At the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis called for renewed focus on the art of pastoral practice. Are the concerns of traditional Catholics justified or misplaced?
“God is not afraid of new things.” Thus was proclaimed, in a homily for the October 19, 2014 Beatification of Blessed Paul VI, another sound bite media summary of the thought and public witness of Pope Francis. These words came a day after the extraordinary Synod on the Family concluded in Rome, according to the same media account, “by rejecting landmark wording that would soften the Church’s stance toward homosexuality and divorce.”
In other words, if you believe the media accounts, the Church failed to take a sharp left turn despite the prompting of the pope. Catholic commentators on both the left and the right of the issues at hand have openly wondered what Pope Francis is doing and why he is doing it.
It is ironic that the controversial “God is not afraid of new things” statement of Pope Francis came during the beatification of Paul VI who was tasked with the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. In 1966, Pope Paul VI did exactly what Francis has done. He invited and listened to every possible voice and point of view on sexual morality, marriage and family before publishing Humanae vitae in 1968. The difference was that Paul VI did not have to contend with the internet, so unlike Francis his words and his listening were not subjected to minute by minute misinterpretations in the global media.
The Synod’s concluding documents affirmed Church teaching on the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, for life. If you believe the secular media coverage of Pope Francis is accurate, then the Synod’s conclusion is to be taken as a sign that the agenda of our socially progressive pope is being hampered and restrained by a cautious and traditionally minded hierarchy. I believe that conclusion to be incorrect.
For some, the concern often borders on alarm. Even as I began this article, I received a letter from a devout Catholic who wants to be well-disposed toward Pope Francis, but is challenged by current events:
“You are aware of my thoughts and feelings about the current Holy Father. Much of what he says and does disturbs me. He has caused and continues to cause much confusion, division, dismay, and damage to the Body of Christ.”
NEITHER LEFT NOR RIGHT
I have heard this same concern expressed by many Catholics who consider themselves to be theologically and doctrinally conservative. I share these concerns, and yet at the same time I feel we have a duty to listen to Francis with an ear well-disposed toward him.
In a recent guest post on, These Stone Walls, Carlos Caso-Rosendi provided a timely reflection entitled “Love Through the Tempest,” reminding us that Catholics do not have a fair weather condition clause (my own term) in our deference toward the Chair of Peter. In “From the Pope’s End of the World, A Voice Not Lost in Translation,” a previous article of my own at These Stone Walls, I described the unique context that Carlos Caso-Rosendi has provided as we “translate” Pope Francis.
I have also been aided much in my understanding of Francis by the observations of Robert Moynihan, Editor-in-Chief of Inside the Vatican magazine. A long time Vatican Observer, Robert Moynihan presents a consistently balanced and accurate view of this Pope’s agenda without shying away from all the angst and controversy. Dr. Moynihan seems well aware of the anxiety and concerns surrounding Pope Francis, especially for conservative and traditionalist Catholics, concerns with which he no doubt most identifies.
In “All Eyes on Francis,” the lead story in the October 2014 issue of Inside the Vatican, Dr. Moynihan portrayed Francis “as neither ‘left’ nor ‘right,’ but centered on the experience of God’s mercy and the forgiveness of human sins.” The result is that Pope Francis “is attempting to make a slight adjustment in the Church’s pastoral focus,” and not in moral theology or doctrinal belief.
That focus, according to Dr. Moynihan, stems from an early life experience of Jorge Mario Bergoglio in which “he felt his heart touched and sensed the descent of the mercy of God.” Perhaps only someone who has had such a profound experience of Divine Mercy can readily understand Francis and feel less threatened by his pastoral concern for the lost and alienated in our midst.
I have defended Pope Francis along these same lines in the past, most notably in a post entitled, “When the Vicar of Christ Imitates Christ, Why is it so Alarming?” A few weeks ago, I received a letter from a reader alluding to that post. “I know you have written in defense of the Holy Father, but I sometimes can’t help feeling uncomfortable with what he is doing and saying.”
A VIEW TOWARD THE PERIPHERIES
Well, that makes two of us. Jorge Mario Bergoglio has made me uncomfortable since the day he first stepped into view as Pope Francis. In one of the early interviews of his papacy, Francis went right to the heart, perhaps even the jugular, of what has been wrong in the hierarchical and clerical state in the last half century since the Second Vatican Council. This particular little “cleansing of the temple” from a 2013 interview with Pope Francis was noted with alarm by many priests and bishops:
“Leaders of the Church have too often been narcissists, gratified and sickeningly excited by their courtiers. [The Curia] is Vatican-centered… I don’t share this view, and I’ll do all I can to change it” (La Repubblica, October 1, 2013).
Who among us, in our heart of hearts, can disagree with such an assessment? As a priest of thirty-two years, I surely cannot. So much of the scandal in the priesthood that has been a millstone of injustice around my own neck for twenty years has been a direct result of a trend toward clerical narcissism that has made priests easy targets for the media and those who would seek to harm the Church.
In “Pope Urges Open, Honest Dialogue at Meetings,” and analysis of the Synod on the Family (Our Sunday Visitor, October 19, 2014), British Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh observed that past synods have been “curia-controlled… suffocating discussion.” Francis is well aware of this, and bypassed such control by asking the participants to speak openly “with apostolic courage.” “Speak clearly,” he instructed. “Let no one say, ‘this you cannot say.'”
Without doubt, such an approach makes a lot of people in the Church uncomfortable. As conservative Catholic writer, Phil Lawler wrote at CatholicCulture.org last year, “If the pope’s main responsibility is to keep us all comfortable, then Pope Francis is failing miserably.” Phil Lawler added an astute statement about how what we hear and think about this pope is often filtered through the media:
“The Lord’s words and gestures were often misinterpreted, and His critics found it easy to put things in an unfavorable light… Would it be better, really, if the Pope limited himself to statements what could not possibly be distorted?” (CatholicCulture.org, September 20, 2013).
I think not. What I am about to add is perhaps filtered through the experience of twenty years of wrongful imprisonment for crimes that never took place. My days as a priest are spent with those whose entire lives have been lived on the peripheries. I have not met a single person in prison who has not felt alienated from all that represents God in this life.
What Pope Francis is doing and saying about pastoral focus is bold and, unique for a pope in modern times, stems from his own life experience. In a recent op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal (“Beyond the Hype About a Vatican Upheaval,” October 17, 2014), Acton Institute president, Father Robert A. Sirico, explained that the Synod was…
“…an earnest effort by pastors of the Church to determine how best to encourage people to live the Catholic faith. This is no easy task. A move too far in the direction of merely repeating old formularies will not work… A move away from what constitutes the very definition of what it means to be Catholic… will also insult and alienate many Catholics who strive to live by the Church’s teaching.”
Father Sirico has landed at the crux of what, though I think erroneously, has rankled so many Catholics faithful to tradition and the Magisterium. He points out well, however, that the tension is one of tone and not substance. It’s a tension that has always existed between the Church’s presentation of the ideal and the pastoral practice experienced with so many in this modern world whose lives fall far short of the ideal.
Whether I can attain the ideal or not, as a sinner I count on the Church to mirror the ideal without compromise, and without accommodations to the world we live in. Also as a sinner, I count on the Church to be a mirror of justice and mercy. Toward both ends, Pope Francis is wielding a compass instead of a hammer as his tool of choice.
This, Father Sirico says, “is what we pastors call the art of pastoral practice.” At the heart of it, for this pope, is a mandate to reach toward those in the margins, a mandate that I wrote of in a previous article, “Pope Francis Has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother.” Of that parable (Luke 15,11-32) Pope Francis has said, “This is the entire Gospel! It’s right here!”
Those who have been reading my five years of posts on These Stone Walls will know that I write from inside a prison cell. I have spent the last twenty years of my priesthood living with men who are the Gospel’s lepers, tax collectors, and sinners. One of them, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri, wrote a guest post for These Stone Walls entitled, “I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope,” about his conversion to Catholicism on Divine Mercy Sunday.
It is Pornchai of whom Pope Francis speaks when he focuses the Church’s gaze to the peripheries. On his cell wall, Pornchai has an image of Pope Francis with a young sheep over his shoulders. “It’s my favorite picture of him,” Pornchai says, “because I see in it the Pope of the Lost, my Pope!”
The Church and all that we love and cherish in our Catholic ideals and traditions so dear to our hearts and souls will survive this pope, and perhaps even for the better. Though I struggle with his words and gestures, I must affirm in my heart the Holy Spirit’s choice of Francis for the Chair of Peter. Perhaps it is simply time that the lost had an ear, and voice, in Rome.
To the readers of These Stone Walls from Ryan A. MacDonald: Readers have been especially generous and kind in responding to our appeal for assistance with legal costs at the Federal level. It has come to my attention that State officials have filed objections to Father MacRae’s appeal in the Federal courts, and these objections required lengthy and highly detailed responses from the attorney’s representing Father MacRae. One such exchange cost $15,000 that seriously depleted available funds as the appeal continues. So, to compensate, we have raised the bar in our fundraising effort. I know that Father MacRae is most appreciative to all who have aided this effort, and that he would much prefer that many people do a little instead of just a few doing a lot. Let us hope that this could be an undertaking of the whole church. For information on how to assist, please see my post “News Alert: New Federal Appeal Filed in Father Gordon MacRae Case.”