Eric Alt has called the “Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome” or even the simpler taste for causing distress Andrew Haines described yesterday.
As I was writing this, I saw an email from a Catholic, writing in an ecumenical group, who said: “This Pope must die. God take him, and quickly, before he attempts to teach officially what it appears he espouses unofficially. The insult offered the Immaculate Virgin, by daring to implement questionable changes to the annulment process as of the 8th of December, is an example of Jesuitical, if not diabolical, pride and hubris that truly tempts God. If the Lord is merciful, he will deliver his Church and people from this despot.” He was reacting to the dubious report of a notoriously unreliable journalist, but that was enough for him to wish the pope dead.
Bad, Bad, Bad
The comment’s extreme, but not untypical of the kind of comments you can see in email, web, and Facebook discussions from people who are not otherwise obviously crazy, as well as from some who seem to be. There are a lot of them too. These reactions to Francis range from unrelenting peevishness and suspicion to versions of “The pope must die,” but they are the same sort of thing across the spectrum. Francis is not only a bad pope but a bad man serving bad ends.
Francis can be criticized and criticized strongly. The critics I’m talking about distinguish themselves from other critics by reading Francis as unscrupulous prosecuting attorneys, who care only to get the conviction and the maximum sentence. They say nothing in his favor, unless they say it as the beginning of a sentence that ends in a sharp criticism.
Words they would have quickly posted on Facebook had Benedict said them they leave unreported, because those words would disturb their narrative about Francis. This is true of some of the more moderate critics, who protest their loyalty to the pope. The "presence of an absence" suggests what they really feel.
Nothing he can do, short of saying what they would say were they him, will change their minds. I was wrong to hope that they might grow out of it.
They talk about Francis and even the Church as something alien, dangerous, out to get them. They talk about the pope in public the way they wouldn't talk about their father or any other relative or friend they cared about. They happily rouse even outsiders to come attack the pope. The problem is not so much what they say, though that can be bad enough, but the way they say it.
Very different was the attitude of Father Ronald Knox, who is probably a great favorite of some of Francis’s angriest critics. In a homily titled “St. Peter Continued Knocking,” he wrote: “Did it never occur to you that we call the Pope the Holy Father because we think of him as our father?” He knew the Church’s history and was not naïve about how unsatisfactory popes could be, but he continued:
That the unity of the Church is not the unity of a machine but the unity of a great family? That our obedience to the Holy Father in that very limited range of affairs in which he demands our obedience is not that of a workman towards the foreman who will sack him if he doesn’t work, but it is that of children towards their father—each eager to outdo the others in showing affection; each eager to outstrip the others in anticipating his slightest wish? That we obey him in effect not because we fear him as the doorkeeper of heaven, but because we love him as the shepherd of Christians, of Christ’s flock?
John Henry Newman, certainly another favorite of Francis’s critics, said much the same thing. A useful exercise for the critic would be to ask what Newman or Knox would have said, had they the same opinion of the Holy Father. Their criticism would sound very different from the criticism given by Francis's critics.
Speak of the Father
The critics don’t speak as disappointed or worried sons. They don’t read the pope with deference and humility, as an adult son listening to his father. My own father rarely gave advice, but when he did, I listened to him carefully. I stifled my desire to object or contradict and even when after much thought I still disagreed, I tried to find ways in which he was right, because he was a wise man who loved me. He was not infallible, but as I look back now, he was right more often than I saw then.
Even Francis’ bitterest critics should speak of him the way one speaks of a father when one has to be publicly critical, which is far less often than his critics think: To say what you have to say but not more, and certainly not bitterly, and to say the hardest things in a way to protect his good name. What you say of him you say of yourself and your family and for that family’s good name you are jealous. That is especially true when that family is the Church, into which you want others to enter.
As Jack Quirk says, remember what effect your words have on others you are called to influence as you are able. What does the way some Catholics speak of their own Church tell them? Not that they should become Catholics themselves. Why join a family when so many members automatically reject what the father says and some even want him dead?
A few of them might be sophisticated enough to think that these people must be so perfectly confident in the Divine origin and end of their Church that they can criticize the way they do. But not many will be and even the ones who are will notice the harsh and unrelenting anger. Most will take the lesson, “See how these Catholics hate their Church.”
David Mills' Rereading Francis
Audra Nakas' Trusting Pope Francis
Aaron Taylor's Pope Francis's Conservatism of Joy
Jose Mena's Why Americans Misunderstand Pope Francis