Why Are They So Nervous about Pope Francis?

Another group is out calling Pope Francis a heretic.  That group’s

claims are truly outrageous, but they fit into a pattern of nervousness about Pope Francis’s orthodoxy.  But we shouldn’t be nervous.

First, because that’s Protestant.  For me, a central part of becoming Catholic was deciding that, when my opinions clash with the Magisterium, I assume I’m wrong.  I believe in Christ’s promises to Peter.

Second, there are lots of factually incorrect assertions about Francis.  I know the temptation we all have—including theologians—to skim a document and claim we’ve read it closely.  But I teach Francis’s main documents, and every time I see a new controversy, I check his words carefully.  He isn’t saying the things people are afraid he’s saying. 

Third, what I find when I read him is that he’s saying really important things.  It’s not just that I tolerate him because he’s the Pope.  I think he’s a great, much-needed Pope.  It’s too bad people aren’t reading him.


There are a lot of parallels between Francis and Vatican II—and the problems in how people (don’t) read both.  St. John Paul II spent his great papacy uncovering Vatican II, showing that the actual teaching of the Council was way richer than the politicized stuff a lot of people say about it.  JPII said, read the documents, and what you will find is the riches of the Catholic faith.

Benedict XVI was a great teacher, too, on how to read Vatican II.  One of his most important teachings was his lecture on the “hermeneutic of rupture.”  Hermeneutics is a fancy way to say that often what we get out of someone’s teaching says more about us than about the teaching.  We tend to hear what we want to hear, or what we expect to hear.  If you approach Pope Francis, or Vatican II, with the assumption that they’re saying something wrong, you’re going to tend to hear something wrong even where it isn’t being spoken.  People even did that to JPII.

That’s what Benedict XVI meant by “hermeneutic of rupture.”  Without even having read Vatican II, a lot of people assumed it was a break with the

Francis Inauguration fc04.jpg

traditional Catholic faith.  But people don’t get that idea from Vatican II, they bring that idea with them, and it can keep us from reading what the Council actually says.  Ironically, that’s true of both liberals and conservatives: liberals are delighted to think that Vatican II is a break from the past, conservatives are horrified—and neither of them are reading what Vatican II actually says, they’re just bringing their assumptions.

The same is true with Pope Francis.  If you read what he says, there’s no rupture.  There is, as Benedict XVI says of Vatican II, reform, an effort at rediscovery and living things better—Benedict says the proper “hermeneutic” for Vatican II is not just “continuity,” but “reform in continuity.”  Reform is significant, and difficult, but it is not rupture.  But we can be so eager to find rupture that we never read what Francis actually says.


So why do we bring that assumption of rupture to Francis?  A reforming Pope—it was true of JPII, also—can be challenging, and there are legitimately difficult ideas that Francis talks about.  I need to find time to talk about those ideas, too. 

But for now, I just want to suggest some alternative explanations, to suggest why we might be imposing a “hermeneutic of rupture” on a good Pope.  I want to emphasize at the beginning that the following suggestions are very different from one another.

1. Separation anxiety.  St. John Paul II spent several years dying.  We knew we would have to move on.  When he died, there was a funeral, a huge

mourning experience.  But when Benedict XVI resigned, he just walked away, quickly—we only had a month—and we didn’t get to mourn.  Instead, we have the weird situation of the previous pope still sitting there, walking-distance from the new pope.  Popes are different—Benedict XVI was very different from John Paul II, despite their friendship—and it’s hard to adjust to a new one.  We’re emotionally invested in Popes: that’s why they announce a new one with “Gaudium magnum, great joy,” and why we have a mourning period before the conclave.  We should have an emotional attachment to Pope Benedict—but we shouldn’t let it prevent us from reading what Pope Francis says.

2. The 24/7 media.  We see a lot more than we used to see, and spend a lot more time dissecting it.  Take Cardinal Kasper’s infamous contributions to the Synods on marriage.  Cardinals have always had a lot of opinions, but we didn’t use to hear them quite so much; part of the problem with Vatican II was that people weren’t used to so much press coverage—and now we have the internet.  The sausage was always made, but not we watch it over and over again on the internet.  On the personal level, even popes make mistakes—but the internet, like People magazine, makes us focus on that personal level more than on the level of actual papal teaching, which is much better.  In between the personal level and the doctrinal is the way of expressing things.  In any dialogue or writing process (this is my second draft of this post!) the first version won’t be the best.  But where we used to only hear the final statement, the official papal document, now we’ve spent so much time discussing the first, clumsier statement that we have trouble setting it aside to read the official version.  A perfect example is Kasper’s initial statement on communion for the divorced and remarried: it was riddled with theological problems.  What Francis finally said in Amoris Laetitia is NOT what Kasper said—but by the time the real document came out, we were all so exhausted and invested in the Kasper argument that we didn’t have the energy for a clear discussion of what the Pope really said.

3. The new media.  As recently as when John Paul II died, media was handled by massive centralized companies, including the big Catholic newspapers and EWTN.  Those centralized companies had their own dangers: they tended to promote centralization, from the New York Times’s big government to EWTN’s big papacy or the Wall Street Journal’s big business.  But in the blogosphere, there’s something almost Darwinian about the most negative, outlandish sources rising to the top: why click on responsible reporting when you can click on something exciting, true or untrue.  (Trump, of course, is a genius at manipulating this system, getting media exposure by being outlandish.)  And just as big media is inherently centralizing, the new media is inherently anti-authoritarian.  Again, this has more to do with media than with Francis: no matter who is Pope, outlandish and anti-authoritarian things on the internet are going to get a lot of clicks.  Readers need to be savvy.  So do writers: it’s awfully tempting to be flattered by the traffic, and think that if people are clicking on us, we must be saying something important.  Pray for your new-media authors.

4. Us vs. them.  As to the substance of what he says, Francis is harder on people inside the Church than on people outside.  We are a tribal race, and we live in tribalist times: we all prefer to hear that we are right and everyone else is wrong.  When Pope Benedict said “dictatorship of relativism,” it felt great to us who oppose relativism.  (Though if you read what he actually said, it’s not as tribalist as people think.)  Francis is kind to non-Catholics and hard on Catholics—and he has been more successful than JPII and Benedict XVI at making us hear that criticism.  But if you read the prophets, or the saints, or the Gospels, you realize that God’s word is always harder on “us” than it is on “them.”  The prophets who said, “we are fine and everyone else is bad” were false prophets, whom the true prophets condemn.  Whereas Jesus constantly warns us against being Pharisees.  Francis is in the best prophetic tradition—but none of us like to hear the message that we need to be better Catholics than we are.

5. Poverty.  Opposition to Pope Francis did not begin when he started talking about marriage.  It was strong from day one, when all we knew was that as a cardinal, he rode the bus and cooked his own dinner, and that as Pope he said, “How I long for a Church that is poor and for the poor!”  The

Church’s teaching on money is hard for us to accept.  When Francis was elected, I had only just come around to those ideas.  When Benedict XVI wrote his encyclical on economics, I was one of the many people who rejected it—until I had to teach it, and discovered that Church teaching on economics is (a) presented by the Magisterium as magisterial, not optional, (b) about moral obligations: not macroeconomics, and not an endorsement of one secular political party or economic system over another, but the moral responsibility of each of us to care more about other people than about money, and (c) not trying to replace personal prudence, or microeconomics: the Church doesn’t tell a businessman exactly what wage to pay his employees, any more than it tells a father what to feed his children or how exactly to teach them—though it does assert, contrary to the secular world, that a businessman has a moral responsibility to his employees and customers, just as a father has a responsibility for his children.  Unfortunately, our hostility to misrepresentations of Church teaching on economics often makes us close our ears to the real teaching of the popes.  Pope Francis has been more successful than Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and other recent popes at making sure we know that he is talking about economics, but because we still don’t know what the Church teaches about economics, he makes people nervous.  (The same could be said about mercy, or clericalism.)  So ironically, because Francis is boldly proclaiming traditional, orthodox Church teaching on an issue that makes American Catholics nervous, too many of us fear him, instead of welcoming his magisterial voice.

Poverty, us vs. them, the new media, the 24/7 media, and separation anxiety: some of the opposition to Francis is rooted in rejection of previous papal teaching, but I think much of the opposition is from people who just haven’t thought through their emotional attachment to the last pope.  We should pray for all of them, and recognize our own tendencies to thoughtlessness and self-righteousness.

I love the Pope because he’s the Pope.  I love Pope Francis.  And I’m sad that all these issues are keeping people from hearing the important things he has to say to us.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *