While meeting with Jesuits in Portugal, Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, lamented how 'backward' American Catholic hardliners are these days.
Catholicism has always been in a constant state of change. But this American faction can't admit or allow that.
In the past few years, a feud has emerged between Pope Francis and a particular hardliner segment of American Catholics. That feud is not only not coming to an end, it’s barely even begun to approach a middle. On Monday, Francis fired another shot at his factional enemies. In a meeting with some Jesuits, Francis accused his enemies of being “backward” and overly focused on ideology over faith.
Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to persuade them to stop being that way. They have already set their hearts on one outcome to this squabble, and Francis staying pope isn’t it.
Previous articles about Catholic infighting: Getting closer to schism; This has nothing to do with Nancy Pelosi; American Catholics blame gay priests for sex abuse. When I talk about hardline Christians, I refer to extremely conservative, culture-war-addled Christians who seek temporal power over the world and everyone in it.
Situation report: Pope Francis gets feisty
On August 5th, Pope Francis visited Portugal and met with some Jesuits there. Francis himself is a Jesuit—the first Jesuit Pope ever—so I’m sure he looked forward to it. During that meeting, though, one of the Jesuits mentioned that he’d had a rough week while on sabbatical in America, including plenty of criticism against Francis—some of it coming from bishops themselves.
I can easily imagine that.
There’s a large and apparently growing segment of Catholics who are the equivalent of the most fire-breathing, control-hungry, Hell-threatening, Bible-verse-obsessed, rules-lawyering, bigoted, cruelty-is-the-point hardliners in evangelicalism. If you run into someone like that and they don’t specify which hardliner flavor of Christianity they follow, you’ve only got about a 50% chance of guessing it. That’s how similar they are. The Venn diagram of attitudes and behaviors of hardliner Catholics vs. hardliner evangelicals is very nearly a perfect circle. One gets more into Mary, saints, and candles than the other, that’s all.
In response, Francis said something that I am sure set off his evangelical counterparts like rockets:
The 86-year-old Argentine acknowledged his point, saying there was “a very strong, organized, reactionary attitude” in the U.S. church, which he called “backward.” He warned that such an attitude leads to a climate of closure, which was erroneous.
“Doing this, you lose the true tradition and you turn to ideologies to have support. In other words, ideologies replace faith,” he said.
“The vision of the doctrine of the church as a monolith is wrong,” he added. “When you go backward, you make something closed off, disconnected from the roots of the church,” which then has devastating effects on morality.“Pope Francis blasts ‘backwards’ U.S. conservatives, ‘reactionary attitude’ in U.S. church,” CBS News
Rather than drill down harder on ideology and dogma, Francis wants his sheep—including the fractious, chest-thumping ones in America—to allow their religion to evolve as humans’ understanding evolves.
Pope Francis wants everyone to just Jesus harder please
This isn’t a surprising stance for Francis to take.
The previous pope, Benedict XVI, was a favorite among hardliners all over the Catholic world. When Benedict stepped down in 2013—apparently because of insomnia—it must have shocked those hardliners when Francis was appointed. He seemed to be the polar opposite of the ultraconservative, culture-war-focused pope that some people called “God’s Rottweiler.” Benedict had never hidden, either, his distaste and wariness for Jesuits.
Where Benedict had been a thunderous voice trampling over every form of human progress, though, Francis seemed more interested in opening doors that had once been closed to marginalized people—and being gracious and kind to all. Of course, he did that while also acting really weird about Catholicism’s growing sex abuse crisis. If not a hero, he’s at least not quite as awful as the last villain to sit in his chair.
(Editor: Permission to call Francis ‘Darth Cuddlebug’?)
(Better not, it might catch on—Ed.)
During this recent meeting in Portugal, Francis presented a blueprint for getting everyone on board with his vision for Catholicism. He focused primarily on getting priests and bishops to Jesus harder: to perform more devotions, to think more about Jesus, to study the Bible and other Catholic materials more often and more deeply, to pray more often and more fervently, etc.
Like evangelicals all over the world, Francis is certain that if he can just get everyone under him to Jesus their hearts out, then everything else will just fall into place. He’s been talking like that for years now. And so have evangelicals.
Alas for both ends of Christianity, there’s no real way for anyone to resolve this age-old dispute.
Legalism vs. lukewarmness: an old fight migrates to Catholicism at last
Obviously, nothing in the Bible lays down any specific rules for Christians in terms of devotional behavior or beliefs. That doesn’t stop Christians from mangling Bible verses to make their own preferences sound like perfect, ideal TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
Unfortunately, all those versions of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ that individual Christians carry in their heads is purely subjective. If someone thinks another version is more correct, they won’t convince anyone else of it without a lot of charisma and superior Bible-mangling skills. But they all tend to agree that there does exist an ideal level of fervor that their god requires and which they must juggle with their real-world responsibilities and desires.
So for every Christian, there is a certain sweet spot of fervor-vs-real-world-living. Anything less than that becomes “lukewarm,” meaning apathetic and lackadaisical, while anything more becomes “legalistic,” which means being so focused on rules that someone forgets all about Jesus and love. (Christians get the idea of lukewarmness from Revelation 3:16. See, Jesus won’t eat them if they’re lukewarm.)
In the end, we are left with a definition of legalism that means stricter, more rules-focused, and more demanding devotions than a judging Christian feels is necessary. Lukewarmness, likewise, means less controlling, rules-oriented, and devoted than the judge thinks is proper.
Normally, though, one encounters evangelicals fussing about legalism, not Catholics. In fact, evangelicals are so immersed in the ideas behind legalism that they can barely imagine outsiders being utterly unaware of the term. (Years ago, I caught a big-name evangelical, Thom Rainer, claiming that people who are completely unaffiliated with church still somehow think his flavor of Christianity is “legalistic.”)
So it was a surprise to see Pope Francis accusing American hardliner Catholics of legalism. Sure, he didn’t use the word itself. But that’s what he did, all the same.
Francis is not completely wrong, though American hardliners sure didn’t like what he had to say
The Catholic-o-sphere hasn’t had a lot of time to react to this Portuguese meeting. But of the hardliner sites that have, they are not happy at all. Phil Lawler, writing for Catholic Culture, trotted out a strawman to criticize the guy in charge of his entire religion:
“Today it is a sin to possess atomic bombs; the death penalty is a sin,” Pope Francis told a gathering of Jesuits in Lisbon earlier this month. These are stern, clear, uncompromising statements. But, the Pope continued, “it was not so before.”
Thus in the past, the Pope tells us, it was not (or at least not necessarily) sinful to have nuclear weapons or to execute a convicted criminal. But now, he tells us, it is.
If something which was not sinful in the past is sinful today, can it work the other way around? Can something which was once sinful become morally acceptable—perhaps even welcome?“A sin today, but not tomorrow: the curious doctrine of Pope Francis,” Catholic Culture
Then, Lawler fretted that Francis hasn’t slammed homosexuality quite as hard as he’d like.
The unfortunate Poe’s Law illustration
Lawler’s post illustrates exactly what Francis criticized during his meeting with the Jesuits: American hardliners’ fixation on rules and dogma over love for people and the necessity of change. My goodness, you can just about hear this self-righteous git whimpering over the idea of sitting next to a gay couple during Mass someday. He’s as locked-in-stone in his understanding of Christianity as any swivel-eyed Calvinist.
Of note, nowhere did Francis say that gay/bi people can join Catholic churches and then just go on seeking and marrying same-sex partners with his blessing. All he said was that churches needed to welcome everyone, everyone, and then priests must walk beside their sheep as they grow and develop in their faith. He explained himself very well, I thought. I mean, I don’t think it would work as well as Francis wants, but the fact remains that he did explain what he meant and Lawler missed it.
But Lawler is just terrified-sounding. Gosh, one day it won’t be okay for him to persecute and look down upon LGBT people! That’s just a world gone mad! That’s a world where the laws of physics no longer apply! It’s chaos incarnate! Who knows what might happen?!?
At the end of his post, Lawler tells us about his need for a “solid rock,” for Catholicism to be exactly the “monolith” that Francis criticized.
And therein lies the problem.
When hardline evangelicals’ obsession with inerrancy collides with Catholic custom
Hardline evangelicals tend to get gripey over Catholicism because Catholics have a lot of other resources besides just the Bible. Catholics are guided by the Bible, yes, but they also take into account all sorts of other writings made by Catholic leaders over the years. Catholicism itself would look unintelligible to first-century Christians.
This monolithic, unchanging Catholicism that Lawler needs never existed. To make Lawler’s situation worse, I’m willing to bet that a lot of Catholic scholars would consider his stance quite childish.
At least, that’s how they react to me when I start talking about inerrancy and contradictions in the gospels. From what I’ve seen, Catholic scholars tend to take a dim view of anyone taking the Bible too seriously as a literal history book.
Gimme that old-time religion, except without old-time sameness
A long time ago, when I converted to Pentecostalism, I believed that the very first Christians had gotten Jesusing perfectly right. Of course, right? Jesus had been with them in the flesh, I believed. After he died, Christians and Christianity had changed—for the worse, naturally. They’d gone right off the rails! And that was why so much of modern Christianity was so terrible.
Indeed, most of my time in Protestantism was spent seeking this gauzy vision of what I thought of as Original Christianity. I really thought that once I found it, everything would be great again.
Reality didn’t bear me out, unfortunately. The closer I got to what I thought was Original Christianity, the more abuse and control-grabs I saw and faced.
Of course, there’s no shortage of Christians who think they already practice Original Christianity. They’re convinced that there is literally no difference between their Jesusing and the Jesusing of Christians in the first century.
And they’re dead wrong. What almost all Christians today practice would look absolutely unintelligible to those earliest Christians if they could see it.
That’s not a bad thing, either.
The chameleon religion of Pope Francis—and almost all previous popes, for that matter
After my deconversion, I pulled back from Christianity. I got out of its context. Distance allowed me to view it dispassionately and from a remove.
That’s when I appreciated just what a chameleon Christianity is. I could even grudgingly admire how very clever its earliest leaders were in handling sensitive political matters to gain more and more temporal power. They also assimilated other religions’ customs and ideals to make conversion easier for pagans all over their territory. As an example, Catholic leaders quickly tamed the Irish goddess Brigid, bringing her onboard as a thoroughly-Catholic saint.
Catholicism dominated so much of the Western world for so long precisely because it could adapt, improvise, and overcome.
Everything changes: Silly White Beanie Edition
For all the criticism I levy at Catholicism, one thing I won’t ever fault it for doing is changing when change needs to happen.
Everything about life changes. When something can’t change, it stagnates. When we fight change, we suffer—while change occurs all around us anyway.
Thanks to our human brains, we can imagine things that don’t exist—like an unchanging world. Not even a religion changes the state of constant change.
I really don’t know how much longer Pope Francis will rule Catholicism. I do, however, know that he’s thrown another gauntlet at hardline American Catholics’ feet. Eventually, they’ll either settle down and quit fomenting schism, or they’ll get more and more out of hand until someone in charge has to deal with them.
It’s really too bad there aren’t any real gods involved with any flavor of Christianity. If any were, that’d sort this squabble out right quick. Then again, any real god worth its salt would have stamped out all that Catholic sex abuse that lasted for centuries before actual real people publicized it and agitated for change.
Stopping the sexual abuse of countless children failed to get Jesus off his tuckus. So I doubt he’ll rouse himself to mediate doctrinal fights.
No, I suspect there’ll be a lot more of these flung gauntlets in the next few years as regular mortals figure out how to navigate Catholicism in the modern age.