A Man for All Seasons? Pope Francis Left and Right

A Man for All Seasons - Pope Francis Left and Right s

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.

Richard-John-NeuhausIn 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.


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.

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.


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.)

Blessed John Paul II


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.

Pope John XXIII

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Brent says:

    To be perfectly honest, it’s too early in Pope Francis’s papacy to tell whether or not his actions will really make a difference in the long run. Granted, even it took John Paul II several years in order for him to make a significant socio-political impact around the world. What I do appreciate about Francis I is that he is consistent with his image, how he presents himself to the public, and his views on various social and political issues. Thank you for featuring this piece on your website.

  2. I remember the words of Fr Leonardo Castellani, a prophet of our times who told us that a significant part of the Church would fornicate spiritually with the World. That is not necessarily becoming like the world but also allowing our actions to be used against the Church. That was the sin of Uzah, the man who put his hand over the Ark of the Covenant to stop it from toppling over and so he was instantly killed. It was forbidden to get near, let alone touch, the Ark. We must endure our times obediently. This will not last forever. At the same time we must pray for our pastors and for those who, like Uzah, believe they have the duty to steer the Church from where they are standing forgetting the fact that it’s the business of Heaven to guide and preserve our Church.

    Peter walked a few steps towards the Lord but he doubted and sank. I always thought that was an allegory, sort of a prophetical representation of what the heads of the Church would do towards the end of time when the Lord, approaching them would ask them to keep their eyes fixed on Him. If we see the Pope in a similar situation today, be assured that he will be promptly rescued and he will not sink. “And I have prayed for you that your faith will not fail.” (‎Luke 22:32) The One praying is just and the prayers of the Just are always heard by the Father. That is guaranteed although sometimes we don’t understand the ways in which God answers those prayers.

    In the end I think every man will fail and God will be faithful. A quote from Fr Rutler balances what I just said with a counterpoint view:

    “What God knows is not necessarily what God wills. Each pope is guaranteed the protection of the Holy Spirit from fallible definitions of faith and morals, but to suppose that each pope is there because God wants him there, including the unworthy successors of Peter, comes close to the unforgivable blasphemy against the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.”

    Peter is a free man — with a tiny exception made for his teaching — and all of his successors can fail and even make fools of themselves as much as the original Peter did. Peter is flesh and blood. God’s grace is sufficient and His strength is made perfect in Peter’s weakness. Peter’s weakness –just as it was in Genesareth– is a place of encounter with God for us. We must trust that the Church is the Temple of the Living God, a place to be with God while we walk our pilgrimage here on earth.

    Pope Francis’ faith will not fail. His conduct may irk some of us, his comments may be confusing at times, he may be guilty of a socially awkward faux pas but in the end Francis is the Pope, one of us fallible men trusted with an infallible charism under God’s watch.

    Here comes Jesus walking on the waves of the sea. Keep your eyes fixed in His eyes and trust. This is no time to look at the depths or to listen to the roaring winds around us. We’re safe, the Lord is here.

    Non abbiate paura! Have no fear! (John Paul II, October 22, 1978)

  3. Bea says:

    What a great post and tribute to Pope Francis, Father Gordon!
    This is the first pope I really feel connected to. No wonder he has captured so many hearts, hearts of Catholics and Non-Catholics/Non-Christians alike. It is his humility and humanity that touches us all. By his actions and words he has started to remove barriers between people(s), and between people and the Holy See.
    Thank you for bringing him closer to us, Father Gordon.

  4. Steve Oslica says:

    Dear Father MacRae,
    I had completely forgotten about reaching out to you after having Mass and meeting Father Neuhaus in NYC.

    May God continue to bless you, your vocation, and the strange but important road it has to take.

    All the best….Steve Oslica

  5. M says:

    I agree with Lionel and I am glad you are writing such calm reasoned pieces re Pope Francis

  6. Dee Susan says:

    I first learned “We have a Pope!” as I walked into my mother-in-law’s hospital room as she lay on her death bed. The television was on and the joyous shouts filled the room in a stark contrast to the situation that was unfolding for our family. We have a new Pope and his name is FRANCIS!!! I flet a surge of happiness in my heart. I was pleased that we had a pope, that or church was no longer with out a leader. But there was more than that. I felt a personal happiness that I have not felt before in connection to the Papacy.

    I felt it was akin to a personal message that everythoing will be ok now. A reassurance.

    The televison was turned off, the doctor entered the room with a serious diagnosis and a painful reaction from us. The outside world was forgotten as we dealt with our personal crisis. I didn’t follow Francis’ actions that day or for weeks following, but when we were finally able to return our attention to issues beyond our family, I learned that Francis was indeed acting like ‘another Christ.’ I found myself smitten – smitten enoug to pray fervently for his health and welfare. I guess I am simply saying that I believe he is the right man for the job and the times. The Holy Spirit is at work. Praise God. Thank you God for giving us a good, kind man to lead us back from the brink of disaster. (if we will only listen and floow him.)

  7. Jeannie says:

    Oh Father Gordon, this tone of yours, it’s, well, it’s just glorious.
    Raymond Arroyo is also a huge fan of Father Neuhaus. I sometimes watch Raymond’s and Father Neuhaus’s coverage of Benedict’s papal election. Raymond refers to Father Neuhaus with the same lump in the throat affection.

    I don’t know which came first, being grateful to Father Neuhaus for your making this column or being a fan of Father Neuhaus because of Raymond (and I believe Father Neuhaus may have been tied in with my discovering Cardinal Newman in the process of his beatification so that cinches the trio). In any case your column, like EWTN and like my miraculous turning to the rosary over 5 years ago, have all been instruments of such grace.

    Getting to Francis.

    We know that the press is thoroughly socialist at heart and there is not a socialist yet who didn’t end up at odds with the Catholic Church; and so we know that any positive coverage of Francis is due to the ‘never going to go away’ thinking that they are finally going to get their ‘enlightened’ Pope who gets that these times and THEIR values, are finally going to trump those pesky,narrow minded ideas of Christ.

    I have been thinking so much lately of Christ on the Cross thoroughly aware of these exact times when He said to His Father, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do”.

    Imagine the miracle if people could discover that simple faith of a child that pervades this column. All of the common sense and compassion and reason and promise of love for which they are starved are all available for them to find, through your beloved column.

    No wonder the winner of the Web Catholic site award went out of his way to promote YOUR site, saying that the times needed it.

    God bless you and may 2014 promote both wonder and God’s grace and joy and peace in your life. I know that some, like Saint Bernadette, were not promised perfect happiness in this life but she nonetheless did not lack for joy.


    • Jeannie says:

      Oh pooflesnoots, I didn’t finish my thought on Francis.
      For me he summed it up, along with one of the most avid followers of Pope Emeritus Benedict, when he referred to Pope Benedict Emeritus so many times early in his pontificate and when he went to greet him and they both refused to kneel in the front pew. He supported Benedict’s thoughts time and again. And actually I have on tape Benedict asking people to pray for HIM so that is not anything new either.

      One of BEnedict’s most avid supporters, a German journalist, says that BEnedict is following the path of St. Dominic, who stepped down from a public role to retire to private prayer, after having started an order of monks.

      I think it takes the courage and faith of two men who have lived lives of piety and love to be on this earth at this time dealing with this unsurpassed evil.

      As for Francis, both JPII and Mother Theresa were aware that living their faith was far more effective than preaching scripture. In a world of terror and intimidation and threats and anxiety, what could be more counter cultural than inviting people to Christ than through joy? In my own small corner of the world my smiles and courtesy and offers to help often have people asking me out of the blue if I’m a Christian. I smile quietly, nod, and think that God the Father probably smiles, which makes me more joyful still.

      We pray for our Pope and the martyrs on the ground, like you, Father Gordon.
      What a lot for which to be grateful!

  8. JuliB says:

    Fr, I am a B16 girl and was crushed when he abdicated. I was an atheist for 25 years before coming home due to Abp Sheen and B16 (and the Holy Spirit).

    While I have some issues with the way the Pope is handling things, and I don’t have the love for him that I have for our Beloved PE Benedict, I do greatly respect him and think that he is a good pope for our time. It was Love that brought me back to God, and the unchanging truths held by Holy Mother Church that brought me back to her. This is something that the Pope is focusing on, and it can be hard to adjust to his radical approach.

    We’ve been demonized for sometime now, and Francis is the right man for the job – he is getting the people talking and removing the basis for much of the hate and anger. At a time when religion is being banished from the public square, we have Francis showing up everywhere.

    I was reading a book in which the writer said we need both the spirituality of Benedict and Francis in the Church. I checked the date – it was written decades ago so I can only think it was the way my Guardian Angel chose to let me know to stop fretting and trust in God. Ever since then, I have been able to appreciate what our new Pope is bringing to the table.

    • Jeannie says:

      What a glorious find, thank you so much for mentioning that prophetic comment on Benedict and Francis.

      • Mimi says:

        I think the Holy Spirit has been right on with our last 3 popes. I am also a B16 girl …. have read so many of his books … so easy to read – with much clarity and purpose. But, we have been given a huge gift by the Holy Spirit with these saintly men. JPII lived, taught and gave us HOPE ….. he awakened a new generation to the faith, young people who are now our new priests, mothers and fathers,etc. Then B16 came along and spelled out the FAITH for us …. is his simple and thought-provoking style, reminding us of the treasure we were born into, or given through conversion. Now we have Francis, who comes along with all that info and lives and teaches us how to put HOPE and FAITH into action in our lives, by living it with LOVE an CHARITY! How blessed are we …. the Holy Spirit had a plan for our times!

        • Domingo says:

          You put it so nicely, Mimi. Thank you.

          So there are B16 wonderful Catholics in this thread. Fr G, I wonder what type of Catholics Pope Francis would bring to God’s Church? I was a nonchalant Catholic in my growing up years even during JP2 (an attitude that I see now in my 3 teens) and I didn’t really get interested in the Church until 8 or 9 years ago. JP2’s Theology of the Body appealed to me so much and when I fell in love with him, he’s gone. I don’t want a repeat of this sad tale with JP2 and so I try to stay up-to-date with B16. He made me appreciate the past popes and I look with wonder at the pictures of all the popes starting with St Peter and am just amazed at the reality of the history before me. And just as I was getting used to the ‘deliberate, measured’ presence of this beloved pope, he resigned! But came along Francis and you’re right, Father G, the media has never been the same. Fortunately, I am not familiar with the ultra conservative Catholics that you mentioned in this article. I concur with Lionel’s post that Francis is neither left nor right; he is just catholic. (I like that one, Lionel. Say, is there a middle position? What do i know about these labels, anyway!?)

          Asking for your priestly blessings for me and my wife, especially for my 3 ‘uns: Dominic, Rachel Ann Marie, & Trisha Jo-Marie)

    • Margarett says:

      This echoes my sentiments exactly. Pope Francis still confuses me sometimes, but knowing that there are teachings he will not and cannot change helps.

  9. Lionel (Paris) says:

    I cannot locate Pope Francis; he is indefinable.
    I think he is neither right nor left, just catholic.

    • Dominic says:

      Lionel, I think you hit it on the spot regarding Pope Francis. He is neither right nor left, just Catholic. As a non-papist, I find myself very much drawn to this present Pope. Perhaps because while he is irritating both the left and the right, he is opening the minds and winning the hearts of those in the middle without a specific liturgical or political agenda.

      Father G, it is almost as if we have landed on Htrae (you Supperman fans will get it) where instead of singing the Inno e Marcia Pontificale, “a small but vocal coterie of traditionalist Catholics whose critique of Pope Francis exhibits tunnel vision,” while those of my ilk, have begun learning to sing that very same Papal Anthem.

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