The hand-wringing over Pope Francis and the (lack of) media criticism seems to be building. I find it all a number two attraction to the Catholic conservative spinning over other aspects of his ministry.
Sandro Magister headlines the phenomenon as a magic spell. After a first reference, he’s dismissed the attempts to tweet-abbreviate the man into something like FSJ. Mr Magister often chooses to wax poetic on “Pope Bergoglio.” Not even a PJMB. Certainly not a Pope Ratzinger.
Pope Francis has repeatedly, in a very short period of time, made strong statements that would have likely been met with agitation, consternation, or outright indignation if uttered by his predecessor—especially if they had been uttered, say, in the spring and summer of 2005.
I wonder why that is.
I suspect that there are several reasons. First, people like Mother Teresa, despite having views unaligned with the cultural current like care for the needy rather than fleecing them, or saving children rather than aborting them, exude a certain quality about them that is perceived as saintly. Or people still want to believe there are saints. Sometimes, like Legionaires founder Maciel, they come with lots of money and even a pope can be duped.
Second, I think there are true hopes for reform. We had them before the conclave. And rather than watch institutional Catholicism continue to drive itself off a cliff, maybe some observers, even a few non-Catholic ones, would prefer to see the tables turned (so to speak). As for the corporate media, if we’re looking for a grizzly crash to sell product, maybe the prospect of eviscerating the Vatican Bank or a few more cardinals was in the air.
As for the Catholic media, I think there are many of them who stand with many of us. We look for a leader. Not a manager. I think about the pastors for whom I’ve worked. There have been two or three guys who were more aligned with me on liturgical reform, but their leadership was less than inspiring because I didn’t get a glimpse of a bigger picture. And there have been one or two guys who were definitely on the conservative end of things. But these men had a plan and a vision for parish life. I might not have agreed with it, or more likely quibbled over small details of it, but I was willing to work with it. Because of a quality called trust. And trust is deepened with a certain context. Even a context for which some of us don’t have a long history.
So I understand when Mr Olson, who I think favors something of a law-n-order church, has a problem when his hero is villified and someone else’s hero is given a pass:
Benedict, of course, was quite another matter, for he was already well known, having been in the Vatican for decades prior to his election and his many works available in English translations.
No other pope was as well known heading into his ministry than Pope Benedict.
The perception of Benedict as reactionary, old-fashioned, aloof, arrogant, and harsh was completely unfair, but it had been set in stone years prior, during his time as head of the CDF, a job that can only be viewed with suspicion and even hatred by those keen on undermining Church authority and doctrine.
Being CDF head is, by nature, a thankless job. Or it might be that the leader of such an office is indeed “reactionary, old-fashioned, aloof, arrogant, and harsh.” We could ask any number of theologians. We could even ask the ones who didn’t get to the CDF, but who seem to be misunderstood by today’s bench of bishops. People get mistreated, and there is the perception of mistreatment. It is a human indulgence that we want to see the tables turned on self-important leadership. It’s why moral conservatives are targets when their own moral failings undo them.
It’s also part of the truth of Luke 15. When the wayward, sinful son comes home, tail between legs, it is news that the young man wants to reform. Some Catholic conservatives are the incarnation of the elder brother on the porch, refusing to enter the house. Where is our reward, they ask, for being loyal and good all these years? Why does he get all the attention? And the fatted calf.
In almost hilarious fashion, nearly everything done by Benedict was immediately judged as guilty until proven innocent, yet with innocence not being an option for a substantial number of pundits and journalists, who were either petty, superficial, or clueless in their coverage of his pontificate. (And then there was Hans Küng, who doesn’t even have the excuse of being a journalist!)
Well, Hans Küng was one of B16’s first dinner guests. There’s something to be said for that.
It might be that Pope Francis will come up with a few theological and moral howlers in the months and years to come. But I think the Magisters and Olsons of the Catholic Press will still be frustrated. I think there are very good reasons for the frustration and why theirs will always be greater than mine.
First, I think the faith, and the Roman Catholic presentation of it, has no need of defense or apology. I think it must be presented honestly, joyfully, and with optimism. People are protected and defended. Faith is preached. My sense is that Pope Francis gets this essential point. And even non-believers can perceive the respect for the human person above repsect for, however worthy, an institutional thing.
Second, I think that most people are not looking for law-n-order. Except when a true and clear offender is on the docket. Catholics have been harried by any number of bishops appointed over the past thirty-five years who wrapped themselves in the mantle of virtue, but have turned out to be as flawed as anyone else. And sometimes criminally so. Were conservatives not looking for a pope to lay down the law? So are bishops appointed by Rome, not Rome’s responsibility? No lay person I know was consulted to form the terna for Kansas City.
Third, I think the key to not getting caught up in Big Church Politics is to keep it in perspective. As a baptized believer, I have life priorities. I try to pray every day. I have a spiritual director. I celebrate the sacraments of the Church. I try to get away for retreat when I need it. I have a lived grounding in the sacrament of Marriage, and so have duties and responsibilities for a wife and daughter. It’s very unlikely I will be investigated by the CDF, or appointed to some position as a lay consultant in the curia, or will be earning a pontifical degree in anything. My life of faith is little affected by what a pope, bishop, or curia thinks and does.
But I will admit I’ve enjoyed scanning the internet for the words of Pope Francis, before and after election. Putting a spring in my step is more a result of praying, or fostering relationships with my loved ones, or being in good physical health than it is with winning some victory over an ideological adversary, real or imagined. An occasional word from the pope can help. But if I don’t get it from him, I will likely turn to another person, probably a saint. And then it will still be on me to make something of the day. This is the day, after all, that God made for us.