The many and varied reactions to Pope Francis since his election reveal both the challenges he is posing to the American hierarchy, and the pitfalls they must overcome to meet those challenges.
When a devout, church-going Catholic takes the prayer card depicting Pope Francis off her refrigerator and throws it away, saying “Now I feel kind of thrown under the bus,” something is happening in Catholic life that deserves our attention.
What is happening is the “Francis effect”--a paradigm shift in the governance of the Catholic Church, and a course correction for the Church’s mission in the world. Everyone--conservatives, bishops, progressives, average Catholics, even the general public--seems to sense this. But they’re reacting in dramatically different ways, because while they all sense the Francis effect, they understand it differently.
Some simply reject certain statements of the new pope. Others call them “borderline heretical,” or else “imprudent” or “reckless.” Some express suspicion that Francis is undermining Catholic tradition, while others are backpedaling on their own positions to minimize any appearance of conflict the pope--or else they are claiming that the media is distorting his message by taking “off the cuff” remarks “out of context.”
Meanwhile, progressive Catholics are jumping on the Francis bandwagon, and some early signs suggest that alienated Catholics may be preparing to return to church practice. And the U.S. Bishops, meeting last week in Baltimore, seemed challenged to decide their own response to the Francis effect.
So far, the range of reactions suggests that some people are struggling to link their faith to Francis’--as if they wonder “If I’m a good Catholic, then what is this guy?” Meanwhile others believe Francis represents the hope of a return to a more humane, more centered Catholicism.
For me, the Francis effect does not mean that this pope is not a real Catholic. On the contrary, it means he possesses a Catholic identity and vision penetrating enough to expose several pitfalls that have weakened the Church’s U.S. leadership in recent years.
Pitfall #1: Pope-Quoting. In the wake of the tensions and polarization followed Vatican II, American Catholics struggled to find some unifying principle that was strong enough to overcome their differences. Conservatives thought they had found such a principle: Quote the pope, label anyone who differs a “cafeteria Catholic,” and those who cannot toe the line will drift away.
Aside from turning papal pronouncements into bludgeons to attack others, this approach also encouraged the creeping conviction that papal statements were beyond question--as if popes were infallible 24/7, something the Church has never taught.
But now the “Francis effect” has caught such conservatives in a double bind.
First, they don’t like quoting this pope--and they don’t much like it when others do either. Suddenly they are looking inconsistent at best, hypocritical at worst. And if they resort now to quoting other popes they will paint themselves as the very “cafeteria Catholics” (picking and choosing which Catholic positions they like) they have condemned for years. In short, they hate the taste of their own medicine.
Second, they still need a unifying principle, but now they need a new one. For me, this challenges conservatives to acknowledge that Catholicism has always been unified by the same thing: its core traditional teachings, focused sharply on Trinity, Scripture, sacraments, and loving service. These comprise the “Catholic forest” we all inherit and inhabit together. Everything else--even papal pronouncements--is just trees. This leads to my next point.
Pitfall #2: False Priorities. True teachings can become false priorities when they are uprooted from the Catholic forest and isolated like a Christmas tree in a living room window. By engaging so aggressively in the culture wars of the last 35 years, the U.S. hierarchy has focused public attention on trees like gay marriage, abortion, and contraception--and virtually abandoned their opinion-shaping leadership on anything else. As James Carroll observed:
In no nation has the hierarchy shown its colors as a force for reactionary politics more than the United States, where something over 400 bishops have, as a group over the last decade, practically served as a branch of the Republican Party.
James Carroll is not alone in complaining. Francis himself decried an obsession with “culture war” issues, arguing they were not worth the constant focus they have received, and the U.S. Bishops (despite two Illinois bishops launching a new attack last week on that state’s gay marriage law) seem to be acknowledging that the time has come to review their culture war strategy, as reflected by these remarks from Bishop Blasé J. Cupich of Spokane:
Pope Francis doesn’t want cultural warriors, he doesn’t want ideologues. That’s the new paradigm for us, and it’s making many of us think.
Certainly the message from Francis was unmistakable last week, when the papal nuncio to the United States addressed bishops meeting:
While, from various perspectives, American culture is characterized by diversity, this is true also of the Church. As Pope Francis…said: "The Church is never uniformity, but diversities harmonized in unity, and this is true for every ecclesial reality." But, we must take care that, for us as a Church, this diversity does not grow into division through misinterpretation or misunderstanding, and that division does not deteriorate into fragmentation.
I recently came upon an article on the political situation in America over the past fifty years which read: "The era of polarization began as Americans lost confidence in their leaders." Well said, since the Catholic Church will preserve her unity and strength as long as its people have trust in their bishops.
Pitfall #3: False Allies. By and large, battling the culture war issues has aligned the U.S. Bishops (and therefore the public face of the Catholic Church) with the American religious right: the evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal denominations that have taken hard-right lines on homosexuality, school prayer, immigration, women’s roles, the First Amendment, etc.
From a political/ideological point of view, this makes sense. But from a pastoral/theological point of view, it makes no sense at all.
These extreme conservative churches do not accept Catholic teaching on the Bible. They do not accept the Catholic sacraments. They do not accept the Catholic Mass. They do not accept Catholic social teaching, or the authority of the bishops and the pope. Many of them do not even accept the Catholic Church as a legitimate church representing the gospel message.
Yet our bishops bond with them, and thus distance themselves from “mainline churches” (Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc) that DO accept Catholic views on the Bible, the sacraments, the liturgy, and social justice--just because those churches disagree on women’s ordination or contraception.
In a word, fighting the culture war has alienated us from our natural allies--faiths that share our core message--while linking us to faiths that oppose us on that very core but agree on a few specific political issues. These are false alliances that reinforce the hierarchy’s focus on false priorities.
Pitfall #4: Collateral Damage. Those same false allies are the only churches currently showing substantial growth in the United States. And they don’t grow by converting atheists--they do it by poaching our members, and members of mainline Protestant churches. In other words, not only are they false allies—they also are rivals in evangelizing. We’ve joined them in the culture wars, but in the battle for loyal, faithful followers, we are losing to them.
When the pew research polls report that 10% of all Americans (30 million people!) call themselves “former Catholics,” we know something is wrong. Some have converted to other faiths, and many others have simply left. We used to call them “lapsed” or “fallen away” Catholics. But the truth is, they did not simply “fall,” nor did they jump--they were pushed. Between the obsession with sex, the stress on culture wars, and the sex abuse scandals with its horrifying mismanagement in church affairs, the hierarchy has encouraged millions to shake the Church’s dust off their feet and walk away. Continuing the culture wars will not bring them back--but it might send more Catholics over to the evangelicals!
The Francis effect, however, is the paradigm shift that just might bring them back. My own opinion is that most of these 30,000,000 ex-Catholics have not lost their faith, but they have lost their confidence in the institution and its public leaders. The Francis effect suggests that their alienation is not all that deep. They may well be willing to come back if, following the example of Francis, our bishops do three things.
First, they can turn their attention to the core of our tradition, the “Good News” about Jesus, his Father, his Spirit, the Bible, the sacraments, especially the Eucharistic liturgy, and love of neighbor in service and social justice. In other words, they can go back to the basics!
Second, they can focus on our true pastoral priorities. We are hemorrhaging members, and need to grow. Our active members lag behind in their Catholic identity. Our liturgies fail to inspire. The sacraments are languishing (the sacrament of Matrimony, for example, has been in trouble for nearly 50 years). Our rank-and-file still think that social justice is optional equipment in their faith, and they think the Bible should be read literally, and they lack practice in faith-sharing. All this begs for effective leadership in the Francis mold.
Third, the bishops can lead us all in reaching out. But that means welcoming back the very people that conservative Catholics wanted gone. It means opening the doors to dissenters, it means embracing difficult questions, it means welcoming different and difficult attitudes of suspicion, skepticism, and even hostility.
Perhaps this is the real threat imbedded within the Francis effect: that it could end up restoring Catholicism’s “prodigal sons” to their rightful place, while the loyal “good” sons struggle with resentment and anger to see the “lost sheep” welcomed back into the fold.
This gentle man Francis may have unleashed some powerful winds of change. But be assured: this pope is very, very Catholic. And we need more Catholics like him.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2013