On Being Fair to Pope Francis
I am exhausted. But smiling.
As Pope Francis limped his final steps up the stairs, waved goodbye and disappeared in the hull of the plane, there seemed a collective moment of relaxation. After all, watching a ebullient 78 year-old pontiff dart from engagement to engagement, kissing babies, blessing children, encouraging the downtrodden, and holding the powerful accountable was enough to make me weary, if not a bit worried. After all, I take care of 78 year-old patients. And to envision them adopting this Pope’s frenetic pace and donning his genuine (but arguably exhausting) posture would literally make me anxiously stare at the ceiling late at night.
But as I reflected on the week that was, the speeches, the unscheduled visits, the spontaneous stops for blessings, selfies and words of encouragement, I was a bit surprised to encounter a contingent of negativity from within the Catholic community. Reasonably, there might emerge complaints about his comments on climate change or the economy or consumerism by Catholics with a different perspective. Understandably, there might be concerns raised over the manner or substance of correctives the Pope offered to those in power in the world and in the Church.
Did I expect to hear the Pope say things that I might disagree with?
And did he?
But did I think he did a remarkable job that transcended photo-ops and charismatic engagements?
You see, recently the Pope was asked a question. And his answer has stuck with me. Asked pointedly about claims that he is a truly a Communist, the Pope chuckled and offered,
“I am certain I have never said anything more than what is in the social doctrine of the church…I follow the church and in this, I do not think I am wrong.”
“Maybe I have given an impression of being a little bit to the left…But if they want me to recite the Creed, I can!”
And I know that he can. After all, whatever your political persuasion or opinion on any number of issues the Pope touched on during his trip through America, consider the Creed element or Catholic social doctrine that serve as the root of his positions. Whether or not you subscribe to his current notion of climate change, do we as Catholics disagree with the holy call to be stewards of Creation? Whether you feel the Pope should have articulated a concrete economic strategy, do we as Catholics disagree with the sacred trust to use our prosperity, in part, to help those in need? Regardless of your stance on the Pope’s meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor or Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, do we as Catholics disagree with the priceless value of the eternally (and constitutionally) assured freedom of religion and conscience? Whatever you felt about the Pope’s words to Bishops, do we as Catholics disagree with the Pope’s prerogative and charge to call Bishops to account should they tip toward merciless orthodoxy or cheap grace? Whether you felt the Pope’s repeated statements about valuing and defending the dignity of human life at every stage of development went “far enough” vis-a-vis the topic of abortion, do we as Catholics disagree with his articulated stance on the dignity of human life?
The point I am making is that after hearing years of criticisms of Pope Benedict XVI for being too rigid and orthodox, I am now hearing criticisms of Pope Francis for being too merciful and rudderless (most assuredly from different constituencies). And though I’ve heard it all, I hold a deep and abiding respect and affection for both men. I believe that the Creed is at their core and that, frankly, a lot of criticism is rooted in a misunderstanding of the men, what they have said and what they have meant. As Chesterton might say, they have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and left untried. Yes, of course, there are prudential judgments on particular issues that both men made over years that are open and subject for consideration, debate or even disagreement. Perfectly fine. I don’t believe that Pope Francis’ comments on climate change or Pope Benedict XVI’s musings on capitalism (for example) are considered spoken ex cathedra.
And yet, at times, criticisms start to sound eerily like Christ’s piercing words,
“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’
The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”
– Matthew 11:17-19
Perhaps we need, with Pope Francis (like Benedict XVI before him), to consider the wisdom of his works. Pope Benedict XVI survived dictatorial regimes and proved a faithful shepherd who articulated the modern dictatorship of relativism, celebrated and exquisitely elaborated on the beauty of the liturgy, and championed the limitless value of continuity with the extraordinary witness of the Church Fathers. And yet he was called a hyperconservative Rottweiler. Pope Francis survived a dictatorial regime and found his deeply pastoral call to the peripheries, challenged some of the entrenched, endemic pathologies inherent in bureaucracy, and led by an example of infectious joy. And yet he is called a dangerous liberal.
Perhaps it is reasonable to take a deep breath and witness the Spirit-led process in which we (our Popes, our Church, ourselves) imperfectly bounce back and forth between essential, edifying orthodoxy and refreshing, spontaneous mercy. One feeds and sustains the other. Neither is dispensable. And the dynamic balance is essential. Pope Benedict XVI carried great qualities of mercy with his orthodoxy and Pope Francis holds deep riches of orthodoxy with his mercy. You simply need to go beyond the sound bytes and headlines to read what they’ve written and hear what they have said for years…and years…and years. No, I don’t agree with every prudential judgment that Pope Francis has made. But I trust his core fidelity to the Creed. And I can love him. I don’t agree with every prudential judgment that Pope Benedict XVI has made. But I trust his core fidelity to the Creed. And I can love him too.
So perhaps – just perhaps – as this Pope disappears into his American Airlines airplane and we reflect on the extraordinary week that was, we can find a moment’s peace and solace. All is not perfect. But all is well.
I am exhausted. But smiling.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons