After a decade of media expulsion of a Catholic voice from the public square, Pope Francis is on the cover of TIME, but some traditionalists lack peripheral vision.
It has been five years, but I still talk to Father Richard John Neuhaus who left this world on January 8, 2009. These Stone Walls is dedicated to him, and to his great friend, Avery Cardinal Dulles, who preceded him in death by just weeks. Not since the great Archbishop Fulton Sheen had someone so influenced American Catholicism and religion in the public square as Richard John Neuhaus. In 2005, TIME Magazine named him one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America, and noted that when the U.S. president spoke of religion, Father Neuhaus was “the living authority he cited most often.”
When I saw Pope Francis on the cover of TIME last month, I immediately asked, “What would you write of this, Richard?” Father Neuhaus was the standard bearer for a conservative Catholic voice in America, and the fact that I write at all can be traced directly to him. We exchanged letters often during “Scandal Time,” his incisive years-long ongoing essay on the decade of scandal so effectively used to squelch a Catholic voice in the public square.
In one of his earlier letters, Father Neuhaus admonished me to be silent. “It’s a sad consequence that as someone directly involved with the issues at hand, your voice will not be included in this discussion,” he wrote. It really ruffled my feathers, but Father Neuhaus ruffled many feathers. Then, in 2005, when the Catholic League journal, Catalyst, published “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud,” my article about money-driven false claims against priests, Father Neuhaus reversed his position: “Yours is a voice in the wilderness, so keep writing, and please let me know what you are writing and thinking on these issues.”
Then Cardinal Dulles asked me to “contribute a new chapter to the volume of Christian literature from believers who were unjustly imprisoned.” Their combined prompting led directly to These Stone Walls.
So what would Father Neuhaus write of the choice of Pope Francis as TIME’S “Person of the Year”? I could not even begin to do justice to his pen, but I believe he might begin with the amazing transformation of the face of the Catholic Church in public perception in the last nine months of 2013. Then I believe he might write some very pointed words to a small but vocal coterie of traditionalist Catholics whose critique of Pope Francis exhibits tunnel vision, doubts the Holy Spirit, and divides the very house they purport to cherish and seek to preserve.
I won’t be too hard on them, and neither would Father Neuhaus. We both share their concerns for the Church, but some Catholic traditionalists should stay their pens if they find themselves, as I fear some now do, placing their agendas above the Church. They are not alone in this, and the lessons of the last decade that so defaced a Catholic presence in public view should have taught them a necessary lesson.
Dissidents of the left have for over a decade used a painful crisis to further their own agenda for the Church. They have effectively used a news media ever poised to place any anti-clerical rhetoric on center stage while the U.S. Bishops cowered under that media millstone. Father Neuhaus wrote courageously of the result in a March 2008 essay in First Things entitled “Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism”:
“[Catholics] are scandalized when, in response to the sex-abuse scandal, bishops treat their priests like expendable temporary employees…Attempting to ward off outside threats, bishops have self-servingly tried to demonstrate their ‘transparency’ by publicly revealing the names of elderly and deceased priests against whom there was a rumor or allegation of misconduct from twenty, thirty, or even fifty years ago. In some cases the allegations were investigated. In others not, and in almost all cases they are now beyond fair investigation. Their once honored reputations now destroyed, such priests are deemed guilty until proven innocent, and from their nursing homes and from their graves [and, yes, even from their prisons] they are in no position to protest their innocence. This is a great miscarriage of the ‘zero tolerance’ policy adopted by the bishops in Dallas in 2002. It has not escaped the notice of many observers that zero tolerance has not been applied in like manner to bishops who were complicit….It is an unspeakable sadness.” (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, First Things, March 2008)
Just months after writing that essay, some of which was culled directly from our letters, Father Neuhaus asked to visit me in prison. Before that could happen, however, he was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer. In November, 2008, TSW reader Steve Oslica wrote to me saying he had attended Mass in New York offered by Father Neuhaus who “doesn’t look well” and asked for my prayers. On January 8, 2009, he was gone.
His essay, “Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism,” excerpted above, served as a sort of State of the Union address about the state of the Catholic Church in America in the decade following 2002, and it was dismal. Equally dismal was the state of the U.S. bishops’ sense of justice and mercy that he addressed so candidly. Meanwhile, the media, the pundits, and the enemies of the Church – some without and some within – remained at the ready to prevent any recovery without signs of acceding to their liberal agenda for the U.S. Catholic church.
THE FRANCISCAN REVOLUTION
And then along came Francis. On Christmas Eve last month, ABC World News aired a video clip about Edward Snowden and the ongoing scandal that directly impacts the world’s most powerful democracy and its intelligence gathering arm, the National Security Agency. Then ABC’s Laura Hasan introduced the next major news item as “A far more welcomed Christmas message” from “The Unconventional Peoples’ Pope!” How did such a thing happen? Suddenly, seemingly overnight, the Administration of President Barack Obama is dubious news and the Pope is hot news – even “far more welcomed” news. I half expected to see Rod Serling appear on the screen to tell me I’ve just entered The Twilight Zone!
Two weeks earlier, on the December 11 airing of the TODAY Show, TIME magazine unveiled its selection of Pope Francis as the 2013 “Person of the Year” stating that in just nine months of this papacy, he has dramatically changed the public “tone and perception” of the Catholic Church without changing one iota of Church teaching or discipline. TIME magazine has made the same point I made in “When the Vicar of Christ Imitates Christ, Why Is It So Alarming?”
Finalists for TIME’S honor included President Barack Obama and Edward Snowden (how embarrassing would THAT have been?!) Francis is the third pontiff to be so honored by TIME since its “Person of the Year” was established in 1927. The first was Pope John XXIII in 1964. Pope John Paul II received the honor in 1994 largely for his role in bringing down Communism in Europe, a feat I described in “The Beatification of Pope John Paul II: When the Wall Fell.” Both Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II will be canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday this year.
The period in between Blessed John Paul’s appearance on the cover of TIME, and that of Pope Francis last month has exactly been the 20 years of my imprisonment. I have lived this demise of the Church’s voice while trapped inside its vortex, and from “inside” I marvel at this Pope, and at the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit now blowing out of Rome to the ends of the Earth.
One decade ago the only news of the Catholic Church in the Western world’s secular news media was bad news, really dismal news if you are recalling it correctly. In 2003, there would have been only one reason anyone in the Catholic hierarchy would end up on the front page of a secular news magazine, and it would not have been an honor.
THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL
How did one man change the face and voice of the Catholic Church in public perception in nine months? A month before being named Person of the Year by TIME, Pope Francis and the Vatican Press published his first Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” – “The Joy of the Gospel” – which among other things expressed concern over “trickle down” economics and “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
Here at last, I thought, the honeymoon is over. The news media will finally return to its far more recognizable anti-Catholic state. Pope Francis has opened himself up to a good old fashioned American media papal bashing as the pundits explode upon the pope. This time, however, it is those wielding a conservative and traditionalist banner who would now cast a cloud of doubt upon the Holy Spirit’s choice of Francis in the Chair of Peter.
Does that seem naive? It amazes me the speed at which a central tenet of belief in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church can be reduced to “just politics” when we disagree with the Pope because he has hit the Western world right smack in the wallet. The conservative backlash has begun.
Stuart Varney on FOX News called him, “too political.” Rush Limbaugh suggested he is too Marxist, concluding, “somebody has either written this for him or gotten to him.” Adam Shaw on FOX News called him “a disaster for the Catholic Church.”
Bishop Bernard Fellay of the Society of Saint Pius X agreed with the “disaster” analogy, called Pope Francis “a genuine modernist,” and declared he is making the post-Vatican II Church “ten times worse.” His statements were refuted well by Australia’s Cardinal George Pell in the December 2013 issue of Inside the Vatican magazine.
“To put it politely,” Cardinal Pell wrote, “I think that’s rubbish”. . . Francis “is a completely faithful exponent of Christ’s teaching and the Church’s tradition.”
Meanwhile, a few traditionalist Catholic bloggers snipe at Pope Francis, some subtly and some overtly, with a tone akin to the very dissent that has so typically characterized the modernist Catholic left. Adam Shaw on FOX News declared, “My fellow Catholics should be suspicious when bastions of anti-Catholicism in the left-wing media are in love with him.” That is the media’s take on things, and not the Pope’s. Writing in USA Today, Tom Krattenmaker attempted to bring some consolation – and sanity – to the fray in a thoughtful column, “Pope Francis is Prophetic, Not Political.” (USA Today, Dec. 9, 2013)
Columnist Bret Stephens in America’s largest secular newspaper, The Wall Street Journal also brought some welcomed sanity to bear. In “Of Jane Fonda and Pope Francis,” (WSJ “Opinion”, December 17, 2013) Bret Stephens wrote of “the pope’s recent denunciation of economic concepts championed by this newspaper.” This non-Catholic who would so fundamentally disagree with the economic conclusions of this Pope’s words in “Evangelii Gaudium” had this to say about Francis himself:
“In life, it means something – not everything, but something – when you walk the talk. Francis electrifies non-Christians like me because so much of what he says seems to be concerned above all with getting the theological fine print out of the way, of putting the deed before the word, of [going] with Christ to the peripheries.” (Bret Stephens, “Of Jane Fonda and Pope Francis,” WSJ Dec. 17, 2013.)
VERITABLE WITCH HUNTS
Pride goeth before destruction: and the spirit is lifted up before a fall. It is better to be humbled with the meek, than to divide spoils with the proud. (Proverbs 16: 18-19 Douay Rheims)
I have written many times of the leftist swipes – some subtle and others outrageous – aimed at Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI over the last decade. I wrote of one of the most dubious and devious – and overtly evil – of them in “The International Criminal Court Has Dismissed SNAP’s Last Gasp.” It was about SNAP’S malicious and sensationalist effort to get a headline for itself by filing a “crimes against humanity” claim against Pope Benedict.
Some Catholic traditionalists have been in danger of forgetting just how bad things were. Without doubt, the news media’s love for this Pope will be short-lived, but he is not to be measured by the media’s take on him. What would Francis himself make of the controversy? He wrote about it, in clear and compelling prose, in Paragraph 100 of “Evangelii Gaudium“:
“Those wounded by historical divisions find it difficult to accept our invitation to forgiveness and reconciliation, since they think that we are ignoring their pain or asking them to give up their memory and ideals. But if they see the witness of authentically fraternal and reconciled communities, they will find that witness luminous and attractive. It always pains me greatly to discover how some Christian communities, and even consecrated persons, can tolerate different forms of enmity, division, calumny, defamation, vendetta, jealousy, and the desire to impose certain ideas at all costs, even to persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts. Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?”
Having lived for twenty years on the receiving end of one of those “veritable witch hunts,” I freely give to this Pope my full attention and deference, and to the Holy Spirit, my withdrawal of any doubt.