As the vernal equinox opens a Catholic Spring, many asked what Catholics hope to see in Pope Francis. Let’s instead ask what he hopes to see in us.
Habemus Papam! In Pope Francis we have a Holy Father who comes to us at the dawn of Spring. This Pope for the New Evangelization opens a new era of the Church, a new era in which the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics would do well to set aside the question of what sort of Pope we want him to be. He is our Holy Father, not our Holy Keeper, and the more adult, less self-absorbed question we might now ask is “What sort of Catholic do I want to be in union with him?”
For some, there is a more fundamental question, the answer to which might seriously streamline the Church and separate the wheat from the chaff. That question is, “Do I want to be in union with him at all?” It’s a basic question posed today to every Catholic, and its answer cannot have integrity if it is divided or qualified. This question of unity might be the most pressing question of this age of the Church. The divisive “sins against unity” described in my post, “The Sacrifices of a Father’s Love” were cited by Benedict the Beloved as one of the most scandalous challenges of his papacy, and of our lives as Catholics.
And yes, they are “our” sins against unity – meaning us, as a Church. As I described two weeks ago in “Sede Vacante: The Sky is Not Falling on the Catholic Church,” we are consumers of a news media that does not report on Catholic dissent and disruption so much as shape and foster it. Without the market for scandal that our culture provides, the secular media feeding off of it would die. The hopeful news, as I pointed out in that post, is that much of the print news media as we know it is doing just that – dying.
I, for one, cannot in conscience enter Holy Week without an answer to my own question about fundamental unity. My answer is simple: Yes, I choose – from the perspective of my humble state in life – to be united in faith and in truth with this Holy Father. With fidelity, deference, and respect, I commit myself to unity with Pope Francis in all matters of faith. Like so many, I am most enthused about this Holy Father.
For me, this is the answer of a Catholic adult, but it didn’t always feel this way. The irony of the question about whether I choose to be in unity with Pope Francis – and the irony of my response – is that some would view it as childish that I might so openly betray the “question authority” mantra of the 1960s to accept in faith the legitimate authority of the Church as my Baptism and Profession of Faith require. My answer comes with a price tag. It requires that I adopt the demeanor of Saint Paul as expressed to the Church of Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:11):
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”
What exactly does it mean to follow Saint Paul’s lead on that score? What might it mean to give up childish ways in relation to our faith and our Catholic identity? For one thing, it means that I must entirely free myself from the expectations of the Sixties.
In the 1960s, when it became cool to see myself in opposition to all authority, I was in fact a child. It was the era of Vatican II, and I attempted to describe that era in my two-part post, “Vatican II Turns Fifty: Catholics in an Age of Discontent,” and in Part Two, “Catholics and Culture Collide.” The point I tried to make was that the Second Vatican Council was interpreted then with the perfect storm of social revolution, sexual revolution, and social reorganization sweeping through Western Culture.
Those forces hijacked the Second Vatican Council, distorted its documents through the lens of an entire culture’s adolescent rebellion, and then swept the Church into a hermeneutic of discontinuity and disunity. It is the monumental task of this Pope for the New Evangelization to reinterpret Vatican II for the Church of this time, separated from the cultural tsunami of the 1960s, the era that gave it birth. The Sixties are over. Let’s bury them. God lives, and Nietzsche – who we all so loved to quote back then – is dead!
NOT ALL ARE ABOARD THE BARQUE OF PETER
During the recent period of sede vacante, a few Catholic writers took a break from the media stories of secret Vatican scandals and rumors of the Conclave to have a look at the role of dissent in modern Catholic discourse. Specifically, there was some ire raised by a typically adolescent editorial by Tom Fox, the typically adolescent editor of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR). Father John Zuhlsdorf tackled this in “Dr. Peters v. National Schismatic Reporter.” Bishop Rene Gracida also took it on in “What do the National Catholic Reporter and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ have in common?” Both entries appeared on their blogs on March 1, 2013.
The latter part of Father Z’s title, the “National Schismatic Reporter” is his newest nickname for NCR. There are other pseudonyms – some used with far less dignity – but my own name for NCR is the “National Catholic Distorter.” That one has fallen into disuse, however, because it retains the name, “Catholic” in the title, and undeservedly so. On February 27, the day before Benedict’s resignation took effect, NCR editor, Torn Fox offered up this little gem of reflection to his readers:
“With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI at 8:00 p.m. tomorrow Rome time, his pontificate comes to an end, Roman curial heads resign, and the Vatican shuts down. We all become adults again, at least until we have a new ‘Holy Father.’ “
Note Tom Fox’s use of “scare quotes” framing the words, “Holy Father.” He utters that title with typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, with a wink and a nod to his “trapped-in-the-sixties” readers. The editorial was embarrassingly juvenile. It is a common trait of adolescents to believe that theirs is the only voice in the house worth hearing.
I have an NCR story of my own to tell. When I was a young priest in the early 1980s, NCR was seen as the coolest Catholic thing in print. Among many priests and Catholic leaders, it represented a voice on the left, growing ever further left as the Sixties moved on. NCR saw itself as representing the Church’s social justice arm while independent of any one bishop. By the time I was ordained in 1982, every priest I knew subscribed to NCR. A stack of copies appeared as the sole Catholic newspaper in many parish vestibules in the Northeast where I grew up (or didn’t grow up, depending on one’s point of view). NCR was vastly influential in the American Catholic priesthood. I recall reading back then that it had a subscriber base of 60,000 or more – unheard of for an American Catholic publication.
I first noted a problem with NCR when I found myself at or near the center of some important Catholic news stories. This happened three times in my priesthood, once in the early 1980s, once in the early 1990s, and once again in 2002 when the scandal in the Catholic priesthood was launched nationwide by The Boston Globe (may it rest in peace).
In all three instances, I found that the National Catholic Reporter was not so much reporting on these stories as shaping public perception of them. Many attempts to present another side of these stories were ignored by NCR, or flatly rebuffed, if the facts challenged the editorial positions of the paper. Over the last few decades, NCR has been shockingly one-sided, and offers no apology for that. From a journalistic standard, it presents no news at all, but is merely an extended opinion outlet for only one type of opinion on the Catholic far left. NCR is not at all worthy of its one good journalist, John Allen.
When I was unjustly sent to prison in 1994, two priest-friends thought they were doing me a favor by presenting me with gift subscriptions to NCR. The result was that I received two copies of each issue. I wrote to NCR from prison asking that the two subscriptions be collapsed into one and extended. Some unnamed person at NCR wrote back to me with a suggestion that I simply give my second issue to another Catholic prisoner.
The problem was that I could not find another Catholic prisoner willing to read it. NCR prides itself on what were then “leftist” issues such as prisoner rights. As I attempted to circulate a few copies, the comments I received from other prisoners were remarkable. I kept a short list of representative samples. This is what Catholic prisoners had to say about NCR:
“No thanks! Too negative. I have enough negative in my life.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. This is just nasty!”
“Wow! This is awful. Does the Church do ANYTHING right?” “What an ugly, nasty, negative paper!”
“UGH! Why did you give me this?”
“Why are they Catholic if they see nothing good in the Church?”
… and so on and so on. You get the point.
That’s when I cancelled my subscription to NCR. A couple of years ago, some well-meaning person subscribed again for me, and I was shocked at the paper’s obvious decline. In one issue, NCR’s annual Statement of Ownership and Circulation required by the U.S. Postal Service was in such tiny print that it was impossible to read. I took a copy to the prison library and enlarged it. I was thus alarmed to see that NCR’s circulation was a tiny fraction of what it had been in the early 1980s. It made me wonder how and why the paper survives.
I think the answer to that is to be found in the mainstream media. NCR survives today – and barely – solely because the secular media can count on it for a dissenting voice that presents itself as mainstream Catholic. For that end, NCR allows itself to be used as a tool for secularization, disunity, and the diminishment of Catholic culture in America.
I much respect Father John Zuhlsdorf and Bishop Rene Gracida, and they are quite right to engage Tom Fox and NCR with a challenge. There is a new conversation taking place, however, and it requires all our attention and engagement. Dissenting voices have run out of much of their volume and impact – except in the secular press which is dying while fomenting Catholic dissent to its last breath.
In a recent commentary in The Wall Street Journal (“What to Look for in a New Pope,” Review, March 9-10) Catholic writer George Weigel – who I find myself quoting a lot these days – wrote of his hope that this Pope will be “a missionary cultural warrior [who] calls the West out of the sandbox of self-absorption.” Brilliant!
The “sandbox of self-absorption” is the perfect characterization for much of the Catholic dissent that contributes to the sins against unity that so wounded Benedict the Beloved. In America, the National Catholic Reporter has been its mouthpiece. It’s time to leave the sandbox of the Sixties. It’s over!
Editor’s Note: Now that the voting has closed for the Catholicism About.Com Best Catholic Blog Award , we wish to extend our gratitude to those who have voted for These Stone Walls and our congratulations to Father John Zuhlsdorf!